The Mountain Moves

The 39 steps: The Girl Germ cloggers perform such moves as "Wringing the Chicken's Neck," the prickly "Briar Patch," and the self-explanatory "Dogshit Step"

South Minneapolis is a far cry from your typical Appalachian hollow, but on this night at Patrick's Cabaret, it's possible to think otherwise, as seven pairs of boot-clad feet keep time to a waltz spun from the strings of a fiddle. The Girl Germs, a percussive dance troupe made up of Shawn Glidden, Teresa Neby, Cynthia Wicklund, and Julie Young practice quick-stepping California twirls, spinning Texas stars, and a tricky sidewinding maneuver called the Alamo, while the so-called Sperms (Corey Mohan, Dale Wiele, and Steve Hanson) partner with gentlemanly reserve. Then the time comes for clogging rehearsal, and suddenly it's a hoedown throw-down. A loose-limbed flurry of movement keeps toes and heels in perpetual motion, while bodies crane forward to give the pumping legs in blue jeans just a bit of extra speed. "It's a scuffle, not a shuffle!" Mohan calls out mid-hustle, his high-flying knees churning. "Keep your wits about you!" warns Wicklund as the tempo kicks into an even higher gear. When the group finally cuts loose, the perfectly synchronized cadence sounds like a pack of wild horses.

If a native of Appalachia (the mountainous region encompassing parts of North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky) happened upon this scene, she probably wouldn't guess it was a warm-up for the Girl Germs' new show, Virtual Hoedown, opening this Thursday at the Minnesota Dance Alliance's Studio 6A. Instead she'd say everyone was "just plain dancing," the highest compliment a person can pay a serious clogger.

And indeed, whether they're playing the Walker Art Center or Corn and Clover Days in Hinckley, the Girl Germs are nothing if not committed to transmitting their clogging and old-time music culture. As for the cootie-inspired moniker: "We were named by a guy!" laughs Neby with mock grade-school outrage. "We were having a book party and talking about our lives when Julie's husband Bob came in and plopped himself down for a while. Then he said, 'I better go or I'm gonna get girl germs,' and Julie jumped up and said, 'That's the name for our group!'"

"In other types of traditional dance, women don't have a big part," explains Young. "In Appalachian clogging, however, we get to be just as strong and present as the men, or even more so."

It's been two years since the Girl Germs first brewed their contagious chemistry, and now the quartet is on a mission to bring the mountains to the prairie. The four women, all in their 30s, are multitalented performers who met 10 years ago in the ranks of the locally based Wild Goose Chase Cloggers. The Germs share an admiration for the legendary Green Grass Cloggers of North Carolina, who are credited with rescuing the dance form from obscurity. And when prompted, the group readily recites clogging's eclectic history.

The form was created during the late-18th and 19th centuries in Appalachia from a hybrid of Irish and Scottish jigs, the leggy buck-dancing and hambone hand-drumming of African slaves, and the ritual movement of Cherokee Indians. Since then, the distinctive flatfoot style of clogging has influenced everything from square dancing to the line dancing at Garth Brooks concerts. Clogging even has an urban counterpart in tap. Although there's really nothing fancy or even outwardly technical about clogging--from the shoes (hard soles will do) to the philosophy (it's all about keeping time)--the dance is undoubtedly the stuff of folk custom. Just watch someone skip or stomp her way through moves like the prickly "Briar Patch," "Wringing the Chicken's Neck," or even the self-explanatory "Dogshit Step," and you'll gain a rudimentary understanding.

Like clogging, old-time music plays a key role in the Girl Germs' craft. First popularized during the 1920s and '30s by the likes of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, this rural style served as a precursor to bluegrass and country. It enjoyed a revival during the mid-century, and today Neby points to contemporary old-time artists like Tommy Jarrell and Bruce Green as major influences. Anni Spring, the official Girl Germs fiddler (who will be joined by musicians Linda Breitag, Karen Mueller and Eric Lind this weekend) notes that the music used to belong to "the revivalists and radicals" during the 1970s but in recent years has attracted more general interest.

Even when they're not onstage, the Girl Germs seem to keep moving. "Socially we'll get together and show steps. We really like to improvise and play our feet to fiddle tunes," says Young, a petite speed demon of a dancer who just gave birth to twins. (This hardly seems to have slowed her.) "We do something called 'trading eights,' where one of us will dance and challenge the others."

According to the tap-dance-trained Glidden, no member is ever far from her "Step-a-Tune," a portable wooden platform that transforms any party into a performance opportunity. When time permits, the performers also study French-Canadian step dancing, English waltz clogging, and other varieties of traditional social dancing. Glidden and Neby can be found working the fiddle and guitar with a band called the Farm Team, and Young, an old-time square-dance caller, plays guitar, banjo, and bass. Wicklund, a mother of two, teaches and continues to perform with the "Geese." All have frequented the Monday Night Square Dances at the Halftime Rec Bar in St. Paul, a 19-year-old tradition which saw its last do-si-do a couple of weeks ago (although Neby says more of these events are in the works).

While none of the Girl Germs was born or raised in Appalachia (all except Neby are from Minnesota), each regularly visits mountain festivals to learn new steps and keep abreast of changing trends in tunes. Neby, who grew up on polkas in Wisconsin, explains that mountain folks "talk about the music depending on what county you're from. The subtleties in the music really dictate how the dance responds."

Young adds, "We like to seek out source dancers and musicians. All the stuff we do has roots up to hundreds of years old but we're not reconstructing a period of time. This is what our community does now."

Virtual Hoedown runs at the Hennepin Center for the Arts Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.; 335-8200.

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