COLUMBIA — Their faces are flushed. Beads of perspiration shine on their foreheads as they dance in the hot weather. But there is one thing in this group of clog dancers that stands out even more than their costumes and the tapping sound of their shoes: a smile on each face.
The 10 dancers, who performed with enthusiasm at the Boone County Fairgrounds on Thursday, make up the Mulekicker Cloggers, a performance clogging group based in Fulton.
Director and instructor Patricia Hopper said the group has been performing at fairs, festivals and other events around the state for 25 years. The group, which consists of nine women and one man, also regularly performs for nursing homes. Most of the dancers have been associated with the group for more than two decades.
Clogging is not a common dance form anymore, and there might only be one or two such groups within a 70-mile radius of Columbia, Hopper said.
“It’s a combination of tap, Appalachian, square and buck dances with an element of folk dancing as well,” member Rita Weber said.
Hopper said clogging was a common dance in the Appalachian Mountain region in the 19th century, and that’s where it collected various elements from other dance forms.
The dance has eight basic steps, and together they can form different dance formations.
“Usually, the rhythm is built with heel on one foot and the toe of the other,” Weber said. Weber said she was in a square dancing club in Fulton, where she first met Hopper and became interested in clogging.
The shoes used for clogging are similar to ones used for tap dancing with one difference: The metal taps are free to swivel. Weber said this allows the double echoing sound effect when the shoes are tapped on the ground.
Hopper said they chose the word mule to be part of their group’s name because Fulton, the group's hometown, is the mule capital of the world. Kicker, the other word in the group's name, is a basic dance movement in clogging, Hopper said.
The women wear a knee-length shirt-waist dress with the hem of the frock decorated with flounces and ruffles. The male costume, worn by Larry Martin, consists of white trousers and a blue shirt with a big gold star on the front and colorful stripes on the back and arms. All the dancers wear white shoes.
“We want the costumes to be showy,” Hopper said. “We like to make them colorful.”
The group's costumes are custom-designed and handmade by Hopper. She said she makes new costumes every two or three years. It takes Hopper eight hours to put together a costume from scratch.
A dozen people looked on as the Mulekickers danced at the fairgrounds. Some walked past with a hint of surprised joy on their faces while others stood and took photos. Others tapped their feet to the rhythm of the music.
Cathy Gerling watched closely as other spectators moved by. She said she attends every time the Mulekickers perform because her mother is part of the group.
“I smile every time I watch them. It makes me so happy,” Gerling said. “It’s like perma-grin.”
Hopper choreographs the group's dances. They started by clogging to "Cotton-Eyed Joe" and followed it up with songs like "Locomotion" and some country music instrumentals. They also danced to a salsa tune. As the rest of the dancers danced in single file before the last song, Martin broke the line to do a cartwheel.
The heat and the cloudless sky prompted the cloggers to take several breaks during their dance routines.
“We’re a little warm today,” Hopper said on the microphone as the rest of the group stopped to catch their breath between the songs.
Jackie Cole has been with the group for 17 years. She said clog dancing is a form of catharsis for her.
“You can stomp out a lot of your problems out,” she said, playfully tapping her heels on the ground.
Hopper said the group's members have gone through a lot together over the years, and that has strengthened the bond of their friendships.
“We are friends first and then showmen,” she said.
Hopper recalled the difficult news of Cole's breast cancer diagnosis a few years ago. It was tough for the rest of the group, but Cole only missed two weeks of practice and was clogging again the night after her surgery.
Cole said she was introduced to the dance by her brother, Larry Martin. Martin, along with Hopper, Cole and Weber, is one of the original four members who have stayed with the group since it was formed.
Martin, 67, said that being the only man in the group brings out the best in him.
“That’s why I have to do so good — because I have to keep up with all the ladies,” he said.
Linda Kronk said she will have 24 years of clogging experience in September. She said she has loved it all along.
“I love to entertain, and it's good exercise," she said.
The Mulekicker Cloggers will perform again next month on Aug. 13 at the Missouri State Fair.
“Do another cartwheel, Larry!” the women cheered after the cloggers had taken a bow to finish the day's performance. And Martin did just that.