Susan White

        I’ve faked a lot of things in my life—knowledge, orgasms, heterosexuality, fidelity, interest—and the pretense has felt like swallowing dry leaves. But there is one thing I have derived nothing but joy from faking: clogging.
        My fast feet scuff, scoot, and stomp to the hillbilly downbeat. My upper body bounces; my chest burns. The back of my hair damp, I tap my toe forward then backward and strike with my full foot, alternate feet, again and again. And turn, lift up a leg, rotate my swinging foot, and stomp. My arms are bent and waist-high, away from my sides—as if icy waves smack my belly. I touch a heel with my opposite hand. Double-step to the beats in double-time, yanking my hamstrings, all the time picturing the strong-legged, gingham-clad, grinning men and women I’ve seen at fairs and on flatbed trucks in parades. And I’m off—free styling—stutter-scooting on one foot diagonally. Back to double-stepping to regain balance. Knees higher and higher, I fairly skip in place, arms doing tricks with an invisible jump rope. I swear to God, my legs move independently of my brain. Then the wind-down: toe, toe, heel, rock-back, toe, toe, heel. My feet slap the barroom floor to the final beats of the song. I walk back to my table of friends, watching their mouths move, but hearing nothing over my blood pumping from my heart to my head.
        You have to understand, I approach all other forms of dancing as I do my annual pap smear: cringing at my exposure, positive that I am disgusting. I feel sorry for anyone inspecting me. I can’t help but see most dancing as a means for flaunting sex appeal. I have never been able to dress or act the part of sexy. Not even on Halloween. While my friends dressed as sexy witches or Madonna, I was a green, pot-bellied Grinch or a hulking gorilla. Clogging—at least my style of clogging—is not about grace or seduction. It’s about enthusiasm and stamina.
        Two times I have had to dance for an audience: Roanoke College’s Sesquicentennial Ball and my wedding. My college friend Steph was in charge of finding dancers to represent the fifteen decades between the founding of the college in the 1840s and the 1990s. The student government, of which Steph was a part, had decided representatives from every sorority and fraternity—as well as one independent student—should perform in this Dance of the Decades. I, of course, was an independent. Someone who cannot dance, flirt, coordinate clothing, apply eye make-up, or use the word darling sincerely has no business being in a sorority. I was one of the few independents Steph knew well, and I owed her a huge favor.
        She had recently spent three straight evenings teaching me the martial arts katas, detailed choreographed patterns, I had failed to learn in my self-defense class. I had to pass this exam in order to earn my P.E. credit so that I could, in fact, graduate. My instructor, a small but fierce man who wore a gray gi and his hair in a buzz cut, was eager to fail me after my sophomoric presentation to the class. He had asked me to demonstrate a kata we were supposed to have practiced, but I announced I would perform my own kata: “The Welcome Back Kotta.” He glared at me, arms crossed, as I did an outlandish routine of beckoning, punching, making ooh-ooh sounds, grabbing my butt, and hopping.
        Since Steph had prepared me to pass the examination, which surprised the hell out of my instructor, whom I affectionately called Little Gray Donkey, I agreed to be a member of the Roanoke College Sesquicentennial Ballroom Dancers. Originally, I was assigned the tango, but Steph lusted after the tango guy, so I agreed to swap decades with her. I inherited a pink dress that buttoned half-way up my neck, which Steph’s mom had made for some other odd occasion. The drama department lent me lace-up, black leather boots. My dance was the polka.
        I was paired with a preppy soccer player from Sigma Chi. Though Steph did her damnedest to teach me the steps and movements I couldn’t grasp during group rehearsals, I found the polka much more difficult than the basic katas. I had to walk over to Eric’s fraternity house a couple of times and force my unwilling partner to practice with me. Basically, the polka is a mix between waltzing and skipping, which was hard enough for me, but we had to keep turning, and the dance teacher had added these little flirtatious moves for us to “convey the playfulness of the dance.” Eric did little to hide the fact that he considered me a liability to his social standing.
        The evening of the ball, I ate dinner early and drank several vodka-juice concoctions. I put on my borrowed pink dress and boots and tried to polka with my roommate before walking over to the auditorium. The dress was long; the hem kept catching in the boots’ lace hooks. I couldn’t sew, nor did I have the time, so I turned the dress inside out, folded its end up a couple of inches as evenly as I could, and duct-taped the new “hem” all the way around.
        The dancers and I met on the stage of the auditorium an hour before the opening of the ball. Light bulbs lined the edge of the stage. A fancy Dance of the Decades banner was secured high above the stage. I was not buzzed. I was drunk. My hair was piled and sprayed with hanging tendrils, and I wore make-up, which my roommate had applied. Eric wore gloves, and his hair was slicked back. I remember his coat had tails. I stood next to him as we all waited to do our one and only dress rehearsal. The first decade dancers, Eric and I clasped hands, our other arm on each other’s shoulder, awaiting the music. On cue, we frolicked across the stage. I didn’t make a single mistake. Elated, I jumped off the stage in a dramatic show of triumph. The back of my dress caught four light bulbs on my way down. I landed on the floor right after the popping sound; shattered glass tinkled to the floor around my black boots. I turned to see the remaining decades peering down at me. There was no laughter. I heard someone say, “What an idiot.”
        The dance teacher squeezed her eyes shut and covered half her face with her hand. She sent me back on stage and ordered tech crew members to sweep up the detritus. The dress rehearsal continued—beginning with the next decade.
         Though my partner was now more disgusted with me than ever, our performance actually went pretty well. We cavorted around the stage—1,2,3; 1,2,3; 1,2,3—turning three times. I messed up a little when I trotted around him, my hand on his shoulder. And my steps got off on our final turn, but Eric kept me steady.
        As a thank you for our participation, we each received a little note and a photograph. In my picture, Eric bows and I curtsy on the edge of the stage. I hold the sides of my pink dress up—as instructed. A strip of duct tape shines along its edge. And there’s a gap in the light lining the stage beneath my boots.
        I went to Roanoke College because I didn’t take the time to apply to many colleges, and my SAT scores were not much higher than those of peers from different countries; therefore, I didn’t have many options. I could go to Roanoke for free, and I was happy enough to go because I liked Virginia. I thought I would play soccer there—but I got cut from the team, which meant numerous awkward conversations with people from my high school, where my soccer jersey had been retired. It turns out the college is a mecca for excellent New England lacrosse and soccer players who could not get into Ivy League schools. I had little in common with these folk who were crisp in speech and dress. (I knew of only one other student from Tennessee.) Most of them had plenty of money. Even my close friends seemed annoyed that I forwent so many of their dinner outings, sticking to my cafeteria plan.
        My best memory of those four years is of a party in the basement of Kappa Alpha. Normally, I would find a chair and stay there, watching others dance in front of the band, but this was a bluegrass band. This was a novelty for most everyone there, but, for me, it was the sound of home.
        Because I had filled my plastic red cup too many times with the faint, foaming beer from the kegs, I got to shuffling my feet on the cement floor. My friend Margaret said, “Watch out. This Tennessee girl is going to teach us how to dance to this kind of music.”
        And with that declaration, my feet were off and tapping. People formed a circle around me and clapped with the beat. The more they cheered, the harder I performed. My clogging said, “Bluegrass is in my blood and my blood controls my legs, arms, and heart. I am a force to be reckoned with.” I rode that fast fiddle and plinking banjo all the way to the final guitar strum—ending with my arms out and my head thrust back. For the rest of the party, people introduced themselves, brought me drinks, and high-fived me. When a curly-headed guy from New Jersey asked me how long I’d been clogging, I answered in an exaggerated Tennessee twang. “When I was inside my mama, I didn’t kick her stomach. I clogged on it.” New Jersey boy had no idea this evening was actually the birth of my clogging.
        My last year in college, I was dating my buddy who lived and taught in Tennessee. I graduated and we worked at a summer school together. Because we wanted to live together without offending my mother, we got engaged. Within a year, we were planning our Tennessee wedding. We let my mom tend to all the details except the reception. We planned for the reception to be outdoors—on a grassy hillside. The hors d'oeuvres and cake would be on tables beneath a tent. And, much to my mother-in-law’s horror, we would have kegs of beer. We were more excited about the band we hired than putting rings on each other’s fingers. The Good Ol’ Boys would play for two hours—on a somewhat flat area where people could dance.
        A few weeks before the wedding, it occurred to Craig and me that we would be expected to dance in front of all our close friends and family members. Craig was even more self-conscious about dancing than I. He could hardly look a stranger in the eye or tell a good friend a joke. We were in trouble. My mother suggested we learn the two-step.
        We bought a videotape of a woman with short, red hair, wearing a dress and cowboy boots, demonstrating the two-step with a young, dimpled guy. We tried to follow along in the living room of our apartment. Craig was stiff, and I was spastic. We just couldn’t get the rhythm, no matter how many times we rewound the redhead. Since we were lousy and undisciplined, we spent our free time chasing each other down single-track trails on our mountain bikes and painting colorful, intricate designs on the headboard of our bed.
        Craig and I greeted everyone at the reception, and I ate little ham sandwiches and deviled eggs until the stand-up bass player for The Good Ol’ Boys signaled to me that they were ready to play.
        Craig and I clasped hands. We muttered, “quick-quick-sloow—sloow” as he tried to guide me backward. We weren’t so much dancing as stumbling and trying to keep each other from falling down. The song was way too long for us to subject our guests to our miss-stepping, so I let go of Craig’s hand, kicked off my heels—exposing a Band-Aid on my big toe—and clogged. Craig slipped into the crowd as my mom’s rowdiest friend, Heidi Simmons, joined me. My favorite wedding picture is of Heidi and me laughing, our dresses lifted above our frantic, bare feet.
        During our honeymoon, Craig came back from an Exxon station with a gift for me: a blue foam and mesh cap with a white print of a woman clogger above the bill. The caption read, “Clogging Fever Is Contagious.”
        Craig and I never got the hang of dancing together. Only once were we complimented. We walked back to our towels on the beach, and an elderly woman told us she enjoyed watching us dance. She asked if it was a tribal dance. At first we were perplexed; we certainly hadn’t been dancing by the ocean. Then it dawned on me: we had been hacky-sacking. She hadn’t seen the tiny ball, just our arms and legs moving to keep it in the air.
        Before too long, Craig and I admitted we were not suitable partners. His rigidity and my crazy moves caused way too much stumbling.
        I moved to Asheville, North Carolina, which I now know is where team clogging originated in the United States, in 1928. I fell for a woman who loved my crazy outbursts. But within a year, she tired of me. For two years, I could not muster the clogging spirit.
        It took my college friends, all four of them, to unclog my clogging. We rented a cabin outside of Asheville. One night we ate in downtown Asheville, then walked to a club to hear The Blue Rags. The woman who had busted up my life sat on a high stool behind a round table by her new girlfriend. She called me over and informed me she and her partner had just bought a house.
        My friend Kim pulled me away from this person who had wounded me, saying, “We want to see you clog.”
        I let loose. My moves got faster and trickier, and I sweated my ex away like an illness.
        Throughout the years, I have often felt compelled to clog. My friends who moved to Asheville from Boston love it when I get the clogging look in my eyes. Recently when I hung out with them at a pub, I clogged to the live band so hard and long, I nearly passed out. I slapped my feet, scooted, skipped, and whirled up and down the narrow aisle as my friends hooted and hollered. The band stretched the song out, and I felt obliged to make it to the end.
        Clogging is not for the feeble. When the band finally pinched the song off, I weaved my way back to our booth, wheezing and coughing. I couldn’t stop coughing long enough to drink the beer a man had delivered to me.
        A twenty-something waif with short, straight bangs and sparkle eye make-up, who had brought her colorful hula hoop with her, squatted next to me—introduced herself as I struggled to clear my throat. “Are you a professional clogger?” she asked.
        I joked, “No, I’m a charlatan.”
        “I’m from Charlotte, too!” she said so warmly I didn’t correct her.
        And so my hint of uncertainty evaporated.
        My current partner, Roxanne, is an excellent, sexy dancer. I have spent many evenings during our eight-year relationship sitting on a barstool, sipping a beer, willing the men and women she dances with not to steal her from me. I have failed miserably the few times I have tried to salsa or swing dance with her. I suffer a spatial disability. The reason I throw a Frisbee with my left hand, even though I’m right-handed, is that my older brother stood across from me when I was little, teaching me how to throw. The concept of mirror image is lost on me. But Roxanne has witnessed my independent clogging numerous times, and she has proclaimed these as my only true, unrestricted moments of joyous expression in public.
        Eight weeks ago, she signed us up for beginner clogging lessons at The Old Home Place. I balked at “beginner” but didn’t question this label aloud.
        “I’m not wearing a heinous square dance dress and white leather shoes,” I said.
        And then she told me something that blew my mind. “This clogging company clogs in Converse All Stars with taps, which the instructor’s husband fastens to them. And they wear jeans and T-shirts.”
        At The Old Home Place, a renovated barn in Mills River, I wore my new, burgundy, low-top All Stars and was thrilled by the sound of nine cloggers’ metal taps against hard wood, but I had to ignore instinct and focus on learning technique. It took several lessons and lots of practice to perform the basic step with musical precision: toe-brush-up, toe-brush-back, step, rock-back-on-other-foot, step. But once I had it down, my feet took pretty naturally to the rocking chair, fancy-double, charleston, outhouse, fontana, turkey, cowboy, samantha, donkey, pothole, joey, and high horse.
        We matched these steps to specific songs, and my instinct caught up with my brain. My movement felt natural, and Melissa, our friendly, middle-aged instructor with shoulder-length brown hair, noticed. She said, “Good job on that song. I even saw some big clogging,” and winked at me.

        Roxanne and I have a CD player propped on top of our plastic dog food bin in the kitchen. Between work and meals, Roxanne and I will put on our All Star clogs, push play on the CD player. We stand side-by-side on our kitchen floor, nodding our heads at the thirty-two-beat intro of “Banjo Fantasy” (bending our knees in time to the five final beats), then we clog until the metal mixing bowls on top of the refrigerator rattle and our dogs come in the room to watch, heads tilted and tails wagging. Our elbows touch on the turns. We perform the final steps, two triples, and end perfectly in sync on our strong foot.

“Crazy Legs” was published in the 2014 edition of The Labletter.

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