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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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…