Jo Anne Embleton
Jacksonville Daily Progress
Scanning through songs on her laptop computer, instructor Patty Benda calls out titles to her class as she played clips of music for the opening set of a recent clogging session at the Rusk Civic Center.
At one point, “I'm Too Sexy,” a 1992 dance hit for the English trio Right Said Fred, blared from the laptop's speakers.
Not missing a beat, Benda flashes a sassy smile at a visitor, saying, “See? You can clog to any kind of music!”
Clogging, writes Double Toe Times magazine editor Jeff Driggs, is “a truly American dance form that began in the Appalachian Mountains and now enjoys widespread popularity throughout the United States and the world.”
According to an article on the doubletoe.com website, “as the Appalachians were settled in the mid-1700s by the Irish, Scottish, English and Dutch-Germans, the folk dances of each area met and began to combine in an impromptu foot-tapping style, the beginning of clog dancing as we know it today.
“Accompanied by rousing fiddle and bluegrass music, clogging was a means of personal expression in a land of newfound freedoms,” Driggs said, explaining that clogging is done in time with music, “to the downbeat, usually with the heel keeping rhythm.”
Clogging steps have been incorporated into square dance and line-dance; it also has been influenced over the years by the different cultures that have embraced it, according to Driggs.
“New influences are creeping into the dance because of the popular culture,” he said. “Tap dancing, Canadian Step Dancing, Irish Hard Shoe and even street dancing and hip-hop influences are being seen to bear on the style of steps and dances performed by cloggers today.”
In Texas, Appalachian-style clogging “was introduced to Texans in the early 1970s,” when Wade and Gloria Driver brought the dance to Houston, teaching steps they learned from “Big” John Walter in Alabama, according to the Texas Clogging Council website, and clogging eventually spread to Houston and San Antonio.
The local clogging group formed in the mid-1990s as a way for a group of Rusk State Hospital to line-dance for exercise during their lunch hour, but sitting in during a session, the camaraderie formed by members becomes quickly apparent to a visitor.
“It's really about just being together,” said Peggy Huggins of Rusk, the group's original instructor, explaining how members “progressed from doing line-dancing at work to dancing here, at night, for anybody” interested.
At one point, the group included about 45 people, recalled Rusk resident Theresa Jeffries, who with Huggins and Mary Perkins of Alto, are the only original members of the dance group.
“After a break for the summer, not as many came back,” she recalled; not long after that the focus shifted to a new form of dance.
“Line-dancing was starting to go out of style,” Perkins said, as Jeffries added, “Peggy is the one who wanted to start clogging, and since she was our teacher, we started clogging!”
Laughing, Huggins explained, “Oh, we had line-danced until I was sick of it. I was so tired of it, and so I said, 'Hey, y'all – do you think y'all might want to try clogging? Maybe we could do some ….' See, I had learned (clogging from working with) 4-H kids – we had used clogging in a talent contest, so I had learned a little bit, just enough to kind of get us started.”
She “showed them what I knew,” then suggested the class consist of half line-dancing and half clogging,” she recalled.
“And we finally just pushed the line-dancing out, we just wanted to clog all the time, and we've been doing that ever since '96,” Huggins said.
Soon, the group began clogging at nursing homes “and things like that, and we've danced for our friends and our families,” even performing at Six Flags one summer, Perkins said.
However, “we're just not a real big performance group,” Jeffries added. “We mostly get together and exercise.”
“Oh, it definitely helps keep our minds alive,” Perkins said.
The group – primarily women, though “we always manage to have one man in the class at all times,” Huggins said – gathers from 5:30-8 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays, and twice a year, travels to Waco to participate in weekend workshops, where they learn new steps and meet up with old friends.
“We've done this almost as long as we've been clogging (so) we've met a lot of people we've met through the years who also are cloggers,” Huggins said, adding the next clogging meet-up is slated July 19-20.
Meanwhile, the group will continue to gather from places like Alto, Palestine, Grapeland, Jacksonville, Tennessee Colony and Rusk for their twice-a-week classes.
“Part of it is exercise, and part of it is the companionship,” Benda said. “If you like music and you like to dance, clogging is good exercise.”
Jeffries nodded. “We don't ever quit – we are going to keep going, no matter what,” she said, as Huggins added, “We've been up and down – we've had as many as 40, then (attendance drops), but I've never seen anybody quit because they didn't like it.”
Clogging is “good for the mind,” Huggins added, and because it's not a form of exercise offered on a widespread scale, “when you work so hard at it, and you (begin mastering clogging), its' a really good feeling.”