A History of Traditional English & American Step Dance

In the cold cotton weaving mills of Lancashire, England, the working men and women wore heavy wooden clog to keep their feet warm, dry and protected from the dangerous machinery. In order to keep warm, the workers started "clogging" or tapping their feet to the rhythmic beat of the music made by the looms. A style of step dancing evolved that allowed the dancers' hands to be loose and free for weaving, while their feet performed intricate patterns and rhythms.

Eventually this folk art form found its way to the London music hall stage in the 1800's, and to American Vaudeville in the 1900's: it was a forerunner of modern tap dancing. Along the way, the dance changed, as folk traditions do, and branched out in a variety of different communities to become several diverse styles still danced today. In the mining towns of England, the clogging was combined with a primitive sword dance done in small spaces in pubs, becoming eventually what we do now as rapper dancing: a tightly knit, fast-paced, intricate weaving of short swords and step dance.

Brought to the Appalachian mountains by early settlers, various forms of step dance (including Irish, English, and Scottish) mingled with the African slave drumming and local Indian rhythms. In the American melting pot, this combined with French quadrilles and English country dancing and became square dancing, contra dancing, and Appalachian clogging.

Videos of Morris, Sword, and Step Dancing are available at the Boston University Archive.

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