Keeping time with their feet

Published 10:47 am Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A dozen dancers circled around a rectangle of wooden panels in the Bethlehem Ruritan clubhouse bop their knees to the beat of a pop song.

On an unseen signal, they suddenly bring down the house with syncopated tapping of their shoes, their upper bodies appearing relaxed and perfectly straight.

It’s Thursday night, and that means it’s rehearsal night for the Peanut City Cloggers. They’re getting ready for a huge competition, so there’s a lot to fit in.

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The first thing you need to know about cloggers is that, no, they don’t wear wooden shoes. Their footwear is traditional dance shoes with taps mounted on the soles — usually “jingle taps” mounted loosely so they can jingle back and forth.

This traditional and uniquely American form of dance originated in the Appalachian Mountains as a conglomeration of Irish, English, German, African and Native American folk dances. Once all the styles were melded together, clogging was born.

The Peanut City Cloggers say their clogging family is almost as important as their blood family. This team shot is from before a performance at the Norfolk Scope. (Submitted Photo)

The Peanut City Cloggers say their clogging family is almost as important as their blood family. This team shot is from before a performance at the Norfolk Scope. (Submitted Photo)

The name of the dance doesn’t come from the shoes at all. Rather, it’s from the Gaelic word for “time.”

“We keep time with our feet,” said Donna Riley, one of the founders of the group.

These days, many clogging groups exist in the country, but the Peanut City Cloggers — a name that strikes fear into the heart of other competitive groups across the country — are among those trying to uphold the traditional form of the dance.

Tradition and family — both blood family and clogging family — are the big draws for many participants.

Grace Pierce, who has been clogging for seven years, followed in the footsteps of her mom, who started clogging at the age of 5. Hannah Baines’ mother and grandparents were cloggers.

Others, like Harrison Storms, simply got into clogging as an outlet.

“When I was in second grade, I had a problem with keeping my feet still,” Harrison said. His teacher knew about the group and recommended it to his mom.

Others joined because of family or friends, as in the case of two of the youngest dancers, Lillie Short and Jenna Green.

“I thought that it would be fun, and my cousin was doing it,” Lillie said.

“My friend started clogging,” Jenna added.

But now, as part of the Peanut City Cloggers team, they’re all family who depend on each other as much as if they were related by blood.

“It is knowing if you fall down, there’s going to be a bunch of people there to pick you up,” Grace said. “I definitely believe it’s a family thing.”

“We’re all super close,” added Mackenzie West, who has been clogging for seven years.

Harrison said the friendships and family atmosphere continue even after the clogging shoes have been taken off.

“You step off the stage, and you’re still just as close,” he said.

The longer you do clogging, the more friends and family you have in it, said JoAnn Price, one of the adult dancers on the Peanut City Cloggers.

“You grow up clogging, so you go to clogging competitions and see all your friends,” she said. The friends and relationships are her favorite part of clogging.

But it’s not all rainbows in the clogging world. Injuries happen — shin splints and strained knees, which can take a dancer out of commission for weeks, are common. There can be blood sometimes, too. When a jingle tap gets worn down, it can become sharp enough to slice open a finger or anything else it happens to contact.

Injuries are the worst for the dancers, not because of the pain but because they feel like they have let their team down.

“That hurts the most, knowing you’re supposed to be up there,” Grace said. “It’s like you’re a pillar. If you fall, everyone else will fall with you.”

Dancers have been known to perform or compete with injuries to almost any part of their body, even with an arm in a cast. But the most important parts for clogging are the feet and legs.

“Our legs are what keep us here,” Harrison said. “Our legs and our heart are what keep us going.”

There’s a serious air of perfectionism in the team.

“That’s one of the things that keeps me here, is knowing I’m not as good as I could be,” Harrison said.

One of the main figures pushing the team forward is Shamus Riley, the coach for the teenaged group of dancers and a dancer himself in the adult group.

Riley went to college on a clogging scholarship after clogging since he was a child. Donna Riley is his mother.

“If you’re not having fun, you really shouldn’t be doing it,” Riley said. His loves to enterain audiences.

Despite the demanding nature of the dance, all of the dancers get their own personal rewards out of it.

“We work hard for what we earn,” Grace said.

Added Hannah: “I really just like being part of it with everybody.” ←