Flatfoot Dancing: Too Much Fun?

Flatfoot dancing
A flatfoot dancer competes at the 2012 Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, VA.
Photo by Eli Christman

Bluegrass music and flatfoot dancing go together like bread and butter. Go to any event with live bluegrass music, and someone will set up a dancing platform or throw a piece of plywood on the ground and start flatfooting.

Flatfooting, also known as clogging, foot-stomping, or buck-dancing, consists of dancing alone or in groups to up-tempo music, using enthusiastic footwork to emphasize the downbeat of the music. Flatfooting doesn’t have the shuffling, hopping motions found in most Irish clogging steps. Flatfooting steps are performed by sliding the feet rather than hopping and kicking. There are very few formal steps in flatfooting; dancers follow the beat of the music and “ad-lib” or freestyle their movements.

Mountain Dance, Not Riverdance

Flatfooting has its roots in traditional European folk dancing. It was initially called “clogging” because the dancers wore wooden clogs when they danced. The clogs emphasized the rhythm of the music by striking the heel, the toe, or both against the floor or each other to create a percussive effect. Wooden clogs are rarely used anymore since most folks don’t own a pair of clogs.

The early Scots-Irish immigrants who settled in the Appalachian Mountains brought their jigs and clogging traditions. Over time, the steps changed, and the dance became known as flatfooting.

Today, there are many variations in the footwear. Leather-topped shoes with a one-piece wooden bottom or separate wooden pieces on the heel and toe called “flats” are sometimes used (the terms “heel and toe” and “flat footing” derive from this type of footwear). Of course, at a bluegrass concert, no one cares what shoes they wear; they get up and dance.

Flatfooting competitions are commonplace at Bluegrass festivals. Here’s a clip of Martha Spencer and Ivy Phillips flatfooting at the Blue Ridge Music Center on June 15, 2018. The tune “Golden Slippers” is performed by winners of the prestigious “Best All Around Performer” award from the Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention. Flatfooting starts at 1:28 on the video.

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