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Wednesday, 20 November 2013 00:00

Stepping to old-time rhythms in a Swain County gym

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art frBy Jacob Flannick • SMN Correspondent

After ending a series of lessons in which she learned the basic steps of clogging, Dee Decker did not want to stop dancing.

So she held out hope for another floor, eventually moving into a classroom in a vacant church in Bryson City a couple years ago. That is where she — along with a handful of others who regularly take clogging lessons — spent hours during the winter and summer months, stomping and twirling to the old-time folk rhythms of Appalachia.

 

“We were serious,” smiled Decker, 52, who led the lessons, which also involved square dancing. She noted that the space, owned by a local businesswoman who offered to lend it to the group, was without a heating or cooling system.

That enthusiasm has since carried over to a Swain County gymnasium, where Decker now is among dozens from in and around the county who have gathered over the past year to learn the kinds of dance routines that have long played out at street festivals and gatherings across the region.

The lessons, spanning eight to 12 weeks, are offered twice a week in Southwestern Community College’s Swain Center. They are part of a program, called “Moving in the Mountains,” run by the N.C. Cooperative Extension’s Swain office, for which Decker works as an agent. The office is among a number of art and educational programs housed at SCC’s Swain Center.

On a practical level, they are seen as a way to improve cardiovascular health and motor skills, with choreographed routines like square and line dances involving a certain hand-eye coordination. But the dances also are spirited, offering people in their grip a moment of release.

“Dancing, it just makes you feel good,” Decker said on a recent evening in the gymnasium, to which she regularly wheels a small shopping cart full she keeps in her office down the hallway that is full of clogging shoes for participants. “We want to see people do what they love to do.”

For Kerry Plemmons, 28, a certified public accountant at a Franklin tech company who has led the dance lessons over the past year, such an activity is essential.

Dancing since before she can remember — she learned to clog from her mother shortly after taking her first steps at age 2 — Plemmons has used her role to spread her enthusiasm for what has remained a major theme in her life, so “I can pass it down to other people, and they can love it as much as I do.”

The lessons have drawn a regular following, sometimes involving as many as 40 participants, their ages ranging from 4 to older than 70. Plemmons and others have sought to use social media and local news outlets as a way to spread word about what still is an important part of the culture of this region, where clogging and other folk dance groups abound.

“It’s a part of our heritage” Decker said, adding that the lessons are the only of their kind offered in Swain. She is among others involved in the class who sometimes are seen donning traditional red and white dresses while performing across the region at street festivals and other settings — such as nursing homes — as part of a folk dance group called the Tangled Feet Stompers.

For Chester and Mary Huckaby, who moved to the area from Florida a year ago, the lessons have helped renew their vigor.

They acknowledged that they might have lost a step over the years. But the couple, now in their mid-60s, regularly appears at the lessons on Tuesdays, which are open to all ages and skill levels, seeking to apply what they have learned elsewhere.

“I got tired of just watching,” Huckaby said after finishing a routine on a recent evening, referring to the dancing at festivals across the region that she and her husband now are more likely to join.

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