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Clogger, TikTok Thyself
Zeb Ross works the overnight shift and didn't use social media. Then someone shot video of him clogging with his dance team at a festival. Millions of views later, he's just trying to keep it real.
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Before you go any further, take 22 seconds and watch this TikTok with the sound on. (NOTE: The original TikTok was deleted, but here’s a copy I preserved in a tweet.)
Done? No really, are you done? Because I’m not. I’ve watched that TikTok over and over. It’s mesmerizing. I had never—not once—considered what it might be like to watch a dude clogging to “Here Comes the Hotstepper,” but now it’s all I can think about.
Clogging isn’t the right word, though, because watch what this man is doing from the waist down.
Wait, there’s more.
I’ve tried, and failed, to explain what makes this video so addictive, but I think this is one of those whole package scenarios. It’s the footwork. The polo shirt and jeans. The flowing man mane. The giant smile. The rest of the dance company clapping in the background. The music. It is perfectly calibrated to make me smile, and to suck me in every time I see it.
I am not alone here. The original TikTok has nearly 6 million views, and variations of it have spread to Twitter and Instagram and… everywhere.
And, of course, it happened in North Carolina. Rabbit Hole reader and North Carolina expat Sam Spence sent me a note recently: “Yooo, the smooth-dancing clogger that's been all over my social feed for the past month is from Haywood County.”
That’s Not Hotsteppin’, That’s Buckdancin’
I called up Zebulon Ross one afternoon last week, because I had to wait for him to wake up. Zeb is a machine operator who works the overnight shift in Weaverville. He’s 27 now, and he’s been working there for the last ten years. His voice has a gentle mountain twang, and he speaks with an “aw shucks” tone. It’s pretty much what you’d expect him to sound like.
Also, dancing is sort of his family’s thing. His mother, Kim Campbell Ross, is from a little place called Snowflake, Virginia, near the home of the Carter family. Her dad was an “old fashioned flatfooter” and a tenant farmer. He’d dance on a box for nickels. Thirty years ago, she moved to Haywood County, a place where square dancing and clogging had a long tradition. The SoCo Gap Dance Team had formed in the 1920s, and in 1939, performed for the president and the king and queen of England.
Kim loved the tradition and wanted to keep it alive, so 13 years ago she formed the J. Creek Cloggers, named for Jonathan Creek near the Maggie Valley exit on Interstate 40. At first, there were just a handful of dancers. Today, there are about 40. It the team’s size and reputation grew by word of mouth. “We’re a goofy bunch,” Kim says. “We’re happy. And I think that’s what people gravitate toward. I’ve always said, I don’t care what religion or politics you have. We leave that at home. We all come together with music and dance.” They’ve now maxed out on dancers, so sorry, you can’t join. For now. “My table’s full,” she says.
Zeb’s been dancing with his mom’s group since he was a teenager. It was fun and, as he states several times, a great way to exercise. “It’s your gym workout for the week,” he says. After he started dancing with a team, he ate twice as much and lost ten pounds in a month. “I’d eat two foot longs in a day, and do Waffle House afterward,” he says.
For more than a decade, Zeb, Kim, and the J. Creek Cloggers found steady work around western North Carolina. They specialized in freestyle dancing, and didn’t have uniforms like a lot of other teams. Zeb got good by practicing, performing, and listening to his mom. He’d watch others and incorporate their moves. He gravitated toward buckdancing and clogging. As for the group, they steadily grew, but the team was always a hobby. Any money they made went into a community fund that people could tap into to help pay for, say, a vacation to Dollywood. The group was fairly well known around western North Carolina and had been featured in videos and stories as a group that was trying to keep old-style folk dancing alive.
Then in March, they performed at a spring festival at Darnell Farms in Bryson City. There were, maybe, 50 or 60 people watching. “We were doing our regular routine. Dancing. Getting good exercise,” Zeb says. One of the kids couldn’t make it, so Kim asked Zeb if he’d dance with the other kids. So he got up, shuffled, buckdanced, and clicked his heels during “show off time,” when each dancer gets about 30 seconds to show off the best of what they can do. Before all of that happened, a man came up to Zeb, identified himself as a TikToker from Georgia, and asked if he could record the show. Zeb didn’t have TikTok himself, but he said that seemed fine. The group was used to being captured on video. That was the last time Zeb saw him.
Two weeks later, Zeb’s wife called. You’re going viral, she told him. What? he replied.
Someone else called Kim, and told her that Zeb was taking off on TikTok. “I didn’t even know what TikTok or Instagram was,” she said. “I had no clue.”
Zeb wasn’t really on social media, but his mom had a Facebook page for the dance team, and once people figured out who Zeb was, they flooded Kim with questions. “I got hundreds of questions overnight," said Kim, who said the experience was great, but also a headache. “I was ready to throw my phone.”
The Legend of Zeb Ross
Once the initial video took off, people started grabbing it and setting it to different soundtracks. “Some guy named Eggs Tyrone on Instagram, he took it and put the music ‘The Thug’ to the TikTok,” Kim says. “He finally found us when we got Instagram and said ‘Hey man, I’ve been searching for you.’ We got so many hits on that side of it because of what he did.”
Next, Ryan Charles called. The country music artist was competing on NBC’s “American Song Contest,” and asked if he could drive in from Nashville to dance with Zeb. They made two videos which, together, got more than three million views. Next, Brian Kelly from Florida Georgia Line flew Zeb and Kim to his concert in Daytona Beach so they could dance to his new song: Beach Cowboy. “He’s the most down to earth person I’ve ever met,” Kim said of Brian. “We were treated like royalty.”
Since then, Zeb and the J. Creek Cloggers have waded their way into social media. Kim’s niece in Tennessee is getting a degree in digital marketing. She makes the Instagram and TikTok posts, although Kim answers the comments. Another woman in Virginia is doing the group’s Twitter. “I believe Elon Musk bought that, from my understanding,” Kim says. “I don’t know what that is.”
Kim thought this attention would last, at most, a week or two. It’s now going on a month and a half. “They’re calling him ‘The Legend Zeb Ross,’” she says of, well, the Internet. “They want J. Creek Clogger merchandise.” The issue, however, is that everyone in the group has a day (or overnight) job. Zeb works 10 to 12 hours a shift. Kim is a medical scribe who works from home for doctors in Michigan. Her husband, who calls the square dances, is a roofer. “I’m turning down engagements at this point,” she says. She’s trying to make sure people who might want to hire them understand that the group is clean cut, and they’re not bumping the gigs they’ve already lined up. “I don’t care how much pay for another engagement comes in,” Kim says. “This county’s always been here for us, and we’re going to fulfill all of these engagements we’ve already booked.”
As for Zeb himself, he knows exactly what he’s doing with his dancing. He’s now started making TikToks of his own (this one, of people gradually staring to notice his dancing in a country bar, is particularly delightful). He’s also making instructional videos, even though he’s not sure of the precise names of the moves he’s pulling off on stage. “People have compared the shuffling to Crip Walking,” he says. “Guess it’s the hillbilly Crip Walk.”
Since she’s started talking to people on Instagram, Kim says she’s tried to figure out why Zeb went viral (That way madness lies!). But Kim says people have given her a few clues through their feedback. For one thing, the footwork is incredible. For another, the clip can be used with nearly any music bed (the actual music being played was heavy on the banjo). But there’s also a joy to it. It’s something that you can see on the faces of everyone in the video, but especially Zeb, who says so far, being TikTok famous has been a positive experience. “If the worst thing they know about me is that I enjoy dancing, smiling, and spending time with my family,” he says, “I’m okay with it.”