Western Swing 4
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Summer of 1980:  Houston's Western Swing Time Line

July 1980:   Urban Cowboy debuts. Very few people know how to Western dance.  Everyone is trying to learn at the same time, but there are no teachers. As a result women dance backwards for most of every song. 

August 1980:   Many more newcomers to the scene (including me). At least half the crowd can dance a traditional Twostep and Polka. A Third of the dancers have learned the Circle Turns. Primitive forms of Western Swing emerge plus a few mysterious double turns. No one seems to know what the secret is. 

September 1980:  Western Swing starts to take hold. Most people people can do some simple underarm turns. Many couples have learned the secret of the double turns. By the end of the month, Critical Mass hits. By now all the best dancers are trying to learn how the double turns work.  

The History of Western Swing

Chapter 4: The Arrival of "Urban Cowboy" is followed by Seeds of Discontent

Rick Archer, SSQQ, 1999

September 1979 was the month Joanne Wilson helped me learn how to dance the Polka and the Twostep. It was the month where I taught the Meyerland Club plus a few classes at my studio.  Now ten months later the movie finally arrived.

Urban Cowboy made its world debut here in Houston in July 1980.  Its impact on Houston was phenomenal, especially in my corner of the world. Overnight the movie created an incredible surge of interest in Western dancing. 

The summer of 1980 would first see an entire population struggling to learn how to Western dance despite a near-total absence of teachers. Then came the explosive development of a new dance that I would come to call "Western Swing". It was a busy summer for me full of incredible highs and stupefying lows. I was in for one heck of a roller coaster ride! 

My Fright Night Adventure at Cowboy mentioned in the last chapter had occurred in November 1979.  I had been Western dancing several times since, but truth be told, I still went Disco Dancing whenever I could. 

But Disco was almost gone now that
Urban Cowboy had finally arrived. As July 1980 began, I was teaching several Western classes. After my Fright Night of Reckoning early in July helped remove my phobia about Western dancing and music, I made a habit to go dancing afterwards with each of my Western classes.  I wasn't just a Western dance hall regular, for the next two month I practically lived in the clubs. It was my new profession after all-  Western dance teacher.  Disco?  Never heard of it.

The club scene was so weird at first!  I saw all the same faces in the Western clubs that I had seen in the Disco clubs.  These people loved to dance, so most of Houston's Disco dancers simply traded in their Disco dresses and their polyester leisure suits for designer jeans. The presence of all these fake cowboys created a resentment that resulted in a huge redneck backlash here in Houston. 25 years later this phenomenon seems ridiculous beyond belief, but there was a lot tension in the clubs for half a year.

Before Urban Cowboy very few people danced Western here in Houston. For one thing,  there was zero demand for Western dance classes.

Indeed I had never received even one request to learn how to Western dance. For example, in 1977 and 1978, I had not had one person ask me to teach Western lessons.

I would watch as Mr. Stevens would teach his once-a-month Crash Course in Western Dancing. In addition to the Cotton-Eyed Joe and the Schottische, the highlight of his class was "Put Your Little Foot". Oh my. I used to roll my eyes. What's next, the Hokey-Pokey?  Western in Houston, Texas, was non-existent in my circles. Yes, Gilley's was in Pasadena, but I was just barely conscious of its existence.

For another thing, Joanne Wilson had told me there were only a few western dance clubs in the days before Urban Cowboy and they were not terribly crowded.  

However once Urban Cowboy hit the theaters in Houston, there was a tidal wave of interest!  The floors were so packed it was bumper to bumper out there. Immediately it was not only cool for yuppies and ex-Disco dancers to Western dance for the first time, it was extremely cool for a lot of Kickers to dance Western for the first time in their lives!  

Over the years a lot of Houstonians may have listened to Western music on the radio, but that didn't mean they had ever danced to it. 

The debut of Urban Cowboy signaled to all the Western music fans that it was their turn to dominate. There was a lot of symbolism in the fact that John Travolta, the hated Ravolta of Disco Dancing, was now an Urban Cowboy. It was very much like when Michael Jordan switched to Baseball for a whileDisco "Dancing" had been UNCOOL to many people with a Country upbringing, but COUNTRY DANCING was super-cool. 

The same people who definitely sat out the Disco Era watching in disgust over all the silly Dance Fever hijinks and shenanigans were ready to Twostep. Unfortunately not everyone had a good attitude. If you think I was prejudiced against Western music, there were a lot of Western music lovers who were just as prejudiced against Disco music. 

Let's review the scene. As the movie appeared in July, you had four groups of dancers: 

  1. Displaced Disco Dancers who had never danced western in their life.
  2. Yuppies who had never danced western in their life... or Disco for that matter.
  3. Kickers who had never danced western in their life.
  4. The few A&M graduates who actually knew what they were doing out on the dance floor. 

Truthfully, I would guess 95% of the people on Houston's Western dance floors in June 1980 were dancing Western for the first time in their lives.  That included a lot of people who drove pickup trucks with the dial set to KIKK-FM.

Think about it: Only one person in twenty in Houston had ever been Western Dancing before Urban Cowboy.  


As I mentioned earlier there was plenty of meanness and hostility displayed in the clubs right from the start.  Many of the Kickers treated this opportunity as "their turn" and were not at all happy to see the Disco Dancers suddenly invading their citadels wearing Country clothing. Their rallying cry was "I was Country when Country wasn't Cool".  

A lot of these guys may have been Country, but that didn't mean they could dance country.

Anybody with an eyeball could see the former Disco Dancers were picking up the dancing faster than the non-dancing Kickers did. 

This did not boost their popularity one bit. 

There was a lot of chaos on the floors because so few people knew what they doing and everybody was jam packed together. There were a lot of deliberate dodge 'em car antics where the Disco people got knocked down or elbowed or shoved from behind by the Wrangler crowd. I'm not kidding. I got elbowed many times. I nearly got in a fight more than once I was so angry at the deliberate rudeness. 

Prime time for displays of hostility would occur whenever the Western clubs would play an occasional Disco song.  As the Disco refugees began to dance to it, the hard-core Western types would Polka to the song and deliberately run the Disco dancers over, especially the ones trying to partner dance. 

Stupid? Yes. Did stuff like that really happen? Yes.  It happened to me several times, especially at a place called "Broncos". I would be dancing the Latin Hustle only to be run down by someone dancing the Polka deliberately close to my partner and me.

Other nonsense from the UC Era included the blue jean wars. Back in those days, Real Cowboys wore Wranglers,  Fake Cowboys wore designer jeans such as Gloria Vanderbilt. 

The Western apparel stores were making a killing.  Some women spent minor fortunes on Western clothing and accessories. You should have seen some of the outfits!!   There were a lot of Yuppie women new to the scene who didn't just cross the line with their elitist snobbery, they demolished it... Western shirts with tassels, vests with sequins, boots, hats, turquoise necklaces with matching earrings and belts, Navajo skirts, braided hair...

The word 'pretentious' doesn't even begin to describe it. 

Gotta make those fashion statements, I guess, but personally I wanted to run over some of those outfits myself.  Some of the rich Yuppie girls looked ridiculous.

The Times were strange. There was definite tension between the obvious Country types enjoying their day in the sun and the Disco converts feeling their way through a hostile new environment. 

The entire city went nuts because of a movie... and a lot of the craziness revolved around Western dancing!!

Another situation that added to the tension was the obvious fact that virtually everyone out on floor was new to the Country-Western dance scene. Most people did not begin have a clue how to dance a Twostep.  I already mentioned the deliberate collisions, but there were constant accidental collisions as well from total beginners running into each other. People got their feet stepped on all the time, especially the brave women.

For one thing, there were no Western teachers and no place to learn ahead of time.  As a result most people tried to learn the hard way right out on the floor.  It was baptism by fire.  Predictably these huge numbers of new dancers were just awful. In confusion they would stop in the middle of the floor all the time, causing frequent traffic jam pileups that angered the few authentic Western dancers no end. 

Anyone who enjoys a good wreck at the Indy 500 would have loved watching the Western dancing in the Summer of 1980.  Unless you were one of the people unlucky enough to run smack dab into a stalled Twostep couple in the middle of the floor only to be crushed by another couple from behind, these were very humorous moments to observe.  My friends and I would spot one particularly hapless pair of dancers and watch their adventures as they staggered around the floor creating enormous collateral damage!   What a hoot!   Human billiard balls out of control were bouncing from one couple to another. Now I knew why there was a railing - same reason as a skating rink!!  

I became well aware that there was an enormous new market for my talents, feeble as they were at the time. My business instincts were exploding with the sense of opportunity. I don't think a shark in bloody water was any more frenzied.  I drooled at the possibilities. My pain over the loss of Disco subsided the moment my phone began to ring off the hook from former Disco students who couldn't western dance. 

At first everyone was caught up in the task of learning this new type of dancing. Once I got the hang of it, I was surprised to find out that Western dancing was easier to teach than Disco. Plus a student could put their lessons to use almost immediately. I didn't just enjoy the money. I enjoyed teaching Western and I liked dancing Western.  I was even beginning to like a lot of the music. Wonders never cease. Yes, that "chip" was gone now.

However just when I thought things were about to ease up, a new problem developed, one that would lead to profound consequences. As I said, Western dancing was much easier to learn than Disco.  I would imagine I picked it up in a quarter of the time it took me to master Disco. This was great in the beginning. For example, as I discovered on my Fright Night, it just took one night of serious practice to get the hang of it. I was elated!

However, the bloom quickly wore off.  To my despair, I realized that after just a couple of weeks of steady Western dancing, a sense of monotony was starting to set in. I began to wonder if there were any bigger Western dance challenges down the road.  There better be, I thought, or I might have to look around for a day job. 

I wasn't alone in this concern. As the adrenaline from the initial stages of the new dance craze began to wear off, the former Disco crowd admitted that they were starting to miss Disco a lot. The consensus was the lack of complexity in Western dancing was driving them nuts.  Blasphemy!! 

We knew Disco was not coming back.  It was starting to fade in other parts of the country as well. Houston was six months ahead of the USA in this regard.

But the buzz among the ex-Disco crowd was that Western dancing was starting to become - dare I say it? - "Boring"  

This awareness led to an intense concern on my part. What if there was nothing more to Western dancing?  How long would interest in the dance last if we had already seen all there was to do?  Would forwards/backwards/&circles be enough to sustain my career as a Western dance instructor? 

These fears had me very worried. Little did I know that just around the corner these concerns would lead me down a new dangerous path.

I was about to make one of the biggest mistakes of my dance career and it would cost me. I was finally exposed as a Fraud.

In the final Chapter of the History of Western Swing, 
our Hero nearly self-destructs and has to face a second Fright Night of Reckoning.  
 This time he cleverly attempts to teach a dance before he even knows how to dance it.  Sound familiar?
Click here for the Birth of the Western Swing!

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