Green Grass Cloggers: Folk Dance Group
by Leanne E. Smith
The weekend of the North Carolina Folklore Society’s 2012 annual meeting in Greenville, NC, marked forty years since the Green Grass Cloggers debuted at the 1972 World Champion Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention on April Fool’s Day—a cosmic date for a group of hairy counter-culture college kids to invade a previously clean-cut clogging world. In their early years, the GGCs collected fans and shocked some audiences. They later shared what they’d learned in North Carolina with international audiences, and sometimes faced questions about their “folkness.” Concepts and designations of what’s traditional and “folk” can be complicated, but in the case of the GGCs, they used material from older practitioners, combined it with original material, and made the results their own. They developed an internal culture, shared their art person-to-person inside and outside the group, and have sustained a style for four decades, despite fluctuations in membership—all of which sounds like “folk” to me.
By the early 1970s, the Easter weekend convention, which was commonly just called Union Grove, drew thousands of people. Many among the masses were young counter-culture types enthralled with the opportunity to live a Woodstock-style experience closer to home—about forty miles west of Winston-Salem, NC, at J. Pierce Van Hoy’s farm just off Interstate 77, between the Harmony and Union Grove communities. Dudley Culp and his friends from East Carolina University in Greenville, NC, at first sought a different version of the youth experience that had less to do with the music. They wanted the vibe some people invoked when they called Union Grove by a different name: Onion Groove.
The youth influx from all over North Carolina and several other states overwhelmed some of the locals. Just from being in the environment, though, it was inevitable that some of those youth who went for the party, and wanted to find what felt real to them, would become interested in the music and seek older practitioners from whom they could learn. That was Dudley’s experience at Union Grove in 1971. He saw clogging for the first time and felt so drawn to the energy that he wanted to learn how to do it, teach other people, and take a team to dance at Union Grove the next year. The plan worked. From there, the GGCs got invitations to dance at other festivals, where they met bands from other states, which led to invitations to dance farther and farther away from their home base in eastern North Carolina.
As with some older musicians who became magnets for people wanting to learn from them, the popularity of the GGCs grew because they were different from other groups in the clogging genre. Historical record and popular perception have designated clogging as a western North Carolina dance form. In terms of team clogging, that’s true since the competitive team dancing—combining group figures and previously solo footwork into a percussive group dance for performance—can be traced to Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, NC. In the GGCs’ early years, NC team clogging was still concentrated in western counties and parts of the Piedmont. In eastern North Carolina, some rural communities hosted square dances that had continued from earlier decades, while western-style club square dancing had also become popular and reintroduced group social dance opportunities in population centers.
Many of the western NC clogging teams were named for a town or natural landmark in an effort to make them seem more local, more of a certain place—preferably a place where the members had grown up learning the dance form from their families and community members. The GGCs found, as they traveled to larger folk festivals, that some festival organizers didn’t want to classify their dancing as a folk form or accept them as cloggers on par with other teams. They had at least three problems: they hadn’t learned from relatives and locals in the mountain hometowns they didn’t have; they didn’t do the mountain-based dance figures that they didn’t know were much different from the western squares they did know; and they didn’t dress as crisply and identically as many teams because it wouldn’t have been natural for them to do that anyway.
Though the early GGCs were not originally from a single geographic place, they were still of a place—a college town. Thus, their place shaped them into a collection of people from multiple locations, at first mostly from across North Carolina, which made them less of a single geographic place and more broadly of the state. The youth-fueled cultural place out of which they grew celebrated counter-culture sensibilities, which influenced their semi-casual costuming and raw-energetic approach to their dancing. In addition to the initial basic step they learned from southwest Virginia dancer Evelyn Smith Farmer, they learned square dance figures from a Texan named Betty Casey who was living in Greenville in the early ’70s.
In their first two years, the cloggers had no idea they were doing something others wouldn’t completely like—and they didn’t much care. They were having fun attempting something like what they had seen—and wanted to do—just because it looked fun. Their college friends in Greenville liked them when they danced at the Attic, the hippie nightclub downtown. At Union Grove ’72 on April Fool’s Day, the audience liked them, possibly because the hairy people on the stage looked like the hairy people in the audience. After they won first place in their division at the ’72 Autumn Square-Up at Fiddler’s Grove, they thought they had something worth taking to other competitions—like the next summer’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville.
In the meantime at other festivals, they met old-timers Willard Watson of Deep Gap, NC, and Tommy Jarrell of the Mt. Airy, NC, area (later two of the NC Folklore Society’s Brown-Hudson Award winners in 1983 and 1981, respectively). The GGCs’ casual dress and the spirited way they danced reminded Willard and Tommy of the informal social dancing they remembered from their youth, before the performance and competition environments sparked so much change in the dance form. The approval from the old-timers that the GGCs admired so much inspired and validated them. They absorbed culture from Willard and Tommy, learned dance steps from Willard, and bonded with them through senses of humor that were much less conservative than what some people assumed of the traditional music and dance practitioners as a whole. Though the early GGCs didn’t live in the mountain counties, they felt accepted into a cultural family.
In Asheville, though, at the August ’73 Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, the GGCs remember the atmosphere when they walked out on the stage as a could-have-heard-a-pin-drop moment. They assumed the audience was shocked at the long-haired dancers in blue jeans and dresses that weren’t all the same color. By the end of their routine, the audience was cheering, but the judges disqualified the GGCs. The organizers invited the GGCs to do an exhibition the next night, and GGC Doug Baker found out what some of the required dance figures were so they could have a better chance the next year. With help from library books back in Greenville—again, using resources affordable and available like folk artists do—the group adjusted their choreography slightly to include some of the mountain figures the other teams did and that the judges expected to see. They’d already known they looked different by choice and brought a more raucous energy to the stage than many of the groups they’d seen, but their experience in Asheville was the first time it mattered for competition.
The GGCs were puzzled by the contrast in the audience’s reception and the judges’ disapproval in Asheville, but they still competed again at the ’73 Square-Up at Fiddler’s Grove. They lost to a team from Asheville, and at the time, some of them believed that team wanted to win the Square-Up competition because they didn’t like the positive audience reception the GGCs had gotten in Asheville. At the next Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, the GGCs thought they had a better chance of placing than the year before—but the same thing happened: disqualified, but invited to do an exhibition, and the audience liked them. They thought they had made the required adjustments for choreography, so for years, they thought the judges were biased against the GGCs for looking different and for being from eastern NC. About thirty years later, they heard the disqualification couldn’t have been all about their looks since even Lunsford had a grandson who wore his hair shaggy. They were just so different from the other teams that the judges didn’t know what to do with them. The confusion at the time—in Asheville and later at Fiddler’s Grove—helped the GGCs reexamine their purpose. They decided they were more suited to performances and expanded their travel range.
The more time they spent together, the more intragroup linguistic jokes they developed. They’d always liked puns and double entendre—evident in the name Green Grass Cloggers itself—but some other expressions grew out of shared experiences and reflected group culture. One Gary Joynerism, called so because of the person who brought the term to the group, was “torn outna frame,” which was short for “torn out of the frame”—or, drunk. Frequent bus troubles led to another expression: TC, short for “temperature check.” The temperature gauge for the bus was in the back by the engine. So, for the driver to know what it showed, the cloggers passed back the “temperature check” message—later abbreviated to just TC—and then they passed the temperature reading forward. Among the women, TC became a code for one to alert others that she had spotted an attractive guy.
The question of “What’s wrong with us?” started as a joke among the group when some of the dancers would disappear at festivals to socialize with people outside the group—but it took on more meaning as the cloggers faced bias about their dance style and internal culture. Though they started focusing more on performances instead of competitions, they continued to compete at the Autumn Square-Up out of nostalgia and because they typically had a good audience reception there. But after a culture clash in ’76, they re-examined their competition goals. Fiddler’s Grove venue organizer Harper Van Hoy wrote a letter to the GGCs in July ’77 that said, in part:
“I’ve seen several pictures and news articles on the Green Grass Cloggers in different periodicals, during the year. It looks like you have made it big. Congratulations. […] I have intended to write you earlier about this incident (love in) by a couple on your team. It took place on Sunday morning of last year. Several older couples (parents) complained to me about it and made quite a “to-do” about it. I regretted this very much, and I am sure you do, too. Incidents of this nature can destroy the family image we have worked so hard to preserve at Fiddler’s Grove. You understand what I’m saying, so I want you to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
“You know your people…I don’t want to offend anyone…if you can tell them in a way they will accept in a cooperative spirit, I’ll be glad to have your dancers at our Square-Up. If you think they would not accept this in the right spirit…I would not want this to reoccur as it would seriously damage Fiddler’s Grove’s reputation as a family atmosphere.”
Not everyone in the group saw the letter when it arrived, and then the oral history of its contents became a humorous, shortened story: the group was “uninvited” from Fiddler’s Grove because of what some other people perceived to be a love-in (It was really a single, interracial couple with clogger connections making out on a picnic table). When Dudley first met Harper and Wansie Van Hoy at the 1971 Autumn Square-Up, they had encouraged his goals of starting a clogging team. The dancers who joined the GGCs after Dudley moved away from Greenville maintained their counter-culture identity and found popularity for being themselves—but at the competition where they’d felt they could still be themselves, the group’s expression of “What’s wrong with us?” applied to their style and culture. Whereas old-timers like Willard Watson and Tommy Jarrell had made the GGCs feel welcome in the traditional music and dance communities, the GGCs had seen another sector of the traditional music and dance world in their competition experiences, a sector that valued conformity. The message the GGCs sensed was that they were welcome as long as they weren’t themselves.
The GGCs ultimately settled completely on being a performance group rather than a competition group. With the rise of the National Clogging and Hoe-Down Council in the late ’70s, and the ensuing specifications for standardized steps and costuming, the GGCs wouldn’t have been able to place in competition anymore anyway. The new competition trend complicates the question of folkness: some of the same people who thought of the GGCs as too innovative, because they were different from the identical-costume competition cloggers, later followed the trends in standardizing clogging. The new clogging Council helped the dance develop into the power-tap competition styles of today. In terms of figures and footwork, those styles are less clearly rooted in the early solo percussive and social group figure dancing than the GGC style is.
The rise of the new style of clogging increased the significance of the GGCs in folk culture. Even with some aspects of folk festivals being organized and contrived, with the atmosphere often diverting arts away from everyday life and more towards performance, they still created a space for cultural exchange. The extent of the GGCs’ travels allowed them to learn more about the roots of their dancing and then share the art and stories with the interested public in several states and countries, which spawned a GGC diaspora. When the GGCs started teaching workshops at large festivals, they were the primary team to pass on older steps from people like Willard Watson and to inspire offshoot teams that did the same. After 1978, when they met Robert Dotson of Sugar Grove, NC (1994 NC Folk Heritage Award winner), they shared his Walking Step, which has become a primary perception of flatfooting and a widespread way to start learning flatfooting.
One way to gauge a tune’s folkness is whether authorship is known or whether it has passed through so many people that most of the people who know it can’t give a comprehensive history of it. In some ways, similar interruption of oral history has happened in the GGCs’ relatively short history. New dancers have always learned directly from experienced dancers, but after passing through several people over a couple of decades, the stories didn’t stay with the steps. Some of the stories expanded a little bit beyond reality, as they tend to do over time. More often, however, art and story disconnected over time, especially outside the group: while the steps disseminated and kept their names, their sources within Green Grass may have dropped away. For instance, people who know steps named for GGCs don’t always know where they came from. Another example is the portable dance boards called step-a-tunes that can be traced to a GGC named Wynn Dinnsen. He was tired of dancing in the mud while camping at Union Grove, so he made a dance board, and then he designed other dance boards at different depths to make different tones, with the idea that he could put them together and actually step out a tune. Today, the term step-a-tune is common, but the attachment to GGC history and the idea of different-toned boards isn’t always known.
With new efforts to tell GGC stories and capture them for public record, future dancers can understand the GGC contribution to dance communities in and beyond North Carolina. The question of the GGCs being “folk” has an element of irony. Despite some people questioning the degree to which they were traditional and to what extent they could be counted as folk artists, if they weren’t folk forty years ago, they are unquestionably folk now. The group faces questions about sustainability, as many folk groups do: new people must find it relevant, but it must be close enough to what came before it, or else it’s not a continuation—it’s something new, only distantly influenced by the old. Who the early GGCs were, what they did, how they learned, where they were from, and why they became popular countered the stories of many competitive clogging teams, yet the GGCs have persisted beyond ones who questioned the GGCs’ credentials of folk and tradition. By being different from the norm at the time they began, they have preserved older steps that have dropped out of today’s contemporary clogging, contributed new steps to the dance world, and more than forty years on, they are a significant element of community traditions in NC folklife.
Leanne E. Smith is Assistant Editor of the North Carolina Folklore Journal, and an active member of the Green Grass Cloggers.
Original publication citation:
Smith, Leanne E. “Green Grass Cloggers: Folk Dance Group.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 59.2 (Fall-Winter 2012): 26-35.