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CLOG DANCE – a brief history

Clog dance (step-dancing in clogs) is a phenomenon that existed in the industrial regions of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, reaching its peak of popularity between 1870 and 1905. Performed by miners and other industrial labourers, it was often considered a sport as well as an art, and was associated with boxing contests, as it became traditional to compete for a ‘championship belt’. Clog dance competitions grew in popularity particularly after 1880, when Dan Leno became the first Clog Dancing Champion of the World. This contest, which took place at a Leeds music-hall, propelled clog dance onto the stage and encouraged many clog dancers to turn professional.

Competition clog steps were always danced to dotted hornpipe rhythms, and anything performed off the left leg had to be repeated off the right. Steps needed to be done on the spot, sometimes on a pedestal, and judges would give marks for beats, timing, execution, carriage and originality. Even though many clog dancers liked to perform to waltzes, jigs and popular songs, the ‘competition clog hornpipe’ was always considered the true test of a dancer’s worth.

The clog hornpipe can be traced back to at least 1819 but its roots may well be in Lancashire as a place of origin. Solo hornpipe dances became very popular in the early 18th century, when itinerant dance-masters taught steps and social dances to communities in all parts of Britain and Ireland. By the late 1700s, ‘hornpipe stepping’ was deemed very unfashionable by the wealthier educated classes and was consequently left to develop amongst ordinary working folk throughout the 19th century.

In rural areas like the Lake District, East Anglia and Devon, step-dancing continued into the 20th century; the Lakeland dance-masters teaching ‘hornpipe steps’ until about the 1920s. In the main, step-dancing in these areas was traditionally done in hard shoes rather than clogs but in the industrial towns and cities, it was the clog that revamped the old step-dance tradition, giving it a new degree of complexity. No more dance-masters and formal classes, clog dance skills were passed on by individuals in kitchens and back yards and became a way of earning fame and a few extra pennies.

By the early 20th century, clog dance had declined in popularity and could not compete with the glamour of tap-dance, newly imported from America. It was only after W War 2 that folk collectors finally recognised its worth as ‘traditional’ dance. Luckily, clog-dancers were still to be found in Lancashire, Durham, Tyneside, Yorkshire, West Cumbria and Southern Scotland, and this is the material that is still performed today.

Alex Fisher 20.10.03 (From Howling Dog website




This study provides an anthropological analysis of aspects of the English clog dance revival through ethnographic research. The research focuses on Jackie Toaduff (b.1933), a clog dancer from Stanley in County Durham who, after winning a local competition in 1949, was chosen by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) to perform at their nationwide festivals to promote English folk traditions. Toaduff’s success was criticised by Johnson Ellwood, an older dancer from the same area, who maintained that Toaduff’s dance style was ‘not traditional’, causing a dispute that spread into the local papers. By 1959 Toaduff had taken up dancing professionally, teaming up with an act that eventually took him singing and clog dancing on the QE2, leaving Ellwood’s ideas on traditionality to shape and influence the developing clog dance revival.

Analysis of these events and the perceptions of those involved is carried out using the theories of performance and communicative competence and, as a result, the notion of authenticity as a construct is debated, as is its effect on the author’s impressions of the contemporary clog dance revival movement. The conclusion, whilst recognising the authority of the ‘traditional’ performance style, registers its limitations in a changing world and favours the challenge of the ‘innovative’ performance, arguing for its claim as the ‘authentic’ version embodying the importance of individual expression within an oral tradition such as clog dance.

In addition to the above debate, this study provides background information on the development of clog dance as a tradition, particularly in County Durham. As well as a review and assessment of previous research, a theoretical analysis of the phenomenon of revival, taking into account nationalism and symbols of ethnic identity, feeds into a critique of the EFDSS and its influence on the English folk revival as a whole.


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