David Foster Wallace on the Clogging Competition at the Illinois State Fair in 1994
I’m on a teetery stool watching the Prairie State Cloggers Competition in a Twilight Ballroom that’s packed with ag-folks and well over 100°. An hour ago I’d nipped in here to get a bottle of soda-pop on my way to the Truck and Tractor Pull. By now the Pull’s got to be nearly over, and in half an hour the big U.S.A.C. dirt-track auto race starts, which I’ve already reserved a ticket for. But I can’t tear myself away from the scene in here. This is far and away the funnest, most emotionally intense thing at the Fair. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest clogging venue.
I’d imagined goony Jed Clampett types in tattered hats and hobnail boots, a-stompin’ and a-whoopin’, etc. Clogging, Scotch-Irish in origin and the dance of choice in Appalachia, I guess did used to involve actual clogs and boots and slow stomps. But clogging has now miscegenated with square dancing and honky-tonk boogie to become a kind of intricately synchronized, absolutely kick-ass country tap dance.
There’s teams from Pekin, Leroy, Rantoul, Cairo, Morton. They each do three numbers. The music is up-tempo country or 4/4 dance-pop. Each team has anywhere from four to ten dancers. They’re 75% women. Few of the women are under 35, fewer still under 175 lbs. They’re country mothers, red-cheeked gals with bad dye jobs and big pretty legs. They wear Westernwear tops and midiskirts with multiple ruffled slips underneath; and every once in a while they’ll grab handfuls of cloth and flip the skirts up like cancan dancers. When they do this they either yip or whoop, as the spirit moves them. The men all have thinning hair and cheesy rural faces, and their skinny legs are rubberized blurs. The men’s Western shirts have piping on the chest and shoulders. The teams are all color-coordinated—blue and white, black and red. The white shoes all the dancers wear look like golf shoes with metal taps clamped on.
Their numbers are to everything from shitkicker Waylon and Tammy to Aretha, Miami Sound Machine, Neil Diamond’s “America.” The routines have some standard tap-dance moves—sweep, flare, chorus-line kicking. But it’s fast and sustained and choreographed down to the last wrist-flick. And square dancing’s genes can be seen in the upright, square-shouldered postures on the floor, a kind of florally enfolding tendency to the choreography, some of which features high-speed promenades. But it’s adrenaline-dancing, meth-paced and exhausting to watch because your own feet move; and it’s erotic in a way that makes MTV look lame. The cloggers’ feet are too fast to be seen, really, but they all tap out the exact same rhythm. A typical routine’s is something like: tatatatatatatatatatata. The variations around the basic rhythm are baroque. When they kick or spin, the two-beat absence of tap complexifies the pattern.
The audience is packed in right to the edge of the portable hardwood flooring. The teams are mostly married couples. The men are either rail-thin or have big hanging guts. A couple of the men are great fluid Astaire-like dancers, but mostly it’s the women who compel. The males have constant sunny smiles, but the women look orgasmic; they’re the really serious ones, transported. Their yips and whoops are involuntary, pure exclamation. They are arousing. The audience claps savvily on the backbeat and whoops when the women do. It’s almost all folks from the ag and livestock shows—the flannel shirts, khaki pants, seed caps, and freckles. The spectators are soaked in sweat and extremely happy. I think this is the ag-community’s Special Treat, a chance here to cut loose a little while their animals sleep in the heat. The psychic transactions between cloggers and crowd seem representative of the Fair as a whole: a culture talking to itself, presenting credentials for its own inspection. This is just a smaller and specialized rural Us—bean farmers and herbicide brokers and 4-H sponsors and people who drive pickup trucks because they really need them. They eat non-Fair food from insulated hampers and drink beer and pop and stomp in perfect time and put their hands on neighbors’ shoulders to shout in their ear while the cloggers twirl and fling sweat on the crowd.
There are no black people in the Twilight Ballroom. The looks on the younger ag-kids’ faces have this awakened astonished aspect, like they didn’t realize their own race could dance like this. Three married couples from Rantoul, wearing full Western bodysuits the color of raw coal, weave an incredible filigree of high-speed tap around Aretha’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” and there’s no hint of racial irony in the room; the song has been made these people’s own, emphatically. This ’90s version of clogging does have something sort of pugnaciously white about it, a kind of performative nose-thumbing at Jackson and Hammer. There’s an atmosphere in the room—not racist, but aggressively white. It’s hard to describe. The atmosphere’s the same at a lot of rural Midwest public events. It’s not like if a black person came in he’d be ill-treated; it’s more like it would just never occur to a black person to come in here.
I can barely hold the tablet to scribble journalistic impressions, the floor’s rumbling under so many boots and sneakers. The record player’s old-fashioned and the loudspeakers are shitty and it all sounds fantastic. Two little girls are playing jacks under the table I’m next to. Two of the dancing Rantoul wives are fat, but with great legs. Who could practice this kind of dancing as much as they must and stay fat? I think maybe rural Midwestern women are just congenitally big. But these people clogging get down. And they do it as a troupe, a collective, with none of the narcissistic look-at-me grandstanding of great dancers in rock clubs. They hold hands and whirl each other around and in and out, tapping like mad, their torsos upright and almost formal, as if only incidentally attached to the blur of legs below. It goes on and on. I’m rooted to my stool. Each team seems the best yet.
[Later, Wallace sees some other people dancing to the music of a pop rock group:]
A band called Captain Rat and the Blind Rivets is playing at the Lincoln Stage, and as the path’s mass goes by I can see dancers in there. They look jagged and arrhythmic and blank, bored in that hip young East-Coast-taught way, facing in instead of out, not touching their partners. The people not dancing don’t even look at them, and after the clogging the whole thing looks unspeakably lonely and numb.
Some modern (our era) cloggers: