Spend time exploring the Bay Area’s myriad traditional and folk dance communities and you will soon discover that the concept of “traditional dance” is an amorphous concept that changes based on whose eye is beholding the tradition.
As is the case with other cultural forms, the transmission of a dance tradition almost always begins with a student studying the dance form alongside a master dancer. Over time, and after achieving a particular level of excellence within that dance form, the student becomes master, and takes on the responsibility of training another generation of students.
This well-established dynamic is how dance forms were passed on to future generations, and for most of human history, the speed of cultural change meant that the dance form evolved slowly. Whether the student was a West Virginian who learned how to clog from an uncle in 1905, or a young girl in India learning Bharatanatyam from her mother in 1925, or a Mexican teenager discovering Jarabe with their siblings in 1955—in each case the student was regularly immersed in the same cultural ecosystem as the master dancer, and when innovations were incorporated into the tradition, the homogeneity of experience ensured that the changes happened slowly over time.
But in the early 21st century the path to mastering a traditional folk dance is often a circuitous one that passes through the full range of cultural influences that technology and globalization have provided our time. Evolutionary change to the dance form that might have once taken generations can now happen within a decade, or faster. The work being done by Ian Enriquez and his Mussel Rock Cloggers is a perfect example of those rapid changes within a Bay Area context, which he initially began developing for the all-male clogging group Barbary Coast Cloggers.
Clogging is a raucous amalgamation of tap dance, Eastern European dance forms, line dancing, Irish dance forms, and West African dance that was forged within communities in the Appalachian south over the course of the 19th and into the 20th century. In its modern format, clogging can incorporate complex group formations borrowed from square dancing traditions, thrilling audiences as dancers travel across a stage in dynamic rhythm.
For Ian, clogging was not an obvious path. Raised as an international student in the Philippines, when he went looking for dance, he discovered hip-hop and embraced it fully. He says, “I became that kid in high school who danced hip-hop and choreographed for school performances.” He continued to dabble in dance while at Oberlin College in Ohio and upon moving to San Francisco after graduation, he began studying for a dance certificate at City College. As he recalls, “one summer I couldn’t get into one of the classes that I needed, so I decided to do something completely different and…I stumbled across a clogging class. I had studied tap and knew that tap had come from clogging,” but he knew little else about the dance form at the time.
Through an immersion in clogging, he developed a deep appreciation for the history of the dance, particularly its role as a cross-cultural art form that drew from both European and African influences. “Clogging incorporates many different cultural strands. It proves that at different points throughout American history, everybody partied together at some point,” regardless of culture.
In 2003, he began taking classes with the Barbary Coast Cloggers, and “picked it up really well. Matt Ellinger [Barbary Coast Clogger’s artistic director at the time] started grooming me right away [for performances]. When I couldn’t afford classes he took care of me, and he came to my [City College] choreography final.” The fact that Ellinger was so supportive of his development as a dancer touched Ian, who laughs as he recalls that he “kind of felt obligated to audition for [the] Barbary Coast [Cloggers].”
Ian’s acceptance into the group came at a very auspicious time for the Cloggers. The company had been founded in 1980 and had thrived for while, but the original membership was hit extremely hard by the AIDS epidemic. But by the early 2000s, new dancers had picked up the mantle and the company was on an upward trajectory, selling out performance at the Palace of Fine Arts, booking shows around the country, and performing in such varied spaces as Sean Dorsey’s Fresh Meat Festival, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, and as an opening act for rock group Faith No More. They developed a devoted following, and as a male group they existed as an anomaly in the clogging world where most groups are either all-women or mostly women.
“Men just dancing together is a rare sight and conveys a different energy to an audience,” Ian explains, “Barbary Coast as dancers have tried to embody Gene Kelly’s style of a ‘man’s man’ who is having fun [in the dance] without being aggressive. A lot of choreography for men is very aggressive, but the dance being done in Barbary Coast was just men having fun.”
As Ian began taking a more prominent artistic role in the company, eventually becoming lead choreographer, he began to insert his own distinct artistic personality into the company’s work, and states, “I try to bring who I am as a choreographer, into what we do.” When probed on what that means exactly, he says “the [Barbary Coast] Cloggers always had some novelty number but I do a lot more weird stuff.”
As times change it’s inevitable that dancers move on from a company, and having an all-male repertoire made it difficult when there weren’t new male dancers capable of replacing the ones that left the company. Clogging dance formations involve eight people, and Ian says that “when the numbers got low this time, and there weren’t any men taking clogging classes, the only way I could think to preserve the dances we are doing was to invite women [to perform].” He continues: “Bringing women into the company made more sense, especially because we had so many skilled [women] dancers in our classes. They were dancing at such a high level and it was a bummer that they didn’t have an opportunity to dance at a professional level.”
This change spurred Ian to form a co-ed dance group in 2013 called the Mussel Rock Cloggers. The group’s name is a clever reference to San Francisco’s past that also touches on the group’s immediate lineage. As Ian describes it, “the Barbary Coast was the place in Gold Rush-era San Francisco where everyone came to celebrate, where there were up to 14 men for every woman. The 1906 earthquake destroyed the area that was home to the Barbary Coast and the epicenter of the earthquake was Mussel Rock, a rock formation off the coast of San Mateo county.”
The Mussel Rock Cloggers will perform at San Francisco City Hall as part of the Rotunda Dance Series, and the performance will be a perfect example of the tradition/ evolution spectrum in practice. “We’ll start off with some of the more traditional dances. Doing stuff that we can tie to the city a little bit,” Ian tells me, starting off with choreography set to traditional songs like “Foggy” and “Fire on the Mountain.”
The second half of the performance will represent the contemporary work (Ian’s “weird stuff”) being created for the company, including a Bollywood/Clogging number, a Star Wars-themed performance, and two dancers will portray the presidential candidates and perform a Trump-Clinton dance off, choreographed to the song “Dance Off” by Macklemore.
Traditionalists may scoff at these modern reworkings of clogging, but according to Ian, “what’s often forgotten is that clogging is a folk dance, and that it needs to incorporate new elements to grow and evolve. It’s a living folk dance. Limiting the dance to only performing it as it was done 100 years ago is disingenuous and not true to what folk dance is. So when people see contemporary clogging set to modern music, there’s a disassociation with their expectation of what ethnic dance or folk dance is supposed to be, or what it means to them. Ethnic dance has been framed as a feature of the past, but with clogging it is growing, it is still changing.”
As we wrap up our interview, Ian lets me know that “It’s been a challenge to get out there. People have tried to hire Barbary Coast and when I said we have a co-ed company, they changed their mind. Which is disappointing because the dancers I’m working with are as strong as any I worked with in Barbary Coast.”
But he understands that “there’s this mystique as to what Barbary Coast is, so that now that we’re co-ed, people have gone back to thinking we’re just cloggers” and not the innovative and groundbreaking group that they are. Mussel Rock Cloggers will be working hard to dissuade their audiences of the notion. It’s what Ian thrives on as a choreographer and a dancer. He says: “Those moments when you break the boundaries of audience expectation is transforming as an artists and as a person. I’m not a contemporary dancer, I’m not creating what’s maybe seen as high art, stirring, or powerful. So to have these other moments where you are making a difference in the dance community is great. It’s really energizing.”
The Mussel Rock Cloggers will perform on Fri, Nov 4, Noon, as part of the Rotunda Dance Series at San Francisco City Hall. The Rotunda Dance series is presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West in partnership with Grants for the Arts and San Francisco City Hall. More information can be found at dancersgroup.org