Western Swing 3
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History of Western Swing

Chapter Three:  FRIGHT NIGHT -
My
Day of Reckoning Finally Arrives
Rick Archer, SSQQ, 1999

INTRODUCTION

My dance career has been charmed. Just months before Saturday Night Fever had come out, by an odd coincidence I had just begun to teach Disco. As a result I was one of the first Disco instructors in all of Houston even though I barely knew what I was doing. I may have been green, but I grew into my job. 

Now miraculously in spite of my terrible attitude, with Urban Cowboy I had repeated my earlier magic. Without any intention or foresight on my part, once again I was miraculously in the right place at the right time as practically the first Western dance teacher in Houston.

And as before with Disco, I barely knew what I was doing, but I was willing to learn.

The students started to line up the moment Urban Cowboy came out, the TGIS students started rolling in, and my Western class listings appeared in the Class Factory. Things were looking very good indeed except for one thing...

I still barely knew how to Western dance.  I was literally One Step, not Two Step, ahead of my students. One Mis-Step and the word would be out what a fraud I was.

Worst of all, I nursed a secret fear that what I was teaching had little or no relationship to what was ACTUALLY BEING DANCED in the Western dance clubs.

I had no idea if what I was teaching was right because I didn't have the guts to go look. Meanwhile I was scared to death I would be exposed as a scam artist. What if Joanne had shown me something crazy?  What I was teaching was based on her word. What if she was confused, a very real possibility?

Yes, I was actually stupid enough to start teaching the Meyerland Club, Class Factory and TGIS Western class before I had even visited a Western club. 

Then one night my students cornered me into going Western dancing with them whether I liked it or notThey would not take "NO" for an answer.

Would I finally be exposed as the fraud I truly was - the western dance teacher who couldn't western dance?  This ridiculous mistake led to one of the scariest moments in my dance career.  

THE FRAUD

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was "The Great Imposter", the incredible true story of a man named Ferdinand Waldo Demara.

This man was amazing as he
faked his way into a series of highly important positions.

Demara had no formal training in any of his many adopted careers as a psychologist, university lecturer, Trappist monk and prison warden, to name but a few.  He even managed to fake his way through a tooth extraction and three surgeries during the Korean War as a would-be doctor!! 

Incredibly, Demara received so much praise for his medical work that it led to his demise. Word of his skill traveled so far the person whose identity he stole heard about his "double" and turned Demara in. After he was actually caught, Demara collapsed in a fit of embarrassment and remorse. 

Eventually Demara recovered, but did he change his ways?  No course not, he moved on to further bogus careers as a law student, cancer researcher, deputy sheriff, and English teacher.  Don't you find it amazing he never bothered to try 'Western Dance Instructor'?  I guess he left that one to me. 

Yes, it is sad but true - over a quarter of a century ago, the future owner of Houston's largest Country-Western dance studio faked his way through his first three months of teaching.  I began to teach Western Dance classes long before I had actually ever gone Western dancing in a club.

So how you ask did I managed to put the cart in front of the horse??  Good question.

One reason I didn’t go western dancing was my bitterness towards all things "Country".

I am not going to lie about it. I received my education at a Houston prep school. The bias against the country lifestyle was huge. The University of Texas was "In", Texas A&M was "out".  Aggie jokes were the rule of the day. The stereotype of Jed Clampett and the Beverly Hillbillies lingered in my mind. Longhorns were slick, Aggies were hick.  Please forgive my prejudice.  I was the product of my environment.

Furthermore, not
only did I hate Western music, but I blamed Urban Cowboy and everything associated with it for killing my first love. The Western lifestyle was guilty of murdering the one thing I truly loved -  Disco Dancing! 

Disco had been my passion for 5 years!  I had loved Disco dancing long before Saturday Night Fever ever arrived.  Even though I was now making good money teaching Western dancing, that wasn’t enough reason for me to want to actually go dance it.  No more Latin Hustle. No more Donna Summer music. Disco was Sexy, Country was Boring.  I had one BIG chip on my shoulder.  I had the worst attitude imaginable and here I was the best known western teacher in the city. Go figure. Talk about irony.

The second reason I didn't want to go dancing in the western clubs was my fear of looking clumsy in front of my students. I could tell I was a better Western dancer than my own students were, but I had no idea how good the people in the clubs were.  Wouldn't it be nice to "Practice ahead of time" when no one was looking?  The truth is I had my chances to go Western dancing (people invited me to go with them all the time), but the chip on my shoulder prevented me from going on a much-needed scouting mission. Big mistake. 

The third reason was the most serious. I carried the deep-seated fear I could be unmasked as a total fraud. You see, even before the Meyerland Club job had ended, I had accepted a second Western teaching job. Some of my Disco students at Stevens had approached me to teach Western to them. Since I had a month of experience under my belt from the Meyerland Club, I said okay.

THE GUINEA PIGS

In November 1979, a class of 20 brave pioneers formed.  Except that they didn't know they were pioneers. There's a saying you can always tell who was a "pioneer" by the arrows in their back...  well, this time the pioneer was very nearly yours truly.

In 1979 my Disco students were also my friends. We were all close in age and my entire social life revolved around people I had met at the studio.

Not surprisingly, I was closest to my Advanced Disco Dancers. You don't become "advanced" overnight. Sure enough, my first Western class formed with Stevens students were people I had known for up to six months. We had been out dancing Disco on many different occasions.

So when they pestered me to begin teaching Country, I told them I was no expert, but they said that was okay with them, they weren't either. However they did not know I was basically no more than a beginner at best.

This group proved to be a much tougher gig than I had anticipated for two deadly reasons. The Meyerland Club students were total beginners and never practiced a minute outside of class. The whole group was doing it strictly as an excuse to socialize.  The women came so they could wear their new Western outfits and the men came because they were told to.

PLAYING WITH FIRE

This Disco group was a different story. These were experienced dancers AND they went out dancing after class!   As a result, even though I had a head start on them, due to their practice, several of the men were nipping on my heels.

I was flirting with disaster. My worst fear was that someone who knew more than I did would say something in class and the house of cards would come tumbling down.

I had been teaching this second group for perhaps a month when my students began to ask me to go Western dancing with them after class. I brushed them off, but then they asked again the next week.

Imagine my panic. I honestly did not know if the steps I was teaching even worked in the Real World! 

In other words, everything I was teaching was based on the word of Joanne Wilson who had the verbal skills of a Jungle Girl when it came to explaining the dancing to me. She was well-meaning, but Cheetah could have probably explained the footwork to me better than her.

I was worried that she had either gotten her steps from Planet Jupiter or that I had completely misinterpreted what she was trying to show me.  There was a real chance that maybe the people who taught her didn't know what they doing either. 

My fears worsened after a curious incident in the last week of November 1979.

One night my students said they were going Western dancing right after class. Did I want to come with them?  "No No No", is what I thought. "Gosh, I would love to, but I already have plans," is what I said. Then they asked if I could show them how to Waltz. This I could do. I taught them a well-known Ballroom Waltz move known as the "Box Step".  

A Waltz is a Waltz, right?  Wrong.  That's my point. I was completely ignorant.

Next week marked the start of December. As I noticed the Waltz students stroll into class, a dangerous thought crossed my mind. I should have known better, but with a morbid, albeit self-destructive curiosity, I asked them how their Waltz worked.  Frowns crossed their faces. They said it worked fine until everyone began to run them over.  Oh?  My brow furrowed.  Yes, they said, the people were so rude, they would just run them over. No one actually danced in one spot, they said. They moved around the floor. And, by the way, could I show them the Traveling Waltz?

It was this very moment I remembered the story about 'The Great Imposter'.  Would everyone now discover I barely knew what I was doing??

Uncomfortable comparisons to this miserable fraud darted through my mind’s eye. This was a test. My students were starting to get suspicious. Fortunately, I remembered that the Ballroom Waltz also had a Traveling Step, so I showed them that. This bought me some time, but not as much as I needed.

I had the vague feeling that they were on to me.  My paranoia began to kick in.

It didn't help my confidence any that before class I noticed the couple split up and visit with different members of the class.  They were clearly networking, but I had no way of knowing what they were saying.

Throughout the evening I noticed the couple watching me. A terrible case of paranoia was setting in. Why were they watching me??

AMBUSH

I felt like the jaws of the worst trap I have ever fallen into were slowly beginning to open!!

The evening's class went well, but at the end of class, 20 people hovered around me. They said they were all going Western dancing that night. They wanted me to go with them. They were "insistent".  They said they didn't understand why I would go Disco dancing with them at the drop of a hat, but resisted going Western dancing. 

'Oh, no,' I thought. This was tough logic to refute. I hemmed and hawed. I figured all I had to do was avoid going ONE MORE TIME and then I would do my homework like I should have long ago. 

The realization crossed my mind that my own students had been dancing in Western clubs but I hadn't. This was getting ridiculous.

Maybe they should be teaching me. And maybe they were thinking the same thing I was... 

I tried to stall. I said, "What about next week?"

One lady smiled sweetly at me and said, "Rick, that is exactly what you have said the three previous times we asked.  Why don't you want to go with us?  Are you ashamed to be seen with us?  Is our dancing that bad?"

Do you know what it is like to be ganged up on?  Twenty people had me encircled.  They had paid good money and invested their time in me because I said I could deliver the goods. Now they were suspicious that I didn't have a clue what I was doing. 

The sharks were circling.  And they smelled blood...

I gulped. I began to sweat. I hadn't realized I had put these people off three times already using the same excuse. More catastrophic thoughts raced through my mind: What if they dance Western in the clubs different than I teach it? Will my students notice?  Plus I still had trouble on any new song telling the difference between a Twostep and a Polka; I always had to ask somebody and memorize the answer. Do they announce in the club whether it is a Twostep or a Polka?  Somehow I doubted it. Where was Joanne to bail me out?  I was going to have to get myself out of this mess. 

I just stood there like a giant statue. I was so nervous I could not even think of a good excuse. Finally I blurted out, "Gosh, I don't even know where the place is!!"  Bad move. 

One of the men said, "'Cowboy' is the new name for the 'Foxhunter Club' where you and I used to go Disco dancing. You can follow me if you want."  40 eyes stared at me. I had a bad feeling about this. I could not think fast enough on my feet to put it off one more week without losing a lot of credibility.  It was time to put up or shut up.

I was cornered.  With all eyes on me, reluctantly I said, "Yes. I guess I can go."

The Trap was Sprung. Would the Charlatan be exposed??

Since we all left at the same time, by coincidence two students followed me over there. Or was it coincidence?  My dread that they were deliberately following me ratcheted up my paranoia to new heights.  Were they behind me to see if I would try to chicken out?  If so, they were smart because that was EXACTLY WHAT I WANTED TO DO.

I wanted to turn and drive home.  But I didn't dare. Twenty witnesses were there to testify I had given my word I would go.

It was longest drive of my entire life. My head was spinning with anxieties. 

Showdown at the Cowboy Corral!!  Is this the night Rick will be exposed?  Will he be the worst dancer in the entire club?  Will he be seen doing the Polka to a Twostep?  Is there any chance he can practice his dancing without anyone watching?  Of course not.  And will he be exposed as the total fraud he is? 

I was sick to my stomach with nerves by the time we got there. My terror of exposure was overwhelming, but I forced myself to enter the club. I avoided my students. In a way, I was actually glad to be there. I was very curious to see what an Western club was like.

But that didn't mean I was in any hurry to dance.
There was no way I was going to get out there without at least seeing if the dancing on the floor resembled the dancing I taught at the studio. For some time now I had been haunted by the nagging feeling that my style and their style were not the same.  

FRIGHT NIGHT

So I stood by the railing at the side of the floor. I studied the feet of the dancers. I did not recognize any of the footwork. I grew more worried. My fears seemed to be coming true. Now to make things worse, the ladies in the class began to pester me to dance. They were obviously unaware that I was having a major career crisis. The men in the group kept watching me too. I have little doubt that at least a couple of them were suspicious as hell. I could feel their eyes boring holes in my back. This is as bad as I feared it would be.

I didnít know what to do, but I knew the clock was ticking. I still didnít know a Twostep from a Polka. I didnít know if my footwork would fit the music. I did know however that the knot in my stomach was becoming unbearable. Ordinarily I'm not much of drinker, but I was so tense I knocked down three beers in fifteen minutes. Soon I became anesthetized. 

I had to make a move. I looked around and located the sweetest, most sympathetic woman in my class. Her name was Sally. She was 20 years older than me and not the best dancer in the class.  She was not even remotely threatening to me which made her the perfect choice for my first dance.  She sure saved my butt.  

Before I got out on the floor, I used the old trick of waiting to see which dance everyone else was doing before getting on the floor.  No one had taught me this trick, but it occurred to me right off the bat. The footwork looked very much like a Polka, but who knows what it really was?  All I remember was I was unsure of my Twostep, so it was going to be Polka or nothing.

My dancing was stiff and mechanical as the first-time jitters struck, but thank goodness what I was teaching worked enough to fake my way through the song. Whatever it was Joanne and I had cooked up was close enough. I doubt seriously I was even remotely near the beat, but who was counting? 

My shoulders sagged with relief as I realized once again I had lucked out of a tight spot. I seemed to have the nine lives of a cat. This however had been a close call.  

Now I noticed the other women in the group were lining up to dance with me.  This included the younger women who were good dancers.  I had noticed these women had danced with other men in the club. I worried that by comparison they would be able to recognize how bad I was.

Uh oh. Maybe I wasn't out of the woods after all.  Sure enough, the Suspicious Couple were still watching me. No, I wasn't out of the woods yet.

As a way to avoid the other women who might expose me, I just stayed out on the floor with the Unknown Brave Dancer.  Another song played. Then another. To my surprise, the thought crossed my mind that the music was not nearly as bad as I expected it would be.  But I was concentrating too much on counting '123 456' over and over in my head to give it more than a passing thought.

I continued to dance. The floor became my sanctuary in the arms of my guardian angel.  That's when I realized how drunk I was.  Who cared?

Ordinarily I don't recommend drinking too much because a man needs to remember leads, footwork, and patterns. However on this occasion my 3 beers turned out to be a blessing because it shut my fear-crazed brain down completely. Then something amazing happened -  For the first time in life I realized I actually could hear the beat of the music!!  

It was a song called "Right or Wrong" sung by Roseanne Cash. And you know what?  I was astonished at how pretty the music was to listen to.  This was the moment I realized for the first time that not all Western music sounded like Willie/Waylon/Merle. The music being played in the club was rhythmic and very danceable.   

Joanne Wilson's music had been "old Country", also referred to at times as "Outlaw Country".  This was "new Country" music.  I was enjoying listening to a lot of the music I was hearing. Plus this Cowboy place wasn't so bad. Located just blocks from the Galleria, the women were damn good-looking, the place was expensively decorated and furnished, and the music was energetic. It was a far cry from the dump I had visited with Joanne back six months earlier (Joanne's Country Club

When I had practiced with Joanne, not once had I ever listened to the music. But tonight after the fifth song, I started to feel the beat.  Soon after this discovery I realized for the first time how the music fit the steps. Now that I was connected to the music, the dancing was actually starting to be fun!  Amazing.

Then the DJ played a song called "Couldn't do Nothing Right". I had to laugh. How appropriate!  It became my theme song for the evening. I noticed some of that huge chip on my shoulder was starting to dissolve. I liked a lot of this music!

I kept dancing. Round and round and round we went. One lap after another with my wonderful Sally. She was actually dancing better too!  The practice was helping her too. All kinds of discoveries!!  

Then I noticed that as I practiced, the more I found I could forget about my footwork. My footwork was becoming automatic.  Since I didn't have to think about my feet, for lack of anything else to do I started to hear the words to the songs as well!  Imagine that. I was listening to the words to Country-Western music.  Like most bigotry, my prejudice had been fueled by ignorance.

Now I heard "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" playing. This was an up-tempo tune that actually got my blood moving. It wasn’t Disco, but it wasn’t bad either. I made yet another discovery. Joanne's taste in Western music had been at the opposite end of the spectrum from mine. She liked the twang; I liked what this place was playing. My guess is the DJ knew his Galleria-area clientele would prefer a different sound than perhaps the Gilley's crowd would. At any rate, I liked this music!! 

This might just work out after all. There was hope.

Before the night was through I danced with all the girls in my class, young and old.  I was no superstar out there, but I was good enough to make believers out of them. Yes, I had made a narrow escape. I would live to dance another day.

MY BIG DISCOVERY

I was overwhelmed by the number of discoveries I had made during this evening of adventure, but the next day I received one more benefit from my big night at the Western Club.  

As you can imagine, I awoke the next morning with a bad hangover.  Trying to shake it off, I took my two dogs Emily and Sissy out for a walk. I was still half-asleep. About halfway through the walk I woke up enough to notice myself doing an odd skip along the sidewalk. Ordinarily I don't 'skip' when I take walks, but for some reason I just couldn’t help doing it because it felt so good! !  

I watched myself as my feet kept up this bizarre little 123 – 4 shuffle pattern. It was kind of fun, but it was also weird because it reminded me of 'automatic handwriting'.  Maybe a ghost from the other side had my feet on a string.  My feet had definitely developed a life of their own. I realized I had been skipping, shuffling, sliding or whatever it was I was doing for about several blocks before the odd pattern had come to my attention.

Now I started to pay even closer attention. For some reason I did a big dip on the second step. Up Down Up Pause. It suddenly dawned on me that I was doing some form of the Twostep, my worst dance!!  

I came to the conclusion that sometime during the night the true rhythm of the Twostep had somehow snuck into my toenails and taken possession of my feet.

Better watch out or the rhythm is gonna getcha!!  It definitely got me!!

I decided to analyze my "Skip Step".  I made two more interesting discoveries.  

First I noticed I was starting my shuffle on the quick instead of the slow.  That was odd, I thought, since the Twostep I had learned from Joanne started on the Slow.  Now it seemed easier to start the Twostep on the Quick. 

Second, previously I had always paused after the Quicks.

This won't be easy to explain, but I will try anyway.

Although I didn't know it, I had never learned to dance the Twostep properly. In my brain I danced two Slows, then two Quicks. After the two Slows, I would hesitate and after the two Quicks I would hesitate again. One of these "hesitations" was incorrect which explained why I was always losing the beat. This was of course wrong, but remember I had no instructor to correct me.

The dancing from the previous night had actually removed that unnecessary hesitation.
 

The important lesson I gained from this experience is that good dance teaching need only get you close, then practice will fill in the gaps.

When it comes to dancing, Practice does make Perfect. 
 

THE TURNING POINT

As you can gather, my visit to Cowboy was the proverbial "Turning Point". It was the night when Western Dancing and Western Music became my friends for the first time.

As noted previously, many of my prejudices and much of my bitterness began to fade away. There was light shining between the trees now.

BUT NOT OUT OF THE WOODS YET...  THE DAWN OF WESTERN SWING

The darkness was definitely lifting, but unbeknownst to me I had one more obstacle to overcome.  Unfortunately the next obstacle was going to be a tough one.

The sudden and untimely Death of Disco here in Houston was about to have some surprising consequences.  In our next Chapter, we watch as Disco rises from the Underworld to be reincarnated into a new dance form known as "Western Swing".


In Chapter Four of the History of Western Swing, learn how an entire city went stark raving nuts over a movie.  Click here to learn the often hilarious, sometimes dark effects Urban Cowboy had on Houston.

 
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