Writing Well: Term Paper #3

Term Paper #3

Irish Step Dancing and Appalachian Clogging: The Roots of American Dance

by Jessica Swantek

My curiosity about clogging and step dancing began about a year ago, when I read a newspaper article about the success of the Irish dancing show Riverdance. The author stated that Irish step dancing had a major influence on Appalachian clogging, a form of American folk dancing. I'd never heard of clogging before, and my knowledge of step dancing was limited as well. The article sparked my interest, which led to my decision to choose step dancing and clogging as the topic of my final presentation and paper.

I had several questions in mind. Did Irish step dancing actually affect Appalachian clogging, and if so, how much? How did the evolution from one dance to the other occur? And were there other influences as well? I was also interested in the two dances as separate entities. I wanted to find out more about each one, compare and contrast them, and examine each dance's place in contemporary America, especially with regard to issues such as cultural identity and authenticity.

As the semester and my research progressed, I found the most helpful resources to be encyclopedias, Web pages, and the assistance of two dancers who patiently answered the questions I threw at them and provided me with some insight that I couldn't get from books. In addition to learning a great deal about the two dances, I found the answers to some of my guiding questions and came up with new questions for further research. What follows is a chronological account of the history of Irish step dancing and Appalachian clogging, and a discussion of the two dances as they exist today.

Early Irish History: Conflict and Conquest

Somewhere between 350 and 250 B.C.E., the Celts (also known as the Gaels), settled in Ireland (“Irish” 84). Their feisianna date from the early 1000s. A feis was a big Gaelic festival, which served as a combination of a trade fair, political gathering, and cultural event, complete with music, storytelling, sporting events, and crafts. According to Ann Richens and Don Haurin, these festivals still exist today.

Ireland was home almost exclusively to the Celts and their successive generations until the middle of the twelfth century. In 1169, Ireland was invaded and conquered by the Norman knights of Henry II of England, beginning a long history of conflict between the British and Irish. This event was known as the Anglo-Norman conquest, and King Henry partially controlled the land for the next 400 years (Encyclopedia of Multiculturalism 291).

In 1366, the Statute of Kilkenny was passed, which excommunicated or placed heavy penalties on those who allied with the native Irish or followed their customs. Pipers were routinely banned and arrested in the mid-1500s (Richens and Haurin). In the seventeenth century, Ireland became a British colony, and the Scottish and English people were forceably resettled to Northern Ireland. The Penal Laws, enacted by the British Parliament in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, limited the Catholics' religious and civil rights, banned their education, and set Irish commerce and industries into ruin. By 1750, the original Irish controlled only five percent of all Irish land. Some of the Irish left the homeland due to the severity of the conflicts, but most couldn't afford to (“Irish” 84).

The Creation of Irish Step Dancing

Irish step dancing had its beginnings in the early 1700s during the turmoil of British oppression. The Irish wanted to learn upscale dances like those done in France and England. To accommodate their demands, dance masters invented Irish step dancing by adapting the French and English dances to fit with traditional Irish music (Harrison ).

This led to the distinctive foot percussion seen in Irish step dancing, known as battering. The new dance style was named “step dancing,” because each dance sequence executed within eight bars of music was called a step (Richens and Haurin).

A dance master would travel within a county, staying in each village for about six weeks and teaching step dancing to boys. A local family provided room and board, and it was considered an honor to have a prominent dance master stay in one's home.

Ever since St. Patrick introduced Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century, the Catholic Church played a very important role in the lives of the Irish. By the mid-1700s the Church had condemned dancing, so this expression of Irish culture was practiced with some secrecy. Step dance was taught in kitchens, barns, and other fairly private indoor locations. Sometimes a stage was as small as a tabletop or a half door. Because of the lack of adequate dancing space, early step dancing was rather stationary in style. Step dancers tried their best to stay in one place while doing quick footwork (Richens and Haurin).

Men often wore black shoes with elevated heels and large front buckles, so they were ready to dance. The dancers inserted coins between the sole and toe of the shoe and hammer nail heads into the heels to increase the volume of their battering. The dancers usually wore their everyday clothes, and would don their Sunday best, typically swallowtail coats and knee breeches, when performing at a competition. Competitive dancing took place at feisianna, and competition eventually became, for most dancers, the primary reason for learning to step dance. The winner of a competition was the dancer who knew the most steps, not necessarily the one who performed them the best (Richens and Haurin).

There were several different step dances that the dance masters taught, all of which are still done today. The jig is perhaps the most recognizably Irish dance that is still in existence. It is performed to music played in a 6/8 time signature. The reel originated in Scotland, but was perfected by Irish dance masters. It is a relatively fast dance in 4/4 time. The hornpipe evolved from an English dance in the mid-1700s. It is done in 4/4 time, and has a distinct triple rhythm in the music: one-and-a-two-and-a-three-and-a-four-and-a. Set dances are performed to a specific tune that remains set over time. It has two parts, the lead around, which is danced as an introduction during the first eight to sixteen measures, and the set, which usually begins at the twelfth to sixteenth measure. Set dances are done in jig or hornpipe time, and greater interpretation of the dance is expected in comparison with other step dances (Richens and Haurin).

The First Irish-American Immigrants

Technically, St. Brendan's voyage just after 500 C.E. brought the first Irish to what would later become the United States of America. The first substantial number of early Irish settlers, however, were those in the mid-1700s who desired an escape from the British-Irish conflicts in their homeland, and could afford to leave Ireland. These immigrants traveled down along the Appalachian mountain range, some going as far as Florida and New Orleans (Cullinane 125).

Most of these immigrants settled during the eighteenth century in the Appalachian mountain region, in what is now Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and North and South Carolina. By the first U.S. census of 1790, there was a 12 percent Scotch-Irish population (Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America 62).

The Irish, like most other immigrant groups, brought their music and dance with them to America, and incorporated it into their new lives. Irish settlers contributed largely to the making of folk music of America (Cullinane 125).

Of all the traditional instruments used by the Irish, their style of fiddle playing had the greatest effect on what was to become American music. Irish fiddle tunes influenced American country music, while their ballads had an impact on American folk songs (Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America 62). Similarly, Irish dance had an effect on new kinds of American dancing that were soon to come about.

The Creation of Appalachian Clogging

The first official record of a dance master in the United States was recorded in 1789. Based in Philadelphia, he taught reels, jigs, and hornpipes. Irish step dancing, especially the heavy jig and hornpipe, was sometimes referred to as “clog dancing,” so it follows logically that when a new form of dance, influenced by Irish step dancing, came into being, it would be called clogging (Cullinane 125).

Clogging was influenced not only by the step dancing from Ireland, but also by dances brought to America by other settlers from the British Isles, as well as Native American traditional dances, and solo buck and wing dances of the African American slaves (Mangin, Julie ).

Clogging began as a very social dance, which was a far cry from the competitive nature of Irish step dancing. The inhabitants of the Appalachians were part of a rural society, and they worked hard during the day, many in the coal mines or on the farm. After sundown, for special occasions or just for enjoyment, families and neighbors would gather together in a barn or on a porch to play music and dance (Charlton 23).

Although the dance has become somewhat rare in comparison to its popularity a century or two ago, a few “old timers” can still be seen flatfooting at Appalachian music festivals today. In Angela Charlton's Associated Press article, she quotes Jane

George, a clogging instructor from West Virginia: “Clogging is … more structured. Flatfooting is freer. You can watch a bunch of people flatfooting and they'll all be doing something different.” Dancers who flatfoot have no specific style of dress, but simply wear whatever they've already got on at the time, including everyday shoes.

Traditional clogging has been described as the most energetic form of step dance and is characterized by a relaxed upper body and fast-moving, percussive footwork (“Stepdance/Clogging in Nova Scotia” ).

It is a mobile, informal dance whose steps have become somewhat standardized only within the past century. Distinct steps and their names used to vary from region to region, and West Virginia is one of the last places to retain those differences (Charlton 23). The two most basic steps, which are the foundation for most other clogging steps, are called the shuffle and the buck, and are very similar, if not exactly the same, as some dance steps seen in modern tap dancing.

Subsequent Irish Immigrants: The First Great Wave

In 1800, the British passed the Act of Union. England had tight control over Ireland at this point, and the Irish couldn't have their own parliament or government. All Irish government agencies were moved to London (Encyclopedia of Multiculturalism 291). The infamous Irish potato famine occurred in the mid-1800s as well. About a quarter of the Irish population died of starvation and disease, and many of the remaining Irish fled their homeland, bound for the United States.

The First Great Wave of Immigration to America lasted from 1841 until 1890. Included in the approximately eight million foreigners who immigrated to the United States were three million Irish and British (Encyclopedia of Multiculturalism 291).

The Irish moved primarily to large American cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Mostly Catholic unskilled peasants, they often faced job discrimination and were generally disliked in the United States (Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America 62). Due to these circumstances, they often lived in more or less isolated ethnic communities, such as the Hell's Kitchen area of New York City (American Immigrant Cultures: Builders of a Nation 76).

The Evolution of Modern Irish Step Dancing

In 1893, the Gaelic League was founded, which encouraged the revival of Irish culture (Richens and Haurin). This finally brought Irish dancing out into the open and began a chain of events that would result in the worldwide awareness and recognition of step dancing. The 1921 treaty that established the Irish Free State in the south and Northern Ireland as two separate countries also helped to stir up enthusiasm for the outward expression of Irish culture (American Immigrant Cultures: Builders of a Nation 76).

In 1929, the Irish Dancing Commission was founded. Its purpose was to standardize Irish dance by establishing universal rules regarding teaching, judging, and competitions. The commission established a 100 mark judging system. The points were distributed evenly among four categories: timing, deportment/style, construction of steps, and execution/method (Richens and Haurin).

Starting near the turn of the twentieth century, women began to step dance. They had most likely been doing so privately for quite some time, but it was considered indecent by the Church for women to dance, so any such displays in public were previously unacceptable. However, the gender dynamic had completely reversed itself by the 1930s. Because of the influx of female dancers, a new, more feminine dance was invented specifically for women, called a slip jig. Danced to music in 9/8 time, a slip jig's steps consist of graceful skipping, hopping, and toe pointing. Soft shoes were introduced around 1924 for use during slip jigs. They are soft leather shoes with flexible soles, much like Western ballet shoes, and they lace up the front and tie around the dancer's ankle (Richens and Haurin).

The prevalence of female dancers also led to the unique posturing of Irish step dancing that is its trademark today. Parish priests felt that women dancing with loose arms were far too provocative, so in order to increase their self-control, Irish step dancers must dance with their torso rigid, arms firmly at their sides, and faces expressionless (Richens and Haurin).

Costuming for Irish step dancing changed over the years as well. In 1893, the Gaelic League went on a quest for a traditional Irish costume, and as a result, feis rules made by the Irish Dancing Commission now call for “authentic Gaelic dress.” Boys wear white button-down shirts and dark pants, or kilts for older boys and men. Girls and women wear elaborately embroidered dresses with a shawl draped from the left shoulder to the right side of the waist, as well as black stockings, or white knee socks for younger dancers. There are even rules regarding hairstyles at a feis. A female dancer must curl her hair in ringlets for a competition, and keep it away from her face with a headband. Footwear has been through some significant improvements over the years as well. The old men's “buckle shoes” were replaced by what are known as hard shoes. They have fiberglass tips and hollow heels, making them much lighter and louder (Richens and Haurin).

Clogging Evolves

Around the onset of World War II, a new style of clogging emerged, called “pitter pat.” The older clogging style was referred to as “traditional style or mountain style.” Pitter pat is synchronized clogging, with a group of dancers all doing the same step at the same time. Dancers form precision teams and perform choreographed clogging dances to a variety of recorded music of any genre, some of it modern or popular music (Mangin, Julie ).

Pitter pat is more static than mountain-style clogging, and teams often assemble themselves in a line formation on stage. The clogging steps are executed more quickly than in mountain style clogging, and modern dance steps as well as arm and hand movements are used. Some precision teams wear leotards or spandex dance costumes, just like any other modern dance group, and clogging shoes are usually worn. Pitter pat has become the current most popular clogging style, and teams can be found all across the United States (Earnhardt, Brooke, “Brooke's Clogging Page” ).

Clogging and Step Dancing in Present Day America

Competition has always been an integral part of step dancing, and the Irish dance infrastructure continued to expand until just a few decades ago. In 1964, the Irish Dance Teachers Association was founded, and there are currently more than 300 certified Irish dance instructors in North America. The North American Feis Commission was founded in 1968 to regulate competitions in the United States and Canada, and an annual North American championship competition started in 1969. Current feisianna focus primarily on Irish culture, and have crafts for sale, as well as vocal, instrumental, dance, and Gaelic language competitions. An oireachtas is a “super feis,” organized by region since 1976 (Richens and Haurin). The Oireachtas na Cruinne is the official title of the World Championship held annually in Ireland. The step dancing competition scene is remarkably organized, in part due to the assistance of these new organizations.

I learned from step dancer Brooke Earnhardt that many organizations hold independent clogging competitions, such as the Showstoppers National Talent Competition, the National Clogging and Hoe-down Championships, and the Clogging Champions of America Competition. However, none of these organizations is affiliated with one another or overseen by a higher establishment. In accordance, there is no set teaching or judging criteria. Some judges look for precision, some judge the choreography, some watch for the dancers' ability to stay with the music, and some pay attention to the costumes. Usually a group will be rated numerically, though the number range varies from one competition to the next, on some combination of the above categories.


So who are these dancers? Is Irish step dancing still just the dance of the Irish? Is clogging only done by white descendents of settlers from the British Isles? I asked Brooke and Katie about their family backgrounds in order to see if there was a predictable pattern. Interestingly, while both dancers fit the historic description of their respective dances—Katie is 100 percent Irish and Brooke has Scottish and English ancestors—both denied that their heritage had anything to do with their choice of dance. Also, neither Brooke nor Katie had any history of family members who were involved in their dance, so they were both first-generation dancers, so to speak. Apparently for Brooke and Katie, any ethnic link was purely coincidental. I concluded that in order to accurately and more completely explore this issue, I'd need to ask more than one person from each dancing community. It would be an interesting topic for further research.


We spent a great deal of time discussing authenticity in class, so it seemed natural for me to incorporate it into my research. While watching Riverdance, I realized that while the footwork was beautifully executed, the dancing as a whole was not necessarily “authentic” Irish step dancing. For one thing, the costuming was wrong. The dancers in the show wear more modern clothes, which look great on stage but would never be permitted at a feis. The dancers don't keep their arms at their sides either. These two observations among others left me wondering what a real Irish dancer would think if I, in my relative ignorance, had noticed all these discrepancies. Perhaps surprisingly, the Irish dancers don't seem to mind. As of yet, I have read and heard only positive things from Irish dancers about the step dancing that takes place in Riverdance or Lord of the Dance. In general, they seem to be delighted that their dance and culture is so positively received by the public. Katie's comment was, “The two shows have increased public awareness of Irish dancing and made it distinct. Before the shows, few people would have known what step dancing was …. Since the shows, there has been a huge swell in the number of new dancers of all ages who enroll in dance classes. I think the shows have … helped to promote Irish step dancing as being fun and modern” (E-mail to the author, 10 November 1998). What may be the greatest effect of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance is the realization that there is a life for Irish dancers outside of competition (Cullinane 125).

Media Attention

Irish step dancing has obviously received a lot of media attention lately, largely due to the huge commercial successes of the step dancing shows Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. Clogging, however, remains fairly unknown as an old Appalachian mountain tradition and is familiar only to those who clog and those who live in rural communities where clogging is common. Or is it? Interest in Appalachian dance was somewhat revived along with the folk movement in the late 1970s. The Green Grass Cloggers often performed publicly to live music and apparently had quite a following (Mangin, Julie ).

Perhaps at the height of clogging's visibility, the Leather 'N' Lace Cloggers, a precision team from Leicester, North Carolina, performed at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta before an audience of thousands and broadcast via television to millions worldwide (Mangin, Julie. ). So while clogging may not have the fame that step dancing currently enjoys, it seems to be quietly holding its own.

In conclusion, Appalachian clogging and Irish step dancing are two dynamic dance forms, each with a rich history, that are thriving quite well and becoming ever more popular as we reach the turn of the twenty-first century. While I've found the answers to the original questions I asked about the dances, I've also come up with even more questions over the course of my research. More important, I've grown to genuinely like the two dances. For the time being I can only enjoy watching them, but I just might take a clogging or step dancing class sometime in the future. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for step dancing and clogging, whether step dancing falls back out of vogue or clogging undergoes a surge of popularity and takes the limelight once and for all. Either way, both dances have proven to stand the test of time, and almost certainly will be around in some form for the enjoyment of many generations to come.

Works Cited

“Banjo.” The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, vol. 1. 1984 ed.

Charlton, Angela. “Cloggers Shuffle and Skip to Save Appalachian Tradition.” The Associated Press. June 1997.

Cullinane, Dr. John. Aspects of the History of Irish Dancing in North America. Cork City, Ireland: Dr. John P. Cullinane, 1997.

Earnhardt, Brooke. “Brooke's Clogging Page.” (9 October 1998).

Earnhardt, Brooke. E-mail to the author. 9 November 1998.

“Fiddle.” The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, vol. 1. 1984 ed.

Harrison, Bill. “A Brief Overview of Irish Dance.” 27 December 1997. (16 October 1998).

“Introduction.” Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America, vol. 1. 1995 ed.

“Ireland.” Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia. 1998 ed.

“Irish.” American Immigrant Cultures: Builders of a Nation, vol. 1. 1997 ed.

“Irish Americans.” Encyclopedia of Multiculturalism, vol. 4. 1994 ed.

“Irish Americans.” Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America, vol. 2. 1995 ed.

The Irish Emigrant, Ltd. “The IE Glossary.” January 1997. (18 November 1998).

The JVC/Smithsonian Folkways Video Anthology of Music and Dance of the Americas, vol. 1: Canada and the United States. Dir. Hiroaki Ohta. Prod. Stephen McArthur and Multicultural Media. Victor Company of Japan, Ltd., 1995.

The JVC/Smithsonian Folkways Video Anthology of Music and Dance of the Americas, vol. 2: United States. Dir. Hiroaki Ohta. Prod. Stephen McArthur and Multicultural Media. Victor Company of Japan, Ltd., 1995.

The JVC Video Anthology of World Music and Dance, vol. 20: Europe I. Dir. Nakagawa Kunihiko. Prod. Ichikawa Katsumori. Victor Company of Japan, Ltd.

Live Performance: October 10, 1998 at Hofstra University's John Cranford Adams Playhouse. Scotch/Irish-Canadian performers, the Leahy family, musicians & step dancers.

Mangin, Julie. “The Clogging Page.” 9 October 1998. (14 October 1998).

Matthews, Gail. “Movement and Dance: Nonverbal Clues About Culture and Worldview.” The Emergence of Folklore in Everyday Life: a Fieldguide and Sourcebook. Ed. George H. Schoemaker. Bloomington, Indiana: Trickster Press, 1992. 101-105.

Mullen, Katie. E-mail to the author. 10 November 1998.

O'Connor, Barbara. “Safe Sets: Women, Dance, and ‘Communitas.'” Dance in the City. Ed. Helen Thomas. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. 149-172.

Richens, Ann, and Don Haurin. “Irish Step Dancing: A Brief History.” February 1996. (17 October 1998).

Riverdance. Dir. John McColgan. With Jean Butler and Colin Dunne. Composer Bill Whelan. Columbia Tristar, 1997.

“Stepdance/Clogging in Nova Scotia.” (17 October 1998)

Times Ain't Like They Used to Be: Early Rural and Popular American Music, 1828-1935.

Prod: Sherwin Dunner and Richard Nevins. Yazoo Video of Shanachie Entertainment Corp., 1992.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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