Buck and Big Circle Dancing in Appalachia
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For well into the 19th century, long after the birth of our nation, our people still looked to Europe for most of our culture. Fashions, language, music, laws and dance were all copied from those of the Old World, Americanized as they may have been, especially among the urbanized East. It would remain for those who moved on into the wilderness of the frontier to begin to create the beginnings of the native Anglo-American culture.
In New England, the contra dance, taken directly from its roots in England, was the dance of the people. It didn't take long for evolution to begin, as new lyrics were added to old songs, dance figures were given new names, new figures were created, and dance technique was adapted to rough frontier floors and heavy footwear. The dance is still with us and it still remains English in origin.
Further south, in Virginia and the Carolinas, the early settlers had laid claim to most or all of the profitable land, creating the "aristocracy" of the Old South very early on. The isolated valleys of the Great Smoky Mountains and other mountainous areas offered the only hope for those who came after. Mountains do not offer the same rich and tillable soil as do the coastal plains; those who settled there became not only isolated, but usually impoverished. Yet they came: Irish, Welsh, Scots, English and they stayed to pioneer the land and create their own culture, including their music and dance, to which each began to make its own contribution.
The Irish added their beloved step dance to the Scots' set dances, the Welsh and English added figures from their own country-dances. African slaves were not unknown, though not so much as in the plantations, and their presence and contributions enlivened and enriched the staid character of all. Out of this lively mix came what is essentially the first true American dance the Clog and Big Circle Dance.
The role of the "caller" would have originated here, necessary for the dance to proceed and a tradition that is an integral part of American square dance still. The Big Circle Dance is danced with a curious sliding gate with a slight "chug" backward and a sharp straightening of the knee. The frequency of inserting the clog step varies by region; in the Virginia/Carolina area, the clog is inserted "when the spirit moves you;" many figures are not appropriate to clogging. The more quiet gliding step allows the caller, who dances with the circle, to engage in "patter calls" that add both direction and mirth to the dance.
It is noted that in more southern areas of Georgia and Alabama, the dancers clog almost continuously, resulting in a much louder environment, limiting the caller to short names of figures, such as "Georgia Rang Tang," requiring that everyone knows what Georgia Rang Tang is.
As the name suggests, the dance is done in a circle of couples, eight couples being the ideal size and twelve couples almost the upper practical limit. There should be an even number of couples to accommodate the Small Circle figures. Beginning with the caller, couples are designated as "odd" or "even," but that is not determined until the Small Circle figures begin.
The woman is always on the man's right side. The woman on the man's right side is always his partner no matter who she is. Partners change frequently and that rule must always be followed. The woman on the man's left side is his corner no matter which woman she is. Obviously, the women's positions are reversed from the men's.
The normal structure of the Big Circle is Big Circle followed by Small Circles followed by a return to the Big Circle. The sequence of calls is left solely to the caller's discretion and imagination.
SOME BIG CIRCLE FIGURES
There are contless other figures for the Big Circle. These are only a few.
SOME SMALL CIRCLE FIGURES
This is the solo "Clog" dance, whether danced by a man or a woman. It is traditional for cloggers to bring their own "clogging board" to dances with them, a square piece of plywood roughly two to three feet on a side with a frame around the bottom to give it some clearance from the floor beneath. The device amplifies the sound of the clog step and dancers' reputations are based on the quality of their clog. Noted women cloggers dance with a delicate and precise style, each beat clear and crisp, feet close to the board. Men, on the other hand, will frequently display a mix of both precise, complex rhythms and powerful, arm-swinging, knee-lifting figures that threaten to destroy the board.
The "old fashioned" clog does not resemble the more modern style with short skirts and jingle taps. It is frequently referred to as "flatfoot clogging" and was danced with heavy work shoes. There are a number of different clogging styles and many cloggers have their own unique style that accents their strengths, personality and creativity. There is probably not a rhythm that has not beem exquisitely rendered on a severely beaten piece of plywood somewhere in the world of flatfoot clogging.
The "mountain people" of Appalachia have given America this, its first American-born dance form, predating Ragtime by decades and generations. The dance was created by the same mix of cultures that created America in the first place, a beautifully combined balance of community cooperation, complex coordination, individual expression and the joy of life.
SUGGESTED SEQUENCE OF FIGURES
The called figures in the Big Circle dance are at the whim of the caller and must be called in a logical sequence, meaning that each new figure must be "executable" from the previous call. Obviously, there are many options and the caller must make the decision for the new figure soon enough for the call to be made before the current figure is completed. There is no choreographed sequence; the following is a sample sequence only.
These calls are typical of the areas in Virginia and West Virginia. Generally, the Small Circle figures are introduced in the middle of the dance and the Big Circle figures are resumed. These are only a small sample of possible calls. Traditions north and south of there are likely different.
Big Circle Figures
All join hands, circle left
Roll away with a half-sashay; up to the middle and back that way
Swing your Corner; Promenade
The right hand high, the left hand low; wring out the dishrag, 'round you go
Ladies to the center, circle left; gents go right
Gents to the left, arms on top, circle right
Arms go up, gents duck under, circle left; go like thunder
Swing your partner; Promenade
Ladies in the lead, Indian style
All join hands, circle left
Ladies to the center, clog a while
Ladies back out, gents go in
Swing your partner
Small Circle Figures
Odd Gent out to the right; circle up four
Left hand star; Right hand star
Odd Gent out to the next; Circle up four
Swing your corner; Swing your own
Odd couple dip for the oyster; Even couple dive for the clam
Odd couple dive under to a four-leaf clover
Even couple do a Buffalo Loop
Odd Gent out to the left; Big Circle, circle left
The Appalachian Clog derives from the early Irish settlers in the Appalachian Mountains. There was considerable influence from the dance of the African slaves, adding a looseness of the upper body to the dance character. The dance is performed in heavy, low-topped shoes, allowing flexibility in the ankle. The knees should be kept soft with the legs turned out slightly.
NOTE: These are a sample of "old-fashioned" clog figures; there are countless variations.
Women dance with a delicate precision; the men's clog frequently becomes a powerful, thunderous display. The "Buck Dance" is a solo clog, whether danced by men or women. There are numerous regional variations of both the clog technique and terminology of figures. The technique described here was learned from Glenn Bannerman, a famous clogger and teacher from Richmond, Virginia.
Rhythm: Music is in 4/4 meter with a moderate tempo.
Used with permission of the author.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, December 2012/January 2013.