Two dozen white shoes clack along to the bouncy beat of a country band. Most of the members of the Green Valley Cloggers have white hair, and they’re all dressed
Two dozen white shoes clack along to the bouncy beat of a country band. Most of the members of the Green Valley Cloggers have white hair, and they’re all dressed in matching blue-and-white outfits. But the feet scampering across the hardwood floor of the Stompin’ Ground tonight in Maggie Valley defy the dancers’ ages.
To get here, those feet scampered over from Canton and Clyde, Candler and Hendersonville. They come together inside this big barn of a building at the edge of the Smoky Mountains every Saturday night during tourist season, May through October. And not just the members of the clogging team. Between the cloggers’ set pieces, amateur dancers stream onto the floor to partner dance, line dance, or just lose themselves in the music. They gather here to catch up with old friends and to preserve ancient folk traditions that some of their ancestors brought over from the British Isles.
Kyle Edwards has spent most of his life trying to keep those traditions alive. The U.S. Army veteran was born 84 years ago in a house right across Soco Road from where he built the Stompin’ Ground in 1981. Mary Sue, his wife of 60 years, has been at his side all the while, and their two children — Burton and Becky — both grew up dancing.
“My wife and her brother were jitterbug champions, and my family kindly led the clogging thing,” Edwards says. “We danced at barn lofts, street dances, festivals. Wherever there was a dance, if it was close by, we went to it.”
A general contractor by trade, Edwards and his brother, an engineer, designed the Stompin’ Ground to look like the barns that they danced in as young men. One bluegrass legend, banjo player J.D. Crowe, noted its resemblance to a tobacco barn the first time he performed here. “He looked up and said, ‘Man, you could hang a lot of ’baccer up there,’” Edwards says with a laugh.
If you’re driving along Maggie Valley’s main drag, you can’t miss the place. It stands just west of Dale’s Wheels Through Time motorcycle museum and east of Miss Caroline’s Wedding Chapel. The inside of the Stompin’ Ground feels like a modified high school gym, with indirect lighting illuminating the wooden ceiling, the walls, and the roughly 5,000 square feet of dance floor. Much of the oak and yellow pine used in its construction came from land that Edwards cleared for highway projects. Farm implements hang behind the stage, just beneath the big wooden sign that reads, “Stompin’ Ground: Cloggin’ Capitol of the World.”
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Clogging is North Carolina’s official state folk dance, representing a mix of regional and historical styles that date back centuries. The roots of clogging are as diverse as the people who settled North Carolina, including Native Americans, African Americans, and immigrants from the British Isles, especially the Scots-Irish. In Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia, writers Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr noted that the blend of clogging influences includes “Scottish country dancing, Irish set and step dancing, English country and stage step dances, Welsh clogging, French cotillions and quadrilles, African-American ring dances, and Native American ceremonial dances.”
Team clogging took off in conjunction with the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, launched in 1927 by Bascom Lamar Lunsford. A group from Maggie Valley, the Soco Gap Dancers, won an early team dance contest at the festival. They went on to perform at the White House in 1939 at the invitation of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, entertaining King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth. “The queen was heard to remark that the dance style resembled the clogging she had seen in Wales and in the north of England,” Ritchie wrote, “and the label was set.”
One of the members who performed with the Soco Gap Dancers that day was Elizabeth “Lizzie” Campbell Edwards, who, later that same year, gave birth to Kyle Edwards and his twin brother. Before he opened the Stompin’ Ground, Kyle himself won a world clogging championship in his age group. In the ’80s, Edwards led dance troupes from New York to Hawaii, along the way performing at the Smithsonian Institution and the World’s Fair. Edwards’s talent has earned him the titles of honorary citizen in almost every Southern state, certified Kentucky Colonel, and North Carolina’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine.
Over the decades, the Stompin’ Ground has staged dance lessons, competitions, and even a national TV show, Fire on the Mountain. Featuring performers like Doc Watson and bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe, the show was broadcast weekly on The Nashville Network from 1984 to 1987.
Glenda Plemmons has been coming to the Stompin’ Ground since it first opened. Dressed tonight in a white skirt flared by petticoats, the 78-year-old dancer is relaxing near the concession stand, which sells hot dogs, popcorn, and soft drinks, but no alcohol. The Stompin’ Ground, she says, is “a good Christian place — no drinking, no drugs, no smoking. What more can you ask for?”
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A couple of hours before the music and dancing begin, Edwards sits at a corner of the dance floor in a red baseball cap, surveying his creation through wire-rimmed glasses. Streams of dancers and musicians stop by to hug his neck, crack jokes, and give him grief for not making time to go home and take the eye drops that he uses to ease the effects of glaucoma. Age and a recent bout with Covid have slowed Edwards a bit, but he still holds court throughout the night, parking himself on a cushioned folding chair at the back of a riser, where he can admire all of the dancers.
“This little boy here can flat-out dance,” Edwards says, pointing to 18-year-old Christian Basulto, a relative newcomer to the Stompin’ Ground. Basulto flatfoots solo when he’s not dancing with his mother. Looking like an extra from West Side Story, he’s several months into his first year at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Basulto learned about the Stompin’ Ground while taking a flatfooting class last year at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown. “I was born and raised in western North Carolina,” he says, “and this kind of environment totally epitomizes it for me. Everything I love about western North Carolina, you can find here at the Stompin’ Ground.”
A group of teens from Spartanburg, South Carolina, may lack Basulto’s polish on the dance floor, but they make up for it with exuberance. They dance in pairs or in a group, holding hands and swinging around in a wide circle, pigtails flying. The band keeps them moving with classic country songs, from Hank Williams’s “Mind Your Own Business” to John Anderson’s “Chicken Truck.” Older couples move with less abandon than the teenagers, but they have more grace. Some have danced together for decades, others for the first time tonight.
Mechelle Bakula, who’s visiting from Chicago, enjoys the mountain hospitality. “This is my first time line dancing and two-stepping,” she says. The self-described middle-age Black woman from the Midwest admits that she loves the music of Luke Bryan and Luke Combs, even if she doesn’t fit the stereotype of a country fan.
Bakula came to the mountains to visit a friend who’s a Stompin’ Ground regular. “People were warm and welcoming, and in a matter of 10 minutes of being here, they pulled me onto the dance floor to teach me how to dance,” she says. “It felt like a big hug.”
Edwards watches it all from his perch, just as he does almost every Saturday night, enjoying the fellowship and the footwork. “The Lord has blessed me,” he says. And Edwards, in turn, has blessed his community with the enduring legacy of the Stompin’ Ground. It’s a place where young people embrace old traditions, old folks dance to feel young, and ancient customs live on in this area of the North Carolina mountains that first gave them life.
3116 Soco Road
Maggie Valley, NC 28751