Sammy Bell
N.E. Clog Dance Champion

Sammy's Unique Clog Dance Pedestal

In the 1920/30's Sammy Bell was a champion clog dancer performing on the music hall stage and in the working men's clubs in and around Ashington, near Newcastle upon Tyne in the N.E. of England. And he also frequently competed in the 'go-as-you-pleases' clog dance competitions in the area.

On the back of Sammy Bell's biographical book(**), published by Mike Cherry of the Reading Cloggies, is a sketch of a clog dance pedestal. This is loosely based on the one that Sammy bought from one of his teachers one Eddie May in about 1925. After talking to Sammy about this, I thought that people might like to know what it was made of and how it worked.

Although pedestals for clog dancing on were fairly common, many were really just small wooden tables or boxes about 3 inches deep. Sammy remembers that in his youth he read a report of one gentleman dancing on a low wooden box with a Welsh slate embedded in the top. Indeed Ian Dunmur, a co-founder (con-founder?) of the Reading Cloggies, has recently made just such a pedestal of mahogany with a Cumberland slate top embedded, specifically for performing the clog hornpipe collected from Marion Cowper of Whitehaven, Cumberland.

However Sammy's pedestal was unique in that it had a glass top for dancing on!!

The body was a square ebony box of sides 2 feet 6 inches by 1 foot deep. It was covered in black velvet, with gold tassels hanging down. There were two brass carrying handles on either side of the box, under the velvet.

The interior of the box was divided into 4 square holes, each with a light bulb inside. The top of each light bulb was about 1 inch below the glass top, and the bulbs were rated at 60 watts.

The box was bolted to the top of 4 detachable legs which were each 2 feet long, turned in a spiral and lined with gold trim. The 4 turned cross-pieces helped to make the structure rigid, each one fitting into holes in the legs. The 4 legs were bolted to the stage with strong angle brackets.

Fastened to the rear of the pedestal, with 2 hooks over the rear cross-piece, was a step made of ebony.

The top of the box was recessed to a depth of three quarters of an inch, to allow a sheet of three quarter of an inch thick wire-reinforced glass to rest over the bulbs. This was just under 2 feet 6 inches square. Vim (an abrasive powder used for cleaning sinks and baths) was sprinkled onto the glass to make it less slippery, and it was on this that Sammy used to dance, a total of 3 feet high above the stage.

Sammy's costume at the time was black clogs, cream woollen socks, port-wine velvet knee breeches with buckles on the outside of each leg bottom, narrow waistcoat to match, cream silk shirt with button-down collar and sleeves held up around the arms with armlets, and a port-wine tie.

When Sammy performed on the pedestal the lights of the auditorium would be turned right down so that just the lights from the pedestal shone upwards onto his clogs and legs, and then he would dance. I can well imagine that the effect would have been very dramatic indeed !!

Chris Brady, 21-3-88

(**) Reference : 'Originality - The Steps of Sammy Bell', by Mike Cherry, 1984.

Clog Dance Competitions
Tricks of the Trade

I wonder if anyone knows of the 'tricks' that the competitors used to play on each other at the clog dancing competitions. Sammy often referred to the tricks and fights that used to take place both before and after the competitions. As a competitor it was never a good idea to leave your clogs unattended in the dressing room, when the laces could be easily get mysteriously cut. And from what Sammy said it seemed that any winner of a clog dance competition also had to justify his winning in a fight with his competitors behind the stage afterwards.

Sammy told me of one event, which may or may not be apocryphal, when Jimmy Ellwood had entered for a clog dance competition. The length of a competition clog routine was 12 steps, i.e. six distinct steps off each foot in turn. The last steps must always be 'double shuffles' (i.e. 'step shuffle, hop shuffle'). Jimmy said to Sammy "its a long routine and I will get tired, so just when I get to the end of the tenth step can you pull out your white handkerchief and wipe your brow, and this will be a signal for me to go into the 'double shuffles' and finish," - that would be for the final steps 11 and 12.

There would have been three judges for this, two watching the steps looking for poise, variety, and expertise, and the third under the stage listening for missed beats.

Unfortunately, one of the other competitors overheard this (Dickie Farrell?). And when Johnson got to the end of his eighth step out of the side of his eye he just caught site of a white handkerchief mopping a brow but it was not Sammy's!! He then did the 'double shuffles', finished, and was promptly disqualified for missing out a couple of steps.

Chris Brady, 1-2-95

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