Cloggers Tap Underserved Market

Made in America, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on January 14, 2001

As a clogger, Carl Blanton has learned to think on his feet in more ways than one.

When he started clogging in the early 70s, the metal taps on the toes and heels of his shoes tended to break from the force of his enthusiastic step-dancing. So before an out-of-town performance, he packed a box full of extra taps and retrieved them when he suffered the cobblers equivalent of a flat tire. Other dancers noticed his stash, and before the show was over, he had sold six of the metal plates. He and his wife, Patsy, realized they had (ahem) tapped into an under-served market.

That night the idea came to us that we could pay the gas and motel bills of our clogging trips just by selling taps, he says. So we bought more taps and more taps until the store suggested we order them wholesale.

The Blantons, who both worked for the DuPont Co. in Aiken, S.C., at the time, ordered eight dozen taps and 12 pairs of shoes to launch their sideline in 1974. Soon, they were filling orders at night, and their project grew into Carls Clogging Supplies, a down-home but bustling operation that now manufactures 10,000 pairs of clogging shoes a year, shipping them to 50 states and eight countries and garnering 40 percent of the national clogging market.

It was a hobby that really got out of hand, Carl, 62, says over the din of his assembly line in Salem, S.C., (pop. 200).

Carls Clogging continues to expand in colorful ways as the couple prepare to move their machinery and seven employees into a bigger building on their nearby farm. The clogging shoes and boots come in a rainbow of hues, including amethyst, fuchsia, and silver to match flashy clogging team uniforms. The company also sells related accessories such as T-shirts and instructional books and videos.

Except for the artificial outsole, the shoes are handmade from leather by employees who craft the tops of the shoes first, then carry them by hand to each machine until finished. Recalling lessons from earlier in his clogging career, Carl reinforces the heel with extra cowhide, and his steel taps dont break.

What makes their product special is that its made by somebody who understands what cloggers need, not by some manufacturer whos never even seen the dance, says Bill Nichols, co-author of The Encyclopedia of Traditional Appalachian Square Dancing.

Clogging, which draws its name from a Gaelic word meaning time, evolved in Appalachia as a compendium of Irish and Scottish jigs, English pub-dancing, African American buck dancing, and a stomp contributed by Native Americans, all done staccato-style to the downbeat of mountain music. For generations, it was a folk dance of individualistic expression, learned through mimicry rather than formal training.

Its a freedom dance, says Patsy, 58. No one person invented it, so nobody can tell you youre doing it right or wrong, as long as you learn the basic step. True clogging is about doing your own thing and having fun with it.

The peppery spirit of clogging appealed to the Blantons during their upbringing in the Carolinas, so they sought instruction from Nichols, who had begun to codify the dance and develop its double-step-rock-step terminology.

The Blantons soon became sure-footed godparents to the calico-and-crinoline crowd. They organized the Clogging Rebels, a team of 26 couples, who, for about 15 years, clogged here, there, and yonder, Patsy says, meaning venues across the Southeast such as a frog jump festival, a bear wrestling arena, and a stage set for then-First Lady Barbara Bush.

The Blantons have not clogged on a team for two years, but they help other dancers get off on the right foot with sturdy, comfortable shoes. And they endow Carls Cup of Clogging, a waist-high trophy with a prize of about $2,000 for winners of dance-offs sponsored by Clogging Champions of America.

When Carl and Patsy started, the clogging world was not as organized as it is today, Nichols says. What theyve done grew out of a necessity.