A blog sponsored by the Michigan State University Museum's Michigan Traditional Arts Program, a partnership with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Sharing news and information about the Great Lakes Folk Festival, Quilt Index, the MSU Museum's traditional arts activities, Great Lakes traditional artists and arts resources, and much more. Development of content for this blog supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"Fancy double, double-back brush up double-up ball slide and a basic..."

I hear them before I see them as I hustle out of the cold into the lobby of Collins Elementary School in Sterling Heights, Michigan: the calm, steady cueing of Shane Gruber's baritone accompanied by music and the shimmering sound of sixteen pairs of feet shod with jingling clogging shoes. I step into the bright cafetorium and am greeted by smiles and a hello from Shane as he continues to dance and cue the class. It's Thursday night and these dancers have gathered, as they always do September through May, to clog with Shane Gruber.

They call themselves the Shane Gang, a group of cloggers led by Shane Gruber who meet weekly on Wednesday and Thursday nights to dance, socialize, and share in movement and sound-making together. In 1998, Shane Gruber began leading the group, then called the Country Club Cloggers. Since then, the 'Gang has grown to a loose collective of over 50 dancers who participate in weekly class as well as performances and demonstrations in southeast Michigan. The night I visit the class, I count sixteen women and two men wearing a mix of black tap shoes with single taps, white shoes with double taps, and even tennis shoes with taps affixed to them. Gruber himself wears a two-tone pair of black and metallic sapphire oxford shoes with double taps (two plates of aluminum attached to enhance the percussive sound of his dancing). He also wears a wireless headset to cue the dances, which he selects from and iPad connected to a portable sound system.

Shane's clogging shoes, made by Carl's Clogging Supplies

To watch Shane dance is mesmeric. He moves with feet parallel, upper body relaxed, shifting weight with unobtrusive deftness as he articulates one and two sound rudiments in combination to form longer phrases of rhythm, punctuated by the sparkling timbre of his double-tapped shoes. Gruber's style uses gestural swings and kicks of his lower legs, his ankles never rising above his shins, to rhythmically inscribe lines of rhythm by contacting his shoes against the linoleum. He seems to float along the floor, looking so very, very at home while dancing.

Shane Gruber teaches clogging weekly in Sterling Heights, Michigan

In addition to his ease of movement and articulations, Gruber is also incredibly charming as he works. He seems to have a point of connection with every dancer in his class, calling each one by their first name and checking up on them playfully. It's lighthearted but there's an ethic of care in the way he facilitates this kind of community. Observing his warmth and generosity as a teacher, it's easy to understand why many dancers return to his Thursday night class every week, some for fifteen years. During my visit, I met dancers in their twenties who had been clogging with Shane weekly since they were twelve years old. These dancers execute steps like the "double-toe", "triple," and "scotty" next to other cloggers in their 80s. As I watched the class move through routine after routine, I was struck by the pervasive sense of enjoyment in the room. Several dancers never stopped smiling the entire evening, despite sweating through nearly ten 3-5 minute routines in the hour-long class I observed. They clogged to an eclectic variety of music including Mark Ronson's "Uptown Funk," DNCE's "Cake By the Ocean," and a bluegrass version of the gospel number "I'll Fly Away". Gruber shares with me that because this style of clogging is considered a social dance form, it is often executed to contemporary music that exists in popular consciousness. The dance form’s adaptability to many styles of music belies its flexibility and resilience. "It's the kind of dance where you can dance to MC Hammer one routine and then Bill Monroe the next," Gruber says.

Shane Gruber describes his dancing as influenced by line dancing. For him, clogging is a social dance that does not require a partner, springing from roots in Appalachia where West-African, Western European, and Native American dance traditions met and mixed. While other styles of clogging exist in competitive contexts or festival stages as part of the folk revival, Gruber's dancing is recreational, done to recorded music, and ergonomic. It's done to be shared, finding its meaning in the act of people dancing together, making rhythm recreationally. He identifies this style as especially prevalent in Southeast Michigan.

From West Bloomfield, Shane Gruber began clogging at age 16 in 1989 with Mo's Clogging Fever in Walled Lake, Michigan run by Maureen "Mo" Perko. He later danced with the Main Street Cloggers in Northville with Paula Trask-Heskett, the Toll Gate Cloggers and Six Gate Cloggers in Novi. As a student at Central Michigan University, Gruber studied choreography with former dance program coordinator, Yvette Crandall, and considers her one of his main influences. Today Gruber is in great demand as a teacher at national and international workshops. He participates in at least twelve of these events annually, usually over the course of a long weekend. Despite teaching at clogging workshops and conventions in Germany, Australia and all over the United States, Shane continues his Wednesday and Thursday night classes. Shane has taught in commercial dance studio settings but encountered resistance from the "tap, jazz, ballet" triad of strip mall dance studio culture. Gruber eventually began creating his own community outside of commercial dance studios in school gyms and community centers. For these weekly classes Gruber creates his own choreography as well as teaches the choreography of other dancers. During the class I observed, Gruber shared his own dances and also taught the choreography of Winfield, West Virginian Jeff Driggs and Atlanta dancer Andy Howard.

A license plate from one of the Shane Gang cloggers
Gruber uses a cue sheet to cue the cloggers through a routine

The abstract idea of “tradition” finds its footing when we think about the people who do it. When I ask Shane Gruber to tell me about his tradition, he marks his narrative by sharing stories of his clogging teachers and influences, and creating a family tree of Michigan clogging by tracing his hands through the air. "I'm from cloggers Duane and Berdella Root," he tells me, recounting his dance lineage from the groups that emerged from the Roots who taught in Hartland, Michigan. From this group came his first teacher Maureen "Mo" Perko in Walled Lake, as well as Mac and Louise McCreery's Corn Cobb Cloggers in Grand Ledge, Bob Warner's Thunder Floor Cloggers in Lake Odessa, Morton and Judy Rand's, Rainbow Cloggers, Loretta Ward's Flag City Cloggers from Davison, Ruth McClelland's Li'l Mac Cloggers from Ferndale, and the Country Note Cloggers, led by Roger & Linda Dzogola.

Teaching seems to be at the very heart of Gruber's role as a tradition-bearer. He especially loves working with new dancers to share the basic rudiments of his tradition. Gruber shares his enthusiasm for meeting a new class with me by exhorting fellow dance teachers: "Be happy to teach beginners, you don't know much excitement it is to look out into the group and think, 'in about 45 minutes I'm going to have these people doing basics and triples and doubles and they don't know it yet!!'"

An excerpted cue sheet from Shane Gruber's choreography to Cotton Eyed Joe

Integral to Gruber's teaching method, as well as the teaching of many clogging instructors, are cue sheets, a system of dance notation developed in clogging communities to share choreography. Shane tells me that this system allows for dancers from many geographies, both nationally and internationally, to dance together at clogging workshops without ever having met. At these events, cue sheets can be distributed in hard copy form or downloaded from the internet. At large clogging events, there are large evening social dances during which a caller will stand at the front of a large room and cue a series of dances. These events may last several hours.

Through sharing these cue sheets, participating in community demonstrations, national workshops, and weekly classes, Shane Gruber and the Shane Gang keep alive the unique Michigan style of social dance clogging.

For more information about Shane's teaching and workshop schedule, visit www.shanegangcloggers.com.

Nic Gareiss is a MTAP fieldworker, professional performer, and dance researcher living in Lansing, Michigan. He holds degrees in Music and Anthropology from Central Michigan University and a MA in Ethnochoreolgy from the University of Limerick. His 2017 fieldwork for MTAP focuses on dance, marginality, and the political salience of moving (and sounding) bodies.