Kay Wilkins was born and raised in the Plumtree community of Avery County, and she taught clogging and traditional dance starting in the late 1940s. “We started with Appalachian square dancing,” she said, “doing the country dance shuffle.” Kay’s father was a dance caller, and he helped host events for the local Presbyterian boarding school for boys. On the weekends, Kay’s family and friends entertained the boys with candy pulls, ice skating, and many house dances. Kay and her sister would sit and watch when they were too young to dance. “I couldn’t wait until I grew up so I could dance with some of those boys,” Kay remembered.
Kay later attended Appalachian Teachers College receiving a degree in physical education and history. She took a class on folk dancing, but much of her knowledge came from watching and participating in dances her father called in Plumtree. When Kay graduated, she moved back to Plumtree to help work at the family’s country store. She also taught for the local schools, coaching basketball and doing the school’s bookkeeping on the side.
She approached her principal about entering a dance competition at the Hubert Hayes Mountain Youth Jamboree in Asheville, North Carolina. “They told me I needed eight couples for the team in order to enter,” she remembered. Reluctantly, he let her form a dance team, and she started teaching traditional dance since then. At the first competition, Kay’s team took third place and got their pictures on the front of the Asheville Citizen-Times. The following year, the team took second, and the third year her team won first place, an honor they would be awarded fifteen times over a twenty-five year span. Kay had numerous winning teams at different championships including the Youth Jamboree, the North Carolina State Fair, and other competitions.
When her dance teams were first starting, they were invited to perform in the town of Cherokee during a festival. They returned year after year, and during that time, Kay befriended many Cherokee dancers. They would often invite her to dance with them, and over time, she learned their buck step. “It was a solo dance,” she recalled. Kay acquired the step and used it as her team’s basic step, a move that set them apart from the competition. “Buck step was our basic step, and we’d go into our patterns from there,” she said.
Kay also spent some time in New York City working at the Rockefeller Center during World War II. During this time, she saw the Rockettes every chance she got. Watching their tightly coordinated steps gave Kay an idea, and she proceeded to develop precision clogging. Kay is noted in the American Hall of Fame for being the first traditional dance instructor to use precision clogging, a form that is standard in today’s clogging teams all over the country.
Kay’s dance teams performed in Paris and all over the country, including many times at the National Folk Festival. She preferred to dance to live music throughout her career, and she worked with a number of Avery County traditional musicians, most notably Jim and Jennie Vance.