Elliott Skeen sighs and looks in the direction of his pasture where a collection of Black Angus graze. His gaze doesn’t settle on these ranks of bored cows. Instead, Skeen searches the trees beyond as if an answer will emerge from the wood’s shadow. He’s trying to think of a time when one particular dance stands out from the rest; a single dance that he will never forget.
“There’s not really one time,” he decides before listing off all the places that he’s been invited to dance: The Ryman; the United States Capitol; opening ceremonies for the 1987 U.S. Olympics Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the Charlie Daniels Band accompanied the dancers; the 1986 Folklife Festival held at the World’s Fair Grounds in Knoxville, Tennessee; Opryland; two North Carolina basketball coliseums. He goes through the list like he’s recalling chores he did on his farm over the course of a single afternoon. How could there be only one unforgettable dance when there have been so many?
In his bib-overalls and work shoes, it might be difficult to locate the man who holds scores of awards and grand champion titles in clogging and square dancing. But every dancer knows that half the dance is remembering the form and steps. When it comes to remembering these things, Skeen remains a master dancer, and his square dance calling skills are in demand.
Mr. Skeen isn’t the only member of his household who holds a dance claim-to-fame. His wife, Cheryl, is also a champion clogger and flat-footer who has held several grand-champion titles over the course of her own sterling career. Today, the Skeens teach dance and lead activities for their dance team, the Hickory Flat Hoedowners, and both serve leadership roles with America’s Clogging Hall of Fame.
I met Elliott Skeen at the Old Fiddlers Convention in Galax, Virginia, when his team was performing on the main stage. I was curious about the Hickory Flat Hoedowners because they’re one of only a handful left who do traditional-style square dancing in the United States. I wanted to learn more about the team and to hear about Skeen’s career – the legends who taught him dance and what he hopes for future Americans who take up this tradition.
To understand just how remarkable clogging and square dance are in the history of dance, it’s important for readers to look at a wider context of music-with-dance and not depreciate clogging/square dance as a caricature.
Because most Americans no longer reside in rural communities and have been separated from an authentic connection to the richness and diversity coming from rural cultures, many readers might make a mistake and associate clogging and square dance with a commercialized or stereotyped distortion which was spoonfed to Americans’ TV sets during the latter decades of the 20th Century. Programs like Hee Haw or Lawrence Welk were light-hearted entertainment but they minimized and made fun of our rural heritage in music and in dance.
Consider, instead, that clogging and square dance join other living traditions where music-with-dance are meant to be together. In the case of clogging and square dance, these forms are aligned with old-time string, bluegrass, and country music. Other examples of music-with-dance blending include Flamenco, Indigenous dances, and American Hip-Hop.
Clogging and square dance are similar to these styles because of a distinct kinship between music and dance. Recognize, for instance, Spain’s history with Flamenco whose form holds space for dialogue between musician and dancer. Many Indigenous dances are group dances where music and dance combine to tell a story or deliver prayer: the Hopi Butterfly Dance is an example of this music-with-dance blend – Gloria Lomahaftewa writes of the Butterfly Dance, “… young people learn all thirty-two songs that will be danced during the two days, along with each song’s movements”.
Unique to some of these music-with-dance styles are experiences of one-up-manship where individual dancers, or a couple, have a chance to strut their stuff in front of a circle of dancers. Stepping out with trademark moves or intricate footwork during a group dance is an invitation for encouragement. Your teammates are here to support you while you show off. Whether inside a ring of dancers circling a campfire or inside lines of dancers cheering for you, each member of the group will have a chance to shine. This is truly special because it is a thread of community that connects us to our ancient cultures; when we are spurred by music to dance together, we’re in an earlier form of fellowship.
I had the privilege to be invited to the Hickory Flat Hoedowners team practice at Elliott and Cheryl’s farm in North Carolina. When I was there, I sat down with Elliott to talk about his history with clogging and square dancing.
Mr. Skeen and I discussed some of the challenges facing the dance form which threaten the tradition. He points out how there’s a renaissance occurring in old-time string music and bluegrass but that the dance traditions which accompany the music aren’t catching on among younger generations.
We talked about cultural shifts in America where traditional square dance – a style where boys and girls dance as partners – is in decline, in part, because boys are not encouraged to dance. Mr. Skeen and I agreed that the 1970s and ’80s were years when activities like sports, music, theater, and dance were not segregated exclusively by gender but that there has been a recent shift in American culture where some forms of activities are not viewed as “masculine” enough for boys to participate anymore.
As the mother of a son, myself, I’ve been keenly aware of families where pressures on boys are unbearable to witness – especially in the behavior of parents during sporting events. Families who withhold sons from their interests in the arts could consider that this denial of access to things like dance is not part of our history. In fact, as we learn from Elliott Skeen, men play a primary role in our history with dance.
My interview with Mr. Skeen follows below. Be well, country. And be in touch…
Sara June: Tell me how you started out in clogging.
Elliott Skeen: Actually, that’s the funny story. I went with my daddy over here to a community that’s called New Hope and a guy there named Russell Frye always had a big wagon train twice a year – one in the spring and one in the fall – it’s where people come in with wagons, horses, and buggies and drive for 20 miles and camp. At Russell Frye’s… I was maybe four or five years old [at the time]… he always had a bluegrass band on Friday night [on the wagon train] and I was getting up there trying to mimic the adults that were buck dancing and clogging. After the wagon train, my mama found out they had a clogging team in town at the American Legion building and I ended up learning the basic steps from our neighbor, Judy Snyder.
SJ: What kept you motivated to stay with clogging since you were 5-years-old?
ES: I just enjoyed it. I never was one to play sports – I played a little baseball – but I just enjoyed the dancing a whole lot better. And then I learned to play fiddle and then a little bit of mandolin. And then I played bass sometimes. I remember the first time I ever played bass, we were live on the radio at WPAQ in Mount Airy at a schoolhouse.
[Skeen laughs at the memory of playing bass for the first time in his life on a live radio broadcast]
They were having a fundraiser to help a family. A friend of mine said they needed bands to play 20-minute sets for the broadcast. Well, we get up there to Mt. Airy and the bass player had the flu and couldn’t play. Our group had three fiddle players and I was the youngest of them so I was put on bass. I watched our guitar player – Bruce Mosely – play guitar chords during the set so I would know where to pick the bass! That was my first time ever playing bass – live on the radio! After that, I was like, ‘I do like this’ (playing bass). It took me a month or two and I found a 1968 Kay for sale – I was probably about 13 or 14 years old – and I took some of my cow money – I sold some cows – and bought a bass.
SJ: Speaking of the radio, do you think that radio played a role in keeping alive traditions in clogging and square dance?
ES: I would say so. Especially in that time period (1960’s, 70’s, 80’s) because the big name station at that time in this area was WTQR 104 in Winston-Salem. If I remember right they had Cindy Balcom on Saturday nights with two or three hours of pure bluegrass. Another one was a radio station in Statesville. WFMX. One of the DJs is still alive – I think his name is Bobby Franklin – Bobby’s daughter is Crystal and she’s the banjo picker for Sweet Potato Pie. Anyway, WFMX still played bluegrass mixed in with country music of the day. I’ll tell you how long ago this was – you’ll love this – [Skeen chuckles] I remember every night when I went to bed, WFMX went off the air at 11 o’clock and the closing song was a tune called Yellow Rock. After broadcasting that tune every night for years and years, I can hardly ever find anybody who even knows that song today!
SJ: When you think back over your lifetime commitment to this tradition of clogging and square dance, who were the people who inspired you?
ES: Bill Nichols, Bob Johnson, and Garland Steele. Those folks influenced my knowledge of the Southern Appalachian Mountain style, Country Hoedown style, and Kentucky Running Set style square dance forms. Some of the footwork [I learned from] a local guy here. I got a lot of my unusual, rubber-legging footwork style from a guy here named Glenn Nance. He was a big influence in my style of clogging which nobody else did. Kentucky Running Set and Country Hoedown styles are four-couple dance forms in square sets but the Southern Appalachian – freestyle square dancing – is eight couples. Garland Steele was versed on the Kentucky Running Set dance form; Bill Nichols was really strong on the Southern Appalachian and Country Hoedown dance forms; and Bob Johnson was really knowledgeable on [all of them]. Bill Nichols was a clogging instructor and he is considered – to this day – the grandfather of clogging. Bill Nichols and Garland Steele worked for a couple of years putting together what was called the Encyclopedias of Southern Appalachian Square Dancing. Bill’s daughter, Simone, has just made them available [again] in print. They (Nichols, Johnson, and Steele) always did a very good job of teaching you and stressing the proper way to do the dance form so the dance form wouldn’t be forgotten. You know, there are very few traditional teams left anymore; so our team here, with about 4-5 others, is all that’s left of the traditional style dancers.
SJ: Tell me about your personal style – rubber legging – that was heavily influenced by Glenn Nance.
ES: In the 70’s and 80’s, there were three or four different square dances every Saturday night around here. It was pretty popular back then and Glenn was always at the one over here at Farmer – a little community called Farmer. One of my neighbors went to the Farmer square dance every Saturday, so he’d stop and pick me up and I got to watching Glenn Nance dance. Glenn had never had lessons. And everybody just loved to watch Glenn dance. So I started watching him and I’d get out on the floor to pick up and learn his steps. It took me quite a few years but I finally mastered his style and then I took it a little further. You know, he did all kinds of flanges – what’s called flanges – and ankle rolls and the clogging world finally deemed it “rubber-legging”. The style looks like you have no joints or bones in your feet.
SJ: What do you think needs to happen to keep the tradition of clogging and square dance going?
ES: I really don’t know. We just can’t seem to put our finger on [ways] to generate that excitement in the younger generation. There are so many young people now playing old-time string music and bluegrass music. How do we get the younger generation interested in the dancing? That’s where we struggle.
Before Bill Nichols passed away (he was asked), “What do you want them to remember about you?” He said, “I just want (them) to remember that if they were willing to learn, I was willing to teach them.” I soaked that in because with Bill gone now and Bob gone and Garland in his 90s there’s very few of us left to pass the knowledge. We sure don’t want it (clogging and square dance tradition) to die.
Elliott Skeen started the Hickory Flat Hoedowners team in 1985. Today, Elliott and Cheryl accept students of all ages and all levels and they hope that their school will help preserve the Appalachian dance tradition.
Elliott Skeen is the President of America’s Clogging Hall of Fame (ACHF) and Cheryl Skeen is ACHF Executive Administrator providing guidance for the organization’s leadership.