LAURINBURG — Hope Outlaw’s backstory is a perfect recipe for a bluegrass tune.
Her father was a music man, and she learned how to dance from a clogging man in her mountain town.
When those first two lines of her biography were read at the American Clogging Hall of Fame induction this past weekend, Outlaw knew they could be announcing no one else’s name but hers.
“When they read that, I just started crying,” she said. “You could have knocked me over with a feather.”
For 43 years, the Scotland County native has taught hundreds of children — from the age of 3 all the way through high school — to move their feet to the same rhythms her father used to play on his “doghouse bass.” Those children have in turn brought their kids to Outlaw’s class, fostering a love of traditional clogging among multiple generations.
“I’ve said all along that was probably my biggest trophy ever — not something I could hang on the wall, but the experiences we’ve shared in and out of the studio,” she said.
Outlaw has been dancing since she was 3 or 4 years old. She began clogging in1964, when she was in the eighth grade. She graduated from high school, got married, and began teaching the dance in 1970. She worked with Karen Gibson, of the school of dance that bears her name, for 30 years. Gibson, she said, taught her to be a teacher.
“When I started, there was nothing in Laurinburg (for cloggers),” she said. “There were recreation teams who would perform at local events, but none that would take students to bigger competitions.”
Six years later, Outlaw formed the Shoeheel Creek Cloggers, which would grow into three teams otherwise known as the Triple Toe Cloggers. That team has won numerous awards at the North Carolina State Fair, including the Ruth Jewel Award and the Audrey and Ellis Perry Award, named for the two who have watched Outlaw’s progression as a teacher through annual fair competitions. The team has also danced at Disney World and Dollywood.
In 2001, Outlaw developed the Salty Dawg Cloggers in Orange City, Fla., and in 2007 started the Rhythm Explosion Cloggers in Laurinburg — now named Detonation Dance and led by Derek Starnes.
She has had several dancers named to the state Clogging Council All-Star Team, the All-American Team and the Junior All-American Team.
It all started when her father, Tom Campbell, a longtime employee of Sears, Roebuck and Company but a bluegrass man at heart, ran into Doyle Calloway of Bailey Mountain while at a gig with his band the Sandhill Ramblers.
“Cut a step, Doyle,” her father joked — and he did, breaking into a dance the likes of which Campbell had never seen.
He told Doyle he could make a lot of money teaching people to dance that way, and Outlaw was one of his first students. Bailey Mountain Cloggers, of Mars Hill College, are now among the top performing groups in the country.
Calloway, Outlaw said, had never thought to teach a course.
“Mountain folks didn’t have teachers, they just learned from each other. … He used to say clogging is ‘caught, not taught.’”
“Clogging is a social dance,” said Outlaw’s daughter, Shelby Plante. “You dance in small and large circles, you face each other and interact with the other dancers. I think that’s why it’s so special, not just the high energy and great music, but the social aspect of it.”
Outlaw is so in tune to the traditional backbeat that if she’s driving in the rain, the thump of the windshield wipers will morph into a dance tune. She’s not alone in her enthusiasm.
“I’ve had so many parents tell me that their kids can’t stop,” she said. “They’ll be dancing around the house and up and down the aisles of the grocery store.”
While dancing may be fun, Outlaw says she thinks of herself less of a dance instructor than as an all-around teacher. What you learn in dance class, she says, can apply to everything — including focus, determination, discipline and perseverance. She said by the time her students graduated from her class, knowing how to be an effective team player was to them “second nature.”
Some of her past students were at Saturday’s event, driving to Maggie Valley from as far away as Greenville to see her inducted into the Hall of Fame. Outlaw attends every year, but this year’s special event was kept a secret by her nominator, Shelby, who knew weeks before the ceremony.
“I was shocked because honestly, when you look back at the list of people who have been inducted, we think of them as clogging legends,” she said. “To me, clogging is just a way of life, it’s what we do. To realize that she’ll be ranked among the legends in clogging is just unbelievable.”
But, Shelby says, her mother is much deserving of the award, considering that anyone who has learned to clog in Scotland County has been coached either directly or indirectly by her.
She’s also made dancing a family affair, most recently instructing her granddaughter, Bria, in Shelby’s living room. Her daughter Nikki Outlaw is a dancer with Southern Mountain Fire and is gearing up for the Charlotte Christmas Parade.
Outlaw retired this year from dance instruction, and now lives on the Florida coast, doing the “Grandma thing” for Shelby, who lives nearby, and working part-time. But her next step is to become a judge. There, she can rest her body, but still stay involved in the sport she loves.
“I still want to grow as a dancer,” she said. “I just have to grow in a different direction.”