Last fall I was invited to be a part of what is probably the most ambitious and comprehensive clogging production ever to be seen. Mountain Legacy, featuring over 80 dancers and 20 musicians, was staged at the Diana Wortham Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina for three performances on November 7-9, 1997. The 500-seat theater was sold out for all three shows.
Billed as "America's response to Riverdance," comparisons to the Irish stepdance show are inevitable. Mountain Legacy, like Riverdance, presents traditional stepdancing, in this case, Appalachian clogging, as an art form as stage-worthy as any other kind of professional theatrical dance. But in addition to being entertainment, Mountain Legacy attempts to tell some of the history behind the development of modern clogging.
Flatfooting, buckdancing, and clogging are traditional forms of percussive stepdance that have served the social and recreational needs of communities in the southern Appalachians for many generations. Clogging choreographed for the stage is a 20th-century innovation which has evolved over the years. In the late 1920s the first "square-dance teams," as they were called, put traditional buckdancing in front of an audience. In what is now called "traditional freestyle clogging," the dancers did their own individual steps while dancing a big set Appalachian square dance (see OTH vol.1 no.2). Later on, in the 1950s, James Kesterson and other dancers began to synchronize their footwork, and the line formations of modern precision clogging were first seen in western North Carolina (see OTH vol.2 no.1). In 1971, the Green Grass Cloggers formed, and they developed their own style of choreography based on four-couple square dance figures (see OTH vol.1 no.5). Their years of touring, along with that of the Fiddle Puppets, Ira Bernstein, and others, helped to propagate that style of clogging throughout this country, as well as overseas.
Traditional clogging, flatfoot, and buckdance steps have their roots in the stepdancing of the British Isles, African dancing, and to some extent, Native American dancing. Through the years the influences of other dance styles, including French Canadian stepdancing and tap dance, have also fed into the development of today's modern clogging. As it has gained popularity and spread across the country far from the Appalachian region, the steps have become standardized and regional styles have been lost. Unfortunately, the emphasis is now too often put on competition, in contests which are "sanctioned" by national clogging organizations.
Mountain Legacy is the inspiration of dancer Burton Edwards of Maggie Valley, North Carolina, who grew up in a family of traditional dancers. His grandmother and other relatives danced with Sam Queen's Soco Gap Square Dance Team, one of the first performing square-dance groups in western North Carolina, that formed in the 1920s. In 1982, his father, Kyle Edwards, also a buckdancer, built the Stompin' Ground in Maggie Valley, which soon became a nationally-known center of clogging. As teenagers in the early 1980s, Burton and his sister Becky, along with their group, the Magnum Cloggers, entered the world of competition clogging, winning numerous trophies and national titles. Burton won the world clogging championship three times.
For many years Burton Edwards has wanted to present southern Appalachian stepdance to the public beyond the clogging world, not just for recreation or competition, but as a viable form of entertainment. Since it opened in 1982, the Stompin' Ground has provided a venue for the many talented dancers who live in western North Carolina. Elsewhere, other than at clogging competitions and at a few festivals, there are few places for this form of dance to be seen and appreciated. Burton viewed the music and dance at the Stompin' Ground as a show that could and should be put on a stage and be seen by more than the tourists who come to Maggie Valley. Then along came Riverdance, doing just thattaking traditional music and stepdance and putting it in the theater. Burton formed a production committee consisting of dancers Ira Bernstein, Barbara Kohler (artistic director of the Bailey Mountain Cloggers), and Ray Hattaway (director of the Panther Creek Dancers), and together they created the show, Mountain Legacy. Western North Carolina, 70 years after the start of team clogging, is still blessed with an abundance of local dancers and clogging teams. With his reputation as a dancer and his unbounded enthusiasm, Burton was able to bring together more than 80 dancers and 20 musicians, mostly from the local area, to donate their time and talents for the production. Rehearsals began in August with the dancers, many of them high school and college students, coming together every weekend throughout the fall to work out the choreography and practice. I became involved as a member of the Green Grass Cloggers. Finally, Burton enlisted the help of Robert and Virginia Barnett, former Associate Directors of the Atlanta Ballet to direct the show, and with professional sound and lighting, the production was ready to be seen by a theater audience.
As the program states, "Mountain Legacy is what the music and dance of the Southern Appalachians has always been: a proud personal expression of the hearts and souls of the participants." Clogging is not presented here as an archaic folk dance worthy of preservation or revival, but as a current dance form that is very much alive and still evolving. The show is a coming together of the various diverging branches of clogging which coexist, but seldom intersect.
Mountain Legacy consists of three acts which trace the history of team clogging from its roots in flatfooting right up to the modern precision routines. The show opens with its title tune, "Mountain Legacy," a beautiful and mournful mountain air composed by Dirk Powell, and played on fiddles by Brad Leftwich and Trevor Stuart. Cherie Sheppard as "Grandma," is the narrator for the show. She reminisces with the audience about the dances that took place in her youth and also recounts some of the historical background of the dance.
The opening act is a barn dance scene set sometime in the first half of the 20th century with an old-time string band providing the music. This scene features buckdancing by Chris Ginn, flatfooting by Rodney Sutton, Bill Nichols, myself and others, and a few traditional southern Appalachian dance routines: the Southern Mountain Fire Cloggers of Asheville dance a traditional eight-couple southern Appalachian Freestyle routine and the Bailey Mountain Cloggers of Mars Hill College perform a Mountain Smooth Dance routine. The scene ends with a dance tune during which individual dancers mimic each others' steps and begin to dance in unison as happened with the emergence of precision clogging. The music for the barn dance scene was played by an old-time band consisting of Brad Leftwich, Alice Gerrard, John Herrmann, Trevor and Travis Stuart, Meredith McIntosh, and Don Pedi, with John Cowan, formerly of New Grass Revival, making a cameo appearance to sing "Dark as a Dungeon" as a musical interlude between dance numbers.
Act Two, entitled "Then and There / Here and Now," provides a glimpse of some of the tributaries that have fed the development of modern clogging. These include English Hornpipe and Tap Dance performed by Ira Bernstein, French Canadian Step Dance by Eileen Carson's Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble, the Green Grass Cloggers performing one of their signature routines dating from the mid 1970s, and finally, an early routine by the Fiddle Puppets of Annapolis, Maryland.
The second half of the show, "Mountain Legacy: The Concert," features mostly modern precision clogging routines danced to a hot bluegrass and country music ensemble headed up by Wayne Crowe of Maggie Valley and Gary Wiley of Waynesville, NC. Included in "The Concert" are performances by Burton Edwards, the Bailey Mountain Cloggers, Delohn Collins and Jenny Kirkpatrick, the Goodpaster Sisters of Kentucky, the Magnum Cloggers and others.
The most unique of these modern dance pieces, the "Drum Challenge," is a light-hearted male-female dance competition, complete with sequins and pyrotechnics (no kidding!), accompanied solely by an electric drum set. The flashy choreography of these modern clogging routines, which is at times reminiscent of the dancing in a Broadway show, seems light-years away from old-time Appalachian square dancing and the barn-dance scene of Act One. With precisely executed footwork, carefully timed to accentuate the live music, and dynamic choreography, it is not necessary to be part of the world of modern competition clogging to appreciate these fast-moving and captivating dance pieces.
The electric sights and sounds of this final act are broken only a few times by more traditional pieces: Ira Bernstein's flatfooting solo with the old-time band, an acappella ballad by Alice Gerrard, a dance routine displaying the innovative choreography of Footworks (accompanied by musicians Jon Glik and Robin Bullock), and a bluesy harmonica and dance solo by Matt Gordon.
The final big dance piece of "The Concert" is an impressive acappella routine with over 40 dancers. Dressed in red shirts and moving in precise synchronized lines, this red army of dancers presents a powerful image that is captivating, though a bit scary, with its robotic-like, futuristic appearance.
Aside from promoting clogging as a legitimate dance form, one of Burton's goals in producing Mountain Legacy is to show the relation of music and dance, and to promote the use of live music. While dancers associated with the old-time music scene usually appreciate dancing to live music, in the modern clogging world recorded music is what is more likely used and often preferred. Few of these precision dancers get to know the joy of dancing to a live band, not to mention old-time fiddling. Recorded Country and Rock is what is typically used at competitions and performances. This is similar to what has happened in the Modern Square Dance movement, where recorded music has now replaced live musicians. Obviously, recorded music is more convenient and less expensive, and it is more predictable. But because of that, it lacks the spontaneity and "spark" that occurs when musicians and dancers interact on stage together, and the rhythmic sound of the feet becomes a part of the music.
Mountain Legacy succeeded in bringing together cloggers and musicians from across the spectrum of styles, old-time to modern, in a cohesive and entertaining display of mountain music and dance. Burton Edwards and the Mountain Legacy Production Committee hope to stage the show again in Asheville in 1998, and they are also working toward putting together a traveling version of the show to take on the road.
These performances of Mountain Legacy were filmed and have been edited into a finished video which can be ordered by calling: 1-800-452-5224. Information can also be found at the Mountain Legacy Web site at: www.circle.net/~mtnlegacy.