Getting the Boot From a Dance Class

TIMES STAFF WRITER; When not taking dance lessons, Charlie Waters is an assistant View editor

I grew up in rural Arizona and spent many weekends on a working ranch. Sometimes, on Saturday evenings, we drove to a country school, where we'd dance until the last strains of the country fiddle or a fight broke out among the cowboys--whichever came first.

I played for five years in a rock band that on occasion had to be as familiar with Buck Owens as the Beatles. And I met my wife in a country-Western club, courting her as we swayed to "Amarillo by Morning."

Why then, with this background, am I about to fail Glendale Community College's adult extension class in beginning country-Western dance?

Lord knows, I'm trying.

Very, says my wife and dance partner.

I had a premonition that this might turn out to be my Dance Class from Hell. On our way to the first class, I told Linda that I just wanted to freshen up on a couple of easy, basic dances, that I didn't want to do anything too fancy or difficult--like the Cotton-Eyed Joe.

The first dance we learned that night? The Cotton-Eyed Joe. Its steps and shuffles appear fairly easy at a slow, practice speed. When the music quickens, however, it's a nightmare. I was awful even at practice speed and only somewhat comforted that most of the class fared little better.

I improved a bit with the second dance, named for the Oak Ridge Boys' song "Elvira." It's a little like the Stroll of the late '50s and early '60s, only faster and with more turns.

And my spirits soared as we started on the evening's third and final dance, the Two-Step: "I know this one," I bragged.

"Must have been a different two-step," I later confessed.

Lesson No. 2, the following Friday, provided some hope. The first three dances were repeats and I did better.

The week's new dance, however, was a killer. Named for the Don Williams hit "Tulsa Time," the line dance reminded me of a combination ROTC drill and halftime Laker Girl routine, sans pompons.

The saving grace was that I like the song and a couple of people seemed impressed by my rock trivia that Eric Clapton did an up-tempo cover of the same song. Thank God, I added, we didn't have to try the dance to Slow Hand's version. That comment would later prove prescient.

The Two-Step continued to bring grief. Linda caused part of my problem, I surmised, because she didn't want to let me lead. Surprisingly, she didn't seem irritated when I mentioned it. She politely replied something to the effect that she didn't follow anyone who didn't have a clue where he was going.

Still, the class wasn't too bad. The teacher and other students were friendly, and I took comfort in the knowledge I wasn't the worst man in the class.

That would be my brother-in-law.

He claimed that he was only rusty and behind the rest of us because he had missed the first week. I responded that maybe it was because they didn't do the Cotton-Eyed Joe where he was born (Puerto Rico) or raised (New York City).

At least he looked like he belonged: Levi's and a sharp pair of lizard-skin boots.

And he kept his sense of humor. When his supportive wife praised him after one session for his improvement, he thanked her but said she ought to take a look at her shoes. The tops of her new white tennies were almost completely black, courtesy of countless scuff marks via the bottoms of his trendy boots.

OK, this is my theory, and I'm sticking to it: Most men of my generation don't like to dance.

The smarter ones figured out in grade school that females enjoyed dancing and that the quickest way to curry favor with them was to willingly participate and develop minimum skills.

For slow learners, though, our brains didn't kick in until late junior high or high school--along with a heavy dose of hormones. The combination led to the idea that dancing just might open doors to the inviting, exciting unknown.

But it wasn't enough for a young man just to shuffle his feet to the slow tunes. The girls liked the new steps and faster beats, and few would tolerate boys who only wanted to put their arms around them and move slowly. The price of that ticket was the ability to passably perform the bop, swing, twist or swim.

An unspoken lifetime deal was cut.

Lesson 3 was my best yet: We decided to leave early on a weekend get-away and figured we could afford to miss one class.

I discovered that was a serious miscalculation when we showed up for Lesson 4. By now the 30 or so people who started the class had shrunk by roughly one-third. Maybe the missing were out of town.

More likely, I soon discovered, it was the 10-Step. Or perhaps they knew that this was the night we would try dancing to Sir Eric's version of "Tulsa Time."

How could I do the 10-Step when I couldn't even master the Two? "Tulsa Time" to Don Williams caused anxiety; Clapton promised, and delivered, apoplexy.

Earlier in the class, I had been comforted by the fact that I wasn't the only bad dancer. But tonight, with my brother-in-law again missing, I faced the reality that others were actually improving.

They're not staring at me because I'm that good; I am the class dunce. My dogs are barkin', my feelings hurt. If they give final exams or grades, my classmates are counting on me to lower the curve.

I was not assuaged by our instructor's comments that some people repeat the beginning class several times. During a break, some classmates wondered aloud if GCC offered a remedial section for beginning country-Western dance.

Nor was I enthralled by her announcement that after our final class, two weeks hence, we would go to a country-Western bar to show off our new skills. Oh great, and then do we get to go to a biker bar and make obscene gestures? Let's see, it's humiliation first and then the beating, right?

Still, I remain committed to finishing the course and learning some of the quicker, more difficult steps.

If I'm going to get to dance the slow ones, I really don't have any other choice.

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