Performer says folk dance making comeback

By Tammy Keith Originally Published September 16, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated September 17, 2012 at 11:34 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Cj Conine is a clogging instructor who leads LTD Edition Cloggers, a group that just came back from the 2012 USA National Clogging Championships in Nashville, Tenn., after winning national awards that included a first-place finish in Exhibition for a dance to Maroon 5's “Moves Like Jagger.”

PICKLES GAP — Cj Conine lives in Pickles Gap, and she is a champion clogger, but don’t peg her as a hick.

Conine, 55, grew up in Dallas and was a classically trained ballerina and dance teacher before she discovered clogging.

“Everybody thinks it’s real hokey,” she said. “From my ballet background, I thought, ‘Aww, isn’t that nice — they’re not real dancers.”

Then she saw cloggers. She was impressed — and hooked.

Conine moved to Arkansas from Santa Fe, N.M., about 12 years ago with her husband, Michael, and daughters, Katie and Sarah.

Conine owned a dance studio in Dallas and Santa Fe, where she taught ballet, tap and jazz.

She saw her first cloggers at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo.

“That was one of those life-changing things to me,” she said. “My girls were so excited. They just had to learn — had to learn.”

Conine and her daughters took a class in Conway to learn clogging basics and found tutorials on YouTube.

“In less than two months, my kids had bailed,” she said. Conine stuck with it and went to her first national convention a few years ago in Nashville, Tenn.

“I had 80-year-old women dancing around me, and I thought, ‘That’s how I want to be,’” she said.

Today, Conine teaches five clogging classes a week at the City Event Center in Greenbrier and directs competition and specialty groups.

She’s back in the saddle, so to speak, after years of teaching.

“God opened a door, because I thought my dancing and performing days were over. [With clogging] you can dance till you’re 100, and people don’t say, ‘Bless her heart.’”

Conine’s main group is the LTD Edition Cloggers, which will celebrate its first anniversary in October. LTD stands for Love to Dance.

“I inherited it,” she said.

She originally joined Central Arkansas Clogging Co., a clogging group that Teresa Sparkman of Greenbrier started, and Sparkman asked Conine to take it over. Conine did and changed the name.

The 18-member group performs at several events in the fall and spring. Upcoming performances include the Faulkner County Fair, ArtsFest in Conway, the Great Arkansas Pig Out in Morrilton, the Russellville Fall Chili Festival and the Pioneer Village Festival in Searcy. Six members from the main group make up the LTD Edition Express, which competes and goes to specialty events.

The competition team includes women from Morrilton, Greenbrier, Pickles Gap and Damascus.

“It’s serious fun at that level,” Conine said.

At a competition in June in Branson, the group won first place in the Exhibition category out of about 40 teams and 200 cloggers.

The group also won first place in the Show category, where the dance “has to tell a story,” she said.

That win qualified LTD Express for a national competition in Nashville on Labor Day weekend, where the group won first place in Exhibition for a dance to “Moves Like Jagger,” a pop-rock song by Maroon 5.

The group also performed “He Said” by Gold City to become the Division 2 Show Team.

“We are the overall state USA National Show Champions. We go, ‘Can you believe that?’” she said, laughing. “This is our Olympics.”

Clogging is becoming more mainstream, she said.

A clogger made it through a few rounds on So You Think You Can Dance, and a clogging team from Alabama made it through several rounds on America’s Best Dance Crew.

“They’ve given clogging a shot in the arm,” she said. “It’s changed. We still use traditional steps. We are contemporary in how we put hand movements to it and the music we use. We’ve just changed with the times.”

Conine also directs the Arkansas All Star Cloggers, a group she assembles with dancers from throughout Arkansas. The group performs at Riverfest in Little Rock each year.

Long and lithe, the 5-foot-8 Conine came to the interview straight from a class, where she usually wears jeans and an LTD Edition T-shirt.

Competition outfits are black jazz pants and tops that usually are sparkly and bright, which often surprises people, she said.

Some dancers wear traditional square-dancing outfits, but that’s not for them.

They do not, despite the name, wear clogs. They do wear special lace-up shoes with bell taps on them.

“It started with Irish immigrants who came over here,” she said.

Other influences were people in the Appalachias and African slaves.

“It really is the combination of a lot of different genres,” she said.

The actual step is called the basic, she said, and it includes the double toe and rock step, and it builds from there.

“If you invent [a step], you get to name it,” Conine said.

For example, there’s the Scotty Potty and the Samantha.

“You can’t learn this and say it’s over. It has to be the joy and the journey. That’s what makes it cool. There’s no end to it,” she said.

Conine started dancing at age 4 and by age 12 was in a ballet company.

When her friends were listening to the Eagles and Chicago, she was listening to classical music.

“I wasn’t the kid who had all the posters,” she said.

She was in the Houston Jazz Ballet Co., and the adviser was Patsy Swayze, mother of the late actor Patrick Swayze.

Conine met him “just briefly.”

“He would come in, and we’d all go, ‘Wow!’” His mother was “awesome,” Conine said. “She was so down to earth that you’d go, ‘That’s Patrick Swayze’s mother?’”

Conine also studied with Martha Graham, an award-winning, influential American choreographer and modern dancer.

When she was growing up, Conine said, ballet, tap and jazz always went together.

“Ballet’s the core for everything else,” she said. “I like the discipline of it.”

Ballet was her first love, but clogging is where her heart is now.

“It’s so much more fun to teach clogging than when I had my dance studio,” she said.

“It’s easy to learn, a recreational-type dance, and on up, it’s every bit as hard as tap and ballet.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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