In the movies, dancing in saloons of the Old West usually only consisted of a threatening gunfighter aiming his six-shooter at a victim’s feet while hollering, “Dance, stranger, dance!”
Country and Western hoofing is a bit more civilized these days, but what might surprise residents of the San Fernando Valley is that the state of the art in country two-stepping is in their own back yard at the Longhorn Saloon in Canoga Park.
Every Sunday night for a $3 cover charge, dozens of aspiring countrified Freds and Gingers learn the ropes from dance instructors Dianna Gravelle and Ed Failing. For the past three years, the two friends have helped turn the Longhorn Saloon into a highly popular nightspot.
“On Sunday nights, I’ve seen this place so crowded you couldn’t even get on the dance floor,” said Failing, 33, who also teaches solo Thursday night at the bar. “And this is probably the biggest dance floor in the Valley.”
According to Marilyn Cirspin, who manages the Longhorn on Sundays, the bar hits its capacity of 250 every Sunday night. “And it’s growing,” she said.
Much of the credit for the Longhorn’s success is shared by Failing and Gravelle, known to their hundreds of students as Ed and Dianna. With their easygoing, unintimidating style, the two can put the most nervous left-footers into a down-home comfort zone.
“Our main goal is to teach to have fun. If you don’t have fun learning these dances, you’re not going to learn,” said Gravelle, 33, who grew up in Arleta and now lives in Sepulveda. “I like to think that people come here to learn from us.”
Gravelle said most of the crowd is from the Valley, but some come from Ventura and as far away as Orange County. They get as many as 40 new people on the parquet dance floor every Sunday, most of whom hear of the Longhorn by word of mouth.
Although there are plenty of 10-gallon hats and cowboy boots, don’t expect a room full of “Hee Haw” extras. “When you come down and look at the people, you couldn’t tell if the person’s a lawyer or if he’s a ditchdigger. We don’t dress up to impress people--we’re casual,” said Failing, who has lived in California for 20 years, most recently in Sepulveda.
The two instructors admit that the country two-step is easy to pick up. “A person can learn our basic dance in two lessons,” Failing said. “If you break it down, there’s only two steps you’re doing--two walking steps and two running steps.
“The problem is that the first thing that comes to the minds of most people when you mention country dancing is square dancing,” he added. “And the second is the old-fogy stuff, the twangy country. It’s changed drastically in the last several years. Country music is becoming more uplifting.”
The Longhorn Saloon hasn’t always been the hoofin’ haven it is now. Before present owners Jim Grant and Jean Connors bought the bar six years ago, it was mostly for drinking.
Not any more. Grant and Connors upgraded and enlarged the dance floor and started sponsoring special country and Western events. In their flyers, they began billing the Longhorn as “The Valley’s Kickin’ Country Headquarters.”
Rick Huntington, 36, the Longhorn’s sound and security expert, estimates that about 1,000 people a year learn to dance there. “People don’t come here to drink and be rowdy. We keep this place well under control. The minute an argument starts, you’re out of here.” Huntington said the regular customers, along with the paid security staff, help police the Longhorn.
“Women who come here feel more comfortable than they can in any other kind of bar that Ed and I have been into because it’s more dance-related,” Gravelle said.
The accessibility of the Longhorn attracts countryphiles of all ages. “There are some nights where you’ll come in and they’ll all be 20 and 30 years old, and other nights they’ll all be in their 50s and 60s,” Gravelle said.
Despite the varying ages, there is a common thread among the crowd. “The majority here are single or going through divorces,” she said. “They’re people trying to assimilate back into the social scene.”
Dan Palmer, 45, a Longhorn regular for three years, was in a tailspin after a painful divorce a few years back. “I took it very hard and had some difficult times,” he recalled. “I started dancing here, and it gave me a release, a way to meet people and women in a non-threatening way. It helped me get back into life.”
Palmer, a Reseda resident, credits Gravelle, Failing and the type of dancing they teach for turning things around for him after he tried other dancing styles. “Disco is sex, ballroom is grace and tango is militaristic,” he said. “But country is friendly. I’m not saying there’s no exchanging of telephone numbers, but this isn’t a pickup joint.”
Another Longhorn regular, Linda Lee Harrison, echoes Palmer. “I spent years going to discos, but here I’ve found a home,” said Harrison, 39, of Chatsworth. The familial atmosphere is remarkable considering the eclectic mix of people, she said. “Some people here are attorneys, CPAs, some construction workers and a few rednecks,” she said, laughing.
Failing and Gravelle met, appropriately enough, on a dance floor in Simi Valley eight years ago. After stints at a couple of dance studios, the two formed a dance team called the Silk ‘n’ Spurs. They then approached the new owners of the Longhorn and agreed to teach free for a while for free admission, Gravelle said. “We were kind of helping each other out because it was a new club, and he couldn’t spend a lot of money.”
The typical Sunday routine starts with Gravelle leading the beginners class at 6 p.m. while Failing works the CD player. Gravelle, speaking through a microphone headset, separates the men and women on the dance floor. After walking each group through their paces, she couples them off. If she happens to be short either men or women, Gravelle will pick an experienced dancer from the bar, usually one of the members of a dance team she has organized, Dianna’s Longhorn Renegades, made up of 15 or so Longhorn patrons.
At 6:30, Gravelle begins the line dances by placing the dancers in rows and leading them through one of the six routines. Failing said the most popular line dance is called the Tush Push. “You push your hips forward and back,” he explained. “It’s an aerobics-type thing.
“Line dances are a way of getting people out on the dance floor to say, ‘I’m available; I like to dance. Ask me to dance later,’ ” Failing said.
At 7, the intermediate class begins, with Failing taking over. This is where the more complicated twists and turns are attempted, but you don’t have to be a veteran rhythm ace to join in. After an hour of intermediate, a live band starts to play and Failing leaves the students on their own.
The instructors explain that what distinguishes this type of dancing is the close contact. “The feeling of touch makes a big difference,” Failing said. “In rock bars, you just jump up and down and never get to know the person.”
Larry Seligman and Michelle Ellison of Redondo Beach are Longhorn enthusiasts who know what Failing means. “When you get a good dancer and you do it good together, it feels really good,” Ellison said. “With disco, you’re not together.”
Ellison speaks from experience. She and Seligman met on the Longhorn dance floor 2 1/2 years ago and plan to get married next year. “Ed and Dianna bring people together,” Seligman said.
The regulars are eager to welcome newcomers. One of the novices, Tamara Sprigal, came after hearing about it from a friend. “I love it,” said Sprigal, 40, a psychologist from Northridge. “The people are nice, and nobody hits on you.”
Sprigal said she would recommend the experience to people she counsels. “It’s a way to meet people where they don’t feel threatened,” she said. “I could see myself becoming a regular.”
Friends Pam Young and Steve Cifra, both decked out in Western garb in their first time on the dance floor, were impressed with the lessons. “I’m going to tell my daughter,” said Young, 60. She and Cifra, 63, said they’ll be back on dance night in the future.
Failing believes that the crossover appeal of country can hook anybody into being a Longhorn regular. “I’ve had a lot of people who were into rock ‘n’ roll or disco come into a country bar and hate country,” he said. “Within three or four visits, they have switched their attitudes about country music.”
The Longhorn Saloon is at 21211 Sherman Way, Canoga Park. Sunday night dance lessons start at 6. Cover charge is $3. Lessons are free. Call (818) 340-4788 for details.