Part Three: Clogging, 1220 CE, Netherlands/England

As we trawl through the history of dance together, we’re always happy to field questions and take suggestions, so when we received the request to, “Write something about shoes and dancing!” we sent our finest research team to the archives and ordered them to do precisely that. This is the resulting fulfillment of your request. Enjoy.

You can’t have a conversation about the history of clogging without discussing the item for which the dance is named: the clog. So, what is a clog? They’re wooden shoes. Humans have been using wood for years to protect their feet. Also, different cultures have different types of clogs. Luckily, help is at hand:

Footwear historians (yes, there are such things) have argued that the true progenitors of the clog were the Ancient Greeks, who sported Buskins, wooden soled, knee-high sandals, for heavy duty footwork. Essentially, the SUVs of the Ancient Greek sandal world, buskins were so popular amongst soldiers, farmers and even fashionable actors (who probably wanted to look a bit more butch on stage) that the ubersandal was fashionable for almost 700 years and across multiple civilizations.


Buskins – the SUVs of the Ancient Greek sandal world


The version that we picture in our heads today, the all-wooden, pointy-toed, boat-shoe with flowers painted on the sides, might have been loosely inspired by the buskin, but it would be some 800 years after the Fall of the Roman Empire and the buskin’s fashion reign that its wooden sole might have sparked an idea far to the North, on the wet coastline of the Netherlands. The oldest wooden clogs discovered can be dated back to the region in the 13th century and a day when a farmer finally got sick of walking home in wet socks.

(View of Deventer Seen from the North-West, painted by Salomon van Ruysdael, c. 1600)

View of Deventer Seen from the North-West, painted by Salomon van Ruysdael, c. 1600


The Dutch, who are probably the people we should be listening to most intently when it comes to rising sea levels, are used to it being soggy underfoot. Huge swathes of the Netherlands is land reclaimed from the sea. For hundreds of years, they’ve been pushing and pumping the water off the coasts; keeping it back with dykes and then building windmills to catch the sweet gusts created by these new, perfectly flat fields. The Dutch are a field-half-full kinda’ people – they list adversities as if they’re resources. After the first ever day spent working in water-logged fields, some Dutch genius one look at his ruined leather boots, thought “what repels water?” and got to work with his chisel. Day two: canoe shoes.

(Wooden shoes called sabot from Holland, c. 1300, Metropolitan museum of art, New York)

Wooden shoes called sabot from Holland, c. 1300, Metropolitan museum of art, New York


The Dutch seem to have first dibs on dancing in clogs. “Farmer dancing” (or Klompendansen  as “clog dancing” is hilariously pronounced in Dutch) can be traced as far back as the 14th century and the invention of the shoe itself. Although the shoes are now intrinsically associated with the Dutch, it’s rare to see them worn – except when they’re used in dancing.

(Marken, Netherlands, late 19th century)

Marken, Netherlands, late 19th century


Along with the coffee shops and museums of Amsterdam and the Hague, if you ever get a chance to see clogging in the Netherlands – seize it! The dances are loud, enthusiastic, percussive (it’s no surprise that clogging has a large and zealous following in the USA) and even intimidating. At a large gathering, the whole room pounds and shakes with the dancers and the wooden heels and toes striking the beats on the floor make a casual spectator feel like they’re being rapidly pursued by an angry, all-percussion marching band.

(Geldersch farmers wedding, clog, c. 1930, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen)

Geldersch farmers wedding, clog, c. 1930, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen


(And the tradition lives on - a group of Dutch clog dancers)

And the tradition lives on – a group of Dutch clog dancers in modern time


Just across the channel in England, the clog was also popular. The idea of strapping a piece of wood to the bottom of your foot with leather straps had been around for centuries, but the English clog took the thick wooden sole of the Dutch clog and added a more comfortable leather sleeve as the “upper” part of the clog. The flexibility this provided meant the shoe became an everyday piece of footwear for the poor. It also doubled nicely as a tool. Because the leather upper gripped the foot, the wearer could use their weight to stamp down the thick wooden heel like a hammer. This proved particularly useful when it came to building packed-earthen floors. If your kitchen needed a new clay floor, you could stamp the dirt down and give it a hard finish just be inviting a dozen of your friends around, cracking open the cider and dancing to rude songs about milkmaids. As the floors got bigger, so did the events and the participants. Dancing in your clogs was, for many of the English, an enjoyable part of the annual cycle of community events.

(The Country Maypole, c. 1500.  Original artwork: The Everyday Book, photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Country Maypole, c. 1500. Original artwork: The Everyday Book, photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images


The arrival of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s began to force those communities apart and drove them in increasing numbers, into factories. It’s at this point in clogging’s history that you would expect the rich tradition of community dances to be callously-crushed beneath the steam-wreathed iron hammers of progress. The fields and cottages were replaced with dangerous, gargantuan machines that never stopped turning, clanking and banging. These new mechanical masters demanded constant care. They needed food to keep the fires burning and water to keep the cotton dust down and cool the rattling appendages as they worked. English workers took one look at the pounding machines and the slick floors and thought, “Get in! Clogs are made for this environment!” When the unheated factories froze in Winter the workers they tapped their feet to keep their toes warm and cracked the ice with their heels (then kicked the resulting shards at each other for a laugh). Naturally, things got competitive from there.

(Clogs worn by workers in the industrial North of England, c. 1800)

Clogs worn by workers in the industrial North of England, c. 1800


Workers would clog on their breaks, seeing who could keep up with the machines using their feet. The factories were so deafeningly loud (try visiting Wigan Pier in Lancashire – you can walk through the machine halls with them running. It’s loud enough to make you cry in fear.) that a reprimand from the boss was unlikely. Even if he was yelling at you, it was impossible to hear him. Luckily though, these competitive workplace cloggings were not only a hit with the boss, but the entire country! The next bit, one day, will be turned into a movie called something like “Clogged Up!” and will star that kid from Billy Elliot.

(Typical Clog-dance outfit of the 19th century - Harvard Theatre Collection)

Typical Clog-dance outfit of the 19th century – Harvard Theatre Collection


(A clog for every occasion)

A clog for every occasion


For almost a hundred years clogging was everywhere in the UK. It was a fixture of music hall reviews; school recitals; pub showdowns; national competitions; it was everywhere! There were nationals organizations; regional organizations; local organizations; each with their own teams of cloggers and rising clogging stars. In the days before soccer in the UK, the national obsession was clogging. Even though its national popularity dimmed at the start of the 20th century, it continued to thrive in the North of England in the shadows of those now-silent factories. It was effectively the country’s national dance for over a century.

(Charlie Chaplin's first professional role as a child performer: he was a member of clog dancing troupe: The Eight Lancashire Lads.  Photo taken in May 1899.  Can you spot him?)

Charlie Chaplin’s first professional role as a child performer: he was a member of clog dancing troupe: The Eight Lancashire Lads. Photo taken in May 1899. Can you spot him?


The Industrial Revolution in Europe also meant mass-unemployment and land-clearances displaced millions, powering the waves of immigration to America in the 1600s and 1700s. In contrast to the high-energy, mechanical beats of the factory floor, American cloggers had to adapt their dancing to the rhythms of whatever music was available. Gaelic, Dutch, German, Spanish and African folk tunes blended with the stomps and steps to create entirely new variants on the art. Even the language surrounding the dance conspired to inspire.  The word clog, to  the English, meant a weight or burden; to the Dutch it meant a beat or a knocking and to the Irish the word arrived via the Latin clocca, meaning clock.

(Poster for Primrose & West's Big Minstrels all white performers, c. 1897, Library of Congress)

Poster for Primrose & West’s Big Minstrels all white performers, c. 1897, Library of Congress


(You can learn Clog dancing for only 15 cents!  Clog dancing made easy by R.M. DeWitt, c1874, Library of Congress)

You can learn Clog dancing for only 15 cents! Clog dancing made easy by R.M. DeWitt, c. 1874, Library of Congress


Clogging spread through the Appalachian mountains and into the thirteen colonies, constantly refreshed by new immigrants eager to compete in new traditions that seemed to echo the home they’d just left. Unlike England’s love affair with clogging, this was no mere century-long dalliance, but a lifelong partnership. Clogging is the official state dance of at least two US states and the nation boasts an annual championship at the famous Grand Ole Opry. Cloggers have made it to the national finals of America’s Got Talent and every state in the union has it’s own representative clogging organization. So what’s the secret to the longevity of a dance based around wearing incredibly-uncomfortable, noisy, 700-year-old wooden shoes?

(All That! clogged their way to the final in America's Got Talent)

All That! clogged their way to the final in America’s Got Talent


Jeff Driggs, the editor of clogging’s most esteemed organ The Double Toe Times, thinks the answer is clogging’s tradition of fusion and adaptation: “Clogging today is less impromptu and more complicated than the simple rhythmic dance begun by our ancestors,” he explains, “New influences are creeping into the dance because of popular culture. 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.”

If the shoe fits…


(A pair of vintage Walkley dance clogs, c.1980)

A pair of vintage Walkley dance clogs, c. 1980


(Ballet or clogging?  Now you don't have to choose.)

Ballet or clogging? Now you don’t have to choose.


(A pair of Miu Miu for clogging?  Why not!)

A pair of Miu Miu for clogging? Why not!


Part Two: The Waltz, 1750s, Germany

If the Tango was the brightly-dressed, rebellious upstart in this story, then the Waltz was her mutton-chop-sporting, uniformed German Uncle. By the 1880s the Waltz was as establishment as it got – it was a dance with rules, regulations and social obligations. But Uncle Waltz hadn’t always been this stuffy fuddy-duddy. As a young man, he’d been a handsome young farmer.


(The Landler, c.1700)

Born in the mid-eighteenth century to Bavarian and Tyrolean farmers, the lineage of the Waltz can be traced to the country dances held in the barns and open fields at harvest time. The mechanics of country dance was designed to create multiple, switching partners. Rebelling against its parents, the Waltz was inspired by romantic love and kept the same partner.


It was this sense of rhythmic monogamy that was at the heart of the dance’s appeal. Thirty years later, the Waltz’s romantic, country charm had taken it to the big city – Vienna. It was a hit with the city’s surplus of under-employed composers, who quickly stole Waltz’s playful rhythm and crammed it into their work. However, for it to be fully accepted by the Austrian aristocracy, the Waltz had to be cleaned up. The barn-shaking foot-stomps were removed and replaced with dipping, circular motions and the fleet-footed drunken-farmer-tap-dancing was replaced with gliding, Moonwalk steps.

The Waltz was a Viennese smash. A full 80 years before the birth of Johann Strauss (he of the Blue Danube and a man who owes his entire career and legacy to the Waltz), the aristocrats of Austria embraced this playful, strategic couples dance. It quickly spread through the ballrooms and courts of continental Europe and made one last, transformative leap to England in the opening years of the 19th century.


(Vien Walz, c.1820s.  Original print from the 300-year-old Piaristenkellar Restaurant near Hotel Pension Zipser in old-town Vienna)

Although Vienna had shaved the rough edges off the Waltz and given it a haircut, a breath mint and a proper backing orchestra, it was altogether too rough and lewd for the English. The country was going through something of a rough patch in the aftermath of losing the American Revolution. King George III was still hanging on, but was madder than a goose-on-stilts, and the industrial revolution was making rich people mind-bogglingly richer. The downside was that the vast majority of people in England were poor, hungry, overworked and utterly powerless and very, very close to rioting.


(George William Frederick, 4 June 1738 – 29 January 1820)


(Nigel Hawthorne’s portrayal of the mad king in the movie “The Madness of King George”)

England had its own country dances that were cousins to the Waltz, but it was politically inexpedient to do anything that might upset the poors further and cause a kerfuffle, so the dance was slowed down and couples were expected to straighten their arms to create a distance between them you could drive a traction engine through. As late as 1825, the Waltz was still considered “riotous and indecent” by the Oxford English Dictionary.


(The scandal!  An article in The Times in 1816 about “the indecent foreign dance called the “waltz”” warned the parents that “National morals depend on national habits: and it is quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs, and close compressure of the bodies, in their dance, to see that it is indeed far removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females. So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adultresses we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced upon the respectable classes of society by the evil example of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion”)

Although stripped off its raucous, barnyard roots the Waltz had become well and truly accepted by the Establishment. Europe was having one of its Romantic (with a capital “R”) moments and was gorging on literature, music and love. The Waltz’s arrival could not have been better timed.

Once accepted in the ballrooms of London, Paris and Vienna it quickly spread to the colonial Spanish ports of South America and the burgeoning cities along the east coast of the United States. It became the dance of choice for major functions around the world. The Waltz could be taught easily; learned from a book if necessary. Hosts were eager to show off their new ballrooms and social refinement. A Waltz could fill the room with a rhythmic, participatory spectacle.


(Hofball in Wien, painted by Wilhelm Gause, c.1900)

Once learned, dancers could use the Waltz to seek out a potential partner or simply display your plumage as you wheeled and whirled through the room, checking out the competition. For those with an aesthetic eye, the rotations and slides of the Waltz could be perfected to devastating effect on the dance floor – giving the impression of a skater on ice. And giving Johann Strauss another idea for a tune.


(“My golden statue would like to thank Waltz for making everything possible”)

The industrial age that was causing Europe’s elite to profit was also the engine that drove the Waltz around the world. It was one of dance’s first global phenomenon.

(As a bonus for making to the end of this long post, here are some beautiful ball gowns from 19th century.  For modern 21st century ballroom gowns, please visit


(British silk ball gown, ca.1875 – The Costume Institute at the Met)


(Silk ball gown, c.1860 – France)


(Catherine Donovan silk brocade ball gown, c.1890.  Born in Ireland, Mrs. Donovan became a top dressmaker for the New York carriage trade at the end of the 19th century)

Part One: The Tango

As many great historians have hinted, such as A.P. Taylor, Eric Hobbawm and Russell Brand, no decent trawl through history can truly commence until you’ve come to terms with who you are. It’s this keen sense of self-awareness and frothy enlightenment that leads us to our first stop on time’s line, the now-ubiquitous Argentinean dance from which our company takes its name: The Tango.

It will come as no surprise to anyone at all that the dance had its roots in the African community living in the poorest parts of big, port cities like Buenos Aires. Imagine New Orleans. Swap the white American tourists for Argentineans, make it the second largest city in all of South America and set your watch back 130 years or so. Right at the height of the industrial revolution; the Victorian age at their backs and the dawn of the 20th century rising to greet them. Now imagine how far that wealth trickled down to the African community doing all the jobs the Argentineans didn’t want to do. The tango came out of that.

File:Buenos Aires by Dulin.png

(Buenos Aires, c.1860) 

Now it didn’t emerge from the community fully-fledged. Like all dance styles, it had a big family of aunts and uncles from around the neighborhood. One of its influences came from Argentina’s Cuban community, the Habanara, which is defined as tango-congo dance. Not to be confused with the Habanero, the excruciatingly hot pepper, which is defined as quick way to get rid of your mother-in-law if you slip enough of them in her soft taco. Tango’s Cuban mother, the Habanara, had its own roots in African dance. The rhythms had survived the trip from Africa through France; France to Cuba; Cuba to Argentina and back to the African community in Buenos Aires.

A spoken language couldn’t have made the same trip without taking some nicks and dings, but the rhythms stayed intact.


(The exhausting trip of Habanara)

Tango’s utterly Argentinean father was a mixture of two dances.  One was from the area around Buenos Aires which had worked its way into the repertoire of musicians who wanted to show off their technical skills along with their wit. The Milonga is a naughty dance. It’s fast, sometimes funny and very hard to do whilst looking effortless. It’s tight as a drum and its very audience-friendly. It’s something you would drop everything to watch if it was being done well.; as much performance as personal enjoyment.

Tango’s other father, candombe, came over the border from Argentina’s neighbor, Uruguay. Again, not as a mainstream dance but from African slaves. You can hear a sense of urgency in its central high-energy beat, surrounded by whirling, rattling percussion. The drums are the stars of Candombe: three different sizes are employed from the smallest, the chico, through the repique and up to the piano.  When at full strength, a candombe group can have over 100 drummers. It’s less of a dance, and more of a moving school of percussion, all anchored around a central repetitive beat.

The dance, although less famous than its offspring, is a cultural heavyweight. UNESCO considers it to be so important , that it put it on its list of “intangible” cultural heritage. It’s up there with Chinese calligraphy; Kabuki theatre; the Dios Los Muertos and, rather tidily, the Tango. From Afro-Uruguayan drumming, Afro-Cuban dance and a frisky form of theatrical homegrown Argentinean dance emerged the Tango at one of the turning points in history.

milonga 1915

(Tango dance on a patio, c. 1915)

At the end of the 1800s, the once dominant Spanish-American empire was beginning to fall apart at the seams, with more than a little encouragement from the United States to the North. For 400 years, Argentina had been a hierarchy led by peninsulares, Spanish-born Spaniards, crillos, locally-born Argentineans of either European or African descent and mestizos, or locally born people of European and native American descent. Added to that were the dwindling groups of native South Americans, devastated by centuries of immigration and settlement, much like their cousins in the United States. In that environment, cultural identity was critical to how your life would work out. Then, as is still the case now, your ethnicity played a huge part in determining how far you could progress in Argentinean society. As a result, Argentineans are rightfully very maternal about towards the dance that exploded in popularity at the exact same moment the government and the status quo was exploding around them.


(Tango boots, c. 1918 – by Bray Bros., Philadelphia – Brooklyn Museum Collection)

From a wider perspective, Tango was at the forefront Argentinean political and social revolution, it was in the front lines of the greatest revolution the dance world has ever seen. In a few short years at the end of the 1800s, formal ballet – the dance of royal courtrooms and the pinnacle of elite culture – which had dominated the dance world for 200 years, was overthrown by wild outbreaks of new dance forms that had their roots in the lives of the revolutionaries.

Tango was dangerous; sexy; significant; playful and very, very political. It was so subversive and pervasive, it made its way into palaces of the country’s elites through a new generation, who carried it back across the Atlantic to Europe. It sparked a global craze so intense that the elites back in Argentina begrudgingly accepted it as a mark of national pride. The Tango became a symbol of Argentina and a reflection of its new identity – a partnership so strong, it’s hard to think of the Argentina without conjuring up images of the dancers and culture that inspires our work here at TangoRouge.