Appalachian clogger taps to her own beat
Carolyn Jarrell at home. Photo by Kayla Carter.
By Kayla Carter
posted Dec. 16, 2011
Carolyn Jarrell loves putting on her clogging shoes for her weekly practice at the Bristol Dance Academy. Clogging has been her source for leadership, creativity and endurance for years.
Jarrell’s two-story log cabin is where she makes quilts, parks the motorcycle she and her husband Tom took on a trip to Canada, spends time with her four grandchildren and puts on her clogging shoes before practice.
“I’ve been clogging for nearly half my life — 32 years,” she said. Jarrell’s first encounter with clogging was at the age of seven. “I’d always loved to dance,” Jarrell said. “I’d always loved to move — anything to do with dancing.”
It was then Jarrell’s mother taught her many of the dance steps she incorporates in her routines today. “We would just hang out in the basement and she’d teach me how to just shuffle my feet,” she said. “We’d go to the Carter Fold and we’d see people dancing. I’d go anywhere there was dancing, you know. I’d go up [to people] and say, ‘Can you show me that step?’ ”
Later in life Jarrell grew to realize there weren’t any studios for clogging in the Tri-Cities. “We [she and her sister] would go to Knoxville every week for two or three months,” she said. “Once we learned two or three steps … we started teaching.” While she attended ETSU and pursued Appalachian studies, she was also able to pick up some steps from colleagues David Alexander, who taught Irish-step dance, and Ray McBride, a clogger who was on ETSU’s track team.
Because of a sudden clogging revival, when Jarrell began teaching in the '80s at The Slater Center in Bristol, they acquired 75 dancers. “It was amazing,” she said.
“If I don’t have every minute filled, I feel like I’m wasting time.
I accomplish so much more when I’m busy.”
Her love of dance has inspired many people to carry on the clogging tradition. Two of those students have gone on to dance for Broadway productions.
Currently Jarrell and her team are practicing once a week at the Bristol Dance Academy, which is owned by one of her former students. Her clogging team, the Mountain Rhythm Cloggers, includes Jarrell, her husband and eight other cloggers. “Our focus has never been to compete,” Jarrell said. “We have in the past couple of years because I love to compete. If I’m picking beans or mowing grass, doesn’t matter, I’m competing.”
Besides picking and canning beans, Jarrell is very involved in living her life. She helps with Roadway Ministries, plays doghouse bass and works a part-time job. “If I don’t have every minute filled, I feel like I’m wasting time,” she said. “I accomplish so much more when I’m busy.”
Clogging has brought Jarrell through many trials of a busy and sometimes overwhelming life. Jarrell lost a child in a gun accident and turned to clogging as a method to cope.
“He was the only one [of her three children] that danced,” she said. “Brian, he was my child and he loved the clogging.” Jarrell said by the time Brian was four he could call the dances and teach just like she did.
“The team really came through for me when Brian was killed,” Jarrell said. “When I feel down I can leave work and go to practice and in three hours I’ll feel like I’m on top of the world again. The exercise — it just washes it out of you somehow.”
But, clogging is more to Jarrell than just a way to get rid of negative feelings. “It has helped my husband and I physically and mentally,” she said. “We’re in better shape than most people our age. It’s a social thing. You get to meet people. You do performances and then they want to know how you do it.”
She said half the battle of clog dancing is learning how to express you’re having a good time to the audience. “The dancing comes from the heart,” she said. “If you don’t have a good time, people don’t enjoy watching you.”
Through all her achievements and activities, Jarrell has used her feet to create an active and up-beat rhythm throughout her life.
“I’m a big advocate of just having fun,” she said. “At this point in my life, if it’s not fun I don’t want to do too much of it.”
Contact Kayla Cater at ZKDC40@goldmail.etsu.edu