Always a dancerPoochey Greene talks of decades of clogging
Even if the name "Poochey" doesn't ring a bell, chances are you know her. Or at least you know her smile. When Aileen "Poochey" Greene is clogging, that grin is infectious — joyful and unwavering, while her feet seem to move effortlessly, as if they're barely touching the ground. It's the kind of smile that makes you smile, because you imagine she's exactly where she wants to be. And she is.
It's been that way for decades for Greene, who's 80 but doesn't look it (and doesn't feel it, she's quick to say). As the leading lady of several groups over the years, most recently the Southern Appalachian Cloggers, she's been dancing in earnest for nearly 50 years. Her love of it, however, goes back much farther, back to when she was a little girl watching her grandmother clog.
Describing that moment from her home in Clyde, Greene still looked amazed by the memory, explaining that her grandma looked "light as a feather."
"When I saw her feet, it was like something inside me jumped out. It's like my body and soul — I was mesmerized," she said. "And I think that was the beginning."
It was not, however, the beginning of Greene's dancing career. Her hometown of Canton was a different place in the 1930s and '40s, and not everyone approved of dancing — including many churches and her parents. They were "good, God-fearing people," Greene said, so she and her siblings couldn't go to those big group dances at Champion YMCA. But she never stopped pining. Sometimes when she was at the Y to swim, she'd peek her head into the dance hall and look longingly.
"Oh and it was a big floor, and it was covered," she said, her eyes slipping into memory. "I wanted to be there so bad."
Eventually she made it happen, though it wasn't until she was 13 or 14. It felt right, but it was just the beginning, and soon dancing took a backseat to family life. At 18, she married storied clogger Flossie King, and before long they had two children. For years, her son and daughter danced, but Greene hung back, watching from the sidelines. Even so, she couldn't be still when the music was playing.
"I'd just start moving my feet when they were practicing," she said. "It came so naturally."
She didn't have a group, a costume or crowds cheering her on, but Greene was a dancer. Somehow, she knew it. Haywood County was about to know it, too.
Decades of dance
Greene got her chance to dance several years into her marriage, after her children had lost interest in the art. She was in her 30s then, and had never been formally trained, but it didn't matter. When she and King joined the Old Timers dance team around 1970, she fit in just about seamlessly. Clogging had been hibernating, it seems, waiting inside her all those years.
"Nobody showed me what it was about," she said. "I just felt it. It was there."
Was it ever. Before long, she and King had a championship under their belt. Within a year, they founded the Southern Appalachian Cloggers. In no time, they had become regulars around the area — and the country — as they traveled and competed far and wide, even in Europe. They practiced diligently (and Greene is still a big believer in that), but they also had a natural chemistry, a general togetherness she can't help but miss now. Off the stage, they were friendly and supportive of one other, she explained. On the stage, they danced as one unit. Sure, there were solos and everyone had a personal style, but they were always on the same page, always in sync.
"It's just air, beautiful rhythm, like the sound of the wheels of a train," Greene said, picturing the past.
She is nostalgic for those days, and not just because she spent years dancing at the head of the team. She misses that traditional take on dance, which she believes is quickly being replaced by a newfangled style, one that adds modern moves and a more individual mentality. Southern Appalachian, however, was more old school in its approach. That's the way Greene likes it.
"It was just a different world," she said. "They were in it to preserve a tradition, a mountain tradition."
She is as well, which is part of why she's never stopped dancing, even when things got complicated. About a decade into Southern Appalachian, there was a falling out among certain members so she King started another group, Great Smoky Mountain Cloggers. Several years into that venture, after her children were out of the house, Greene got the courage up to leave King. So by the mid-1980s, she had no partner and no team, but she didn't let that stop her from kicking up her heels. She became a clogging freelancer of sorts, dancing with various teams across the county. Often she'd start off somewhere in the back of the formation — and inevitably would be assigned to the front of the line.
That's not just because of her skill, she believes, but because she's good at fitting in with all kinds of folks. It works so well because she's not there to compete. She's there to keep history going, not to mention revel in that rush of dancing for an audience. She can't get enough of that high.
"For me to look out and just see people smiling, that's where you get your thrill, your joy, your fun," she said.
In recent years, that rush came from her performances with Southern Appalachian, which she rejoined about 10 years ago and is still a staple at local festivals and benefits. After an illness in the last few years, Greene moved on from the group, and as she's become better, has begun to practice with Shirley Finger's troupe, the Dixie Darlin's. Greene is not an official member yet, but she's with the Darlin's every Monday night, practicing her heart out. A few weeks back, she even performed with them at the new Winter Pickin' in the Park in Canton. Though she was just wearing jeans then, she fit in fine, dancing smoothly and flashing that familiar, constant smile.
She looked at home, just as she always does on the dance floor. Maybe it's because, as she sees it, she's always been a dancer, starting even before she learned to do it. Even if she doesn't have a team, even if she has to give it up, she'll still be one, she stressed. She likes to joke that one day she'll have to be buried with her dancing shoes.
"My family, of course, came first, but dancing has been the joy of my life, other than my children," she said, pausing and smiling. "And here at 80 I'm wondering what will I do without it."
Hopefully, she won't have to do without it — and the clogging community won't have to do without her. It would be hard too hard to imagine, anyway.
Stina Sieg wrote this story from the road, on her way to NPR affiliate KJZZ and the supposed "dry heat" of Phoenix, Arizona. She can now be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and visited digitally on her blog at www.stinasieg.com.