Cripple Creek Cloggers Go From Humble Start to International Tours

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Photo Provided by Cripple Creek Cloggers.

It seems like the Cripple Creek Cloggers have been a staple in Rutherford County forever, along with their International Folk Fest. But they actually began in 1967, when Steve Cates was looking for a way to keep kids at 4-H Camp Woodlee in Warren County entertained in the evenings over a weekend they earned by getting all of their projects completed. 

“Our 4-Hers, seventh graders through high schoolers, enjoyed the folk games and square dancing,” said Cates. “I did the calling of the dances…based on my experience as a 4-H ‘er… Because the 4-H’ers seemed to enjoy what we were doing, we got our first, official square dance troupe together.” 

Mothers stitched costume dresses for the girls, and organized pants and shirts for the boys. Then they entered the county-wide 4-H “Share the Fun Contest” in the Central High School auditorium. They won first place. Next, they won first place at the District 4-H event in Columbia, followed by a trip to state during University of Tennessee Knoxville’s 4-H Roundup in August that year.    

“After that,” added Cates, “we began to be invited to perform at various local events. I remember some of those: The officers’ club at Seward Air Force Base, the Business and Professional Women’s Club of Murfreesboro, and the Rutherford County Sportsman’s Club. We were called the Kittrell 4-H Square Dancers. Our first out-of-state trip was to the National Folk Festival, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.” 

Along the way, the troupe made many friends, like “Cousin” Thelma Boltin, Director of the Florida Folk Festival and May Gadd, Director of the Country Song and Dance Society of the United States. They supported the troupe in many ways over the years. 

When Cates left Kittrell Elementary School to begin teaching at Bradley Middle School in 1969, membership in the troupe was open to anyone in Rutherford County. They then became the Rutherford County Square Dancers.  

“We had young people coming from all areas of the county and even from nearby counties,” noted Cates. “Our first international trip was in 1973 as Ambassadors of Freedom, spending three weeks in Romania through the leadership of the Readers Digest Foundation.”  

Their first international folkloric festival experience was at the International Festival in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1977.  That trip was the result of a trip that Cates made in 1976 to visit a friend who lived there. 

“Knowing of my interest in folk dancing, he arranged for us to go…to a show by AREYTO, the Ballet Folklorico of Puerto Rico,” explained Cates. “I was so overwhelmed by the show that I hurried backstage to thank the troupe and meet the director, Irene McLean. Though they were hustling to get to another performance, I was able to get her contact information. She remembered me because her husband, whom she met in Puerto Rico when he was in the military, was from West Tennessee!  I wrote her several letters in 1977, [which led her to check out] our troupe with the U. S. State Department. When we checked out, she invited us to come to her festival — beginning the day after Christmas.” 

The trip to Puerto Rico was a life-changing experience for the troupe, and for Cates. McLean helped them see what a festival of that type was like. 

“She helped us understand that we needed traditional costuming and live music,” said Cates. “She introduced us to directors of other troupes from festivals around the world. In 1979, we traveled to festivals in France and Spain. This led us to begin the International Folkfest in 1982.”

In 1980, on the advice of Sarah Gertrude Knott, they opened an adult troupe, Cripple Creek Cloggers. For many years, both troupes performed, usually as one.  In the early 2000s, the troupe became wholly Cripple Creek Cloggers. 

Some of the Clogger’s most memorable travel experiences involved standing in the Roman forum, walking Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England, and experiencing the “land of the midnight sun” in Finland. When international troupes come here as part of the Folk Fest, the members are also taken on tours so they can experience some Southern culture. 

This year Folk Fest will have performances of all groups on Friday night, June 7, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., at Cedar Glade Brewhouse. On Saturday, June 8, they will be performing during “Simply Smyrna”. Their guest troupe this year will be from Mexico, Czech Republic and the United Kingdom. More information about the annual International Folk Festival can be found here. 

Since its inception in May 1982, International Folk Fest has sponsored dance troupes from Canada, Mexico, Belize, Curacao, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Taiwan, Thailand and most countries of Western, Central and Eastern Europe. Some of the countries they have visited no longer exist, like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. 

Cripple Creek Cloggers are now preparing for their trip to the Chez Republic this year from June 15 through June 24. About 15 members will be on the trip. 

“Our organization meets most Sundays at 4:00 p.m. at the Smyrna Senior Center located at 100 Raikes Street,” explained Cates. “There is no charge to participate. There is no previous dance experience needed.” 

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