So what does African-American stepping have to do with Appalachian clogging? Last year Ann Carter set out to prove that her clogging group, the Wild Goose Chase Cloggers, could groove with an African-American step team.
Carter is white, and she’s worked in urban schools for over five years. Somehow she got the idea that the old-time percussive dance she loves could fit together with a percussive form of African-American line dancing that grew out of the formation of historic black colleges nearly 100 years ago.
Appalachian Clogging Meets African American Stepping: Performance at the Southern Theater on December 15 at 8 PM. For tickets ($18), call (612) 340-1725 or see southerntheater.org.
Last December Carter and the Wild Goose Chase Cloggers—or the Geese, as they call themselves—put a on a stepping/clogging show at a Minneapolis middle school. “I had African American parents come up to me and say we pulled it off,” Carter says. She says they told her, “When I heard what you were trying to do, I thought you were crazy.” This year they are about to do it again as part of a rhythm showcase called HIT IT! at the Southern Theater. But for the Geese, making the show happen wasn’t easy.
Clogging comes from Appalachia, where it’s sometimes called buck dancing or flatfooting. Cloggers percussively tap their shoes with metal plates, and play off the rhythm of an old-time string band with banjo, fiddle, guitar and upright bass. The movements are intricate and fast.
Stepping traces its roots to early fraternities and sororities at historically black colleges in the South. Steppers dance by stomping their feet and slapping their bodies rhythmically with their hands. Stepping is funky: it integrates a hip-hop sensibility with a syncopated musical tradition that some say reaches back to Africa. In the South, steppers dance for half-time shows at football games; fraternities and sororities hold competitions.
A night combining clogging and stepping sounds like it could work—dance is dance, movement is movement, rhythm is rhythm—but even thirty years after the Civil Rights Movement, the races don’t always socialize easily in Minnesota. Black and white people often don’t frequent the same bars, live in the same neighborhoods, or worship together on Sunday.
So Carter needed help. Her Irish white skin, striking red hair, and perfect diction make it hard for her to argue that she understands blackness. Carter and an African-American friend had already talked to a black fraternity, who said they would do the show, but the educator in her wanted to get a high school step team on board too. “We wanted to have kids as part of dialogue, and have them experience the ‘stepping out’ into someone else’s world,” Carter says.
Finding Phyllis Braxton was a stroke of luck. Braxton coaches the DeLaSouljah Steppers at De La Salle High School in Minneapolis. Braxton is black, and she works in private schools as a diversity consultant. She grew up in a tiny segregated town in Mississippi and came to the University of Minnesota for graduate school thirteen years ago. Like Carter, she’s slim and athletic. Her hair is short, and she wears pink high heel boots with her pant legs rolled up.
Braxton has thought a lot about racism and how stereotypes persist. When a white person comes to the black community wanting to form some sort of partnership, she says, often times black people are suspicious. “Do they want to see us perform like show monkeys, or are they coming to really see what we have to offer?”
Braxton says that’s a defensive, protective reaction. However, her work is about taking chances. Her steppers, ages fourteen and up, are interacting with white people in a positive way, she says. “When they become adults, they will have a different image of square dancing or clogging.” The performances are fun for them, she says, but they are talking about “that grey-haired white man” that’s trying to dance with them. “I hope what’s happening,” she says, “is rebuilding their image of whiteness, and it’s breaking the cycle of what whiteness means.” For some students, that has meant feeling inferior, left out, or less important.
On Sunday the Geese, the Xi Chapter Hop Team, the DeLaSouljahs, and RDM—a local hip-hop artist—ran through a dress rehearsal. The Xi Chapter Hop team is striking. The team consists of four young men, dressed in t-shirts and baggy fatigues or jeans. Two of the men wear gold painted boots. Their fraternity was started by African-American military men, and their dances weave formation drills and old hymns into a cohesive form. The men swing their arms above their heads, clap their hands, and chant.
The Geese, mostly in their thirties, are getting their steps down with tutelage from the DeLaSouljahs. The show goes from string band music to hip-hop beats, and from chanting to a short square dance. The kids for De La Salle are digging the square dance—the one part of the show that all the groups perform together.
Braxton, the DeLaSalle coach, says it’s not just about the dancers getting together: it’s about sitting next to the parents of someone of a different race or tradition. “They might say during the break, ‘Do you have someone performing? Let me point them out to you.’”
Joel Grostephan is a reporter based in St. Paul. His work is regularly aired on KFAI Radio and in The Environment Report (based in Ann Arbor, Michigan). He’s always looking for a good story about class, race or poverty. Contact him at email@example.com.