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COVER STORY : SUBURBAN COWBOYS : Country dancing draws a crowd because of the down-home music and the friendly, relaxed atmosphere of the clubs.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> David S. Barry is a regular contributor to Valley Life. </i>

Almost like skaters, the dancers glide in carefully choreographed steps, skipping over the peaks of the heavily syncopated music of the band, Larry Dean and the Shooters. The couples pivot, dip, spin, step in unison, always maintaining the forward circular movement that keeps the whole floor rotating smoothly at the Longhorn Saloon in Canoga Park.

Demographically, these suburban cowboys, many of them approaching midlife crisis age, are the postwar baby-boom generation that grew up to the rebellious beat of rock ‘n’ roll.

Now, as grown-ups with grown children, they find they do not connect with the pop music of today’s teen-agers. Nor are they comfortable in the socially predatory atmosphere of clubs where rock is played and danced to.

Instead, they have crossed the pop cultural spectrum from rock to enjoy the down-home, upbeat poignancy of country-Western music, the relaxed, friendly atmosphere of the clubs, and the restrained formality of country dancing.

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“It’s a lot of fun,” says Longhorn regular Jeff Vranesh, “It’s the disco of the ‘90s.”

Vranesh, a manufacturer of medical equipment with a daughter in college, does not look like a veteran of disco. He’s not.

“I never used to go to clubs,” says Vranesh, who dresses Western to go to the Longhorn. “I don’t listen to country music on the radio. But . . . here, the music isn’t so loud that it gives you a headache. The place is friendly, and the dancing’s fun.”

Vranesh came to the country dance scene at a time of painful change in his life.

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“I’m just going through a divorce, so this helps. You get to meet people here, in a friendly, safe atmosphere.”

Two bar stools east of Vranesh sits a woman with “Patty” written in silver studs on the back of the wide leather belt she wears around her short Western skirt.

“The Longhorn is my home away from home,” says Patty Parks of Van Nuys, an office supervisor in a Santa Monica medical malpractice insurance company. “The people are nice, they’re like family.” And, of course, she likes the dancing.

“It’s partner dancing,” she says, as the couples wheel around the floor. “You’re not just out on the floor bopping around. It’s not the meat-market atmosphere you find at other kinds of dance clubs. Country people are more open and friendly, and when you find the right partner, it’s like magic.”

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At the smaller, smokier, more rustic Cowboy Palace in Chatsworth, Jeff Weil and Sascha Portenova stand at the edge of the dance floor, tapping their feet to the music of the Dean Dobbins Band, talking about their fondness for country dancing.

“I love it here,” says Portenova, a computer software salesperson. “I didn’t think I’d like country dancing, because I don’t listen to country music on the radio. But I enjoy it in this context. And the dancing is phenomenal.”

“People are more relaxed in country-Western bars,” says Weil, a sales and management consultant. “It’s because they’re escaping, with the boots and the hats, from the humdrum into a different--I hate to use the word--milieu.”

There it is: a yuppified analysis of the peculiar, across-the-board pull of an old-fashioned dance form, danced to the beat of contemporary country music, which has pushed rock off its longtime perch at the top of the pop charts.

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“The country-Western dance craze has just gotten bigger and bigger,” says Linda Goldstein, a country dance instructor at the Longhorn, which, like nearly all the country music bars in the San Fernando Valley, offers free dance lessons every night.

“I also teach a country-Western dance course at Pierce College,” says Goldstein, who came to country dancing by way of ballet and disco. “I used to teach a free-style rock dance class, but it went down from 30 to 12 students and got dropped. I’ve had to expand my country dancing class from one to three hours, and I have a 60-person waiting list.”

Goldstein, who comes from Woodland Hills, studied and danced ballet for years, until marriage and child-rearing sidelined her. When the marriage ended, she returned to dancing, this time as a teacher.

“I started teaching 15 years ago, with disco and ballroom dancing,” Goldstein says. “But I switched over to country dancing because that’s what the demand was for.

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“Every private party I do these days wants country-Western dancing. It can be ladies in pumps, guys in tennis shoes. They don’t care--they just do it.”

The dancing, Goldstein says, “is getting the men and women back to dancing together. The men can hold the women--it’s very romantic.”

The dancing is not only romantic. In the words of many of the participants in the low-key socializing at country-Western clubs, the dancing is something of increasing value today: It’s safe. Asking, or being asked, to dance is precisely that: an invitation to dance, and no more.

“When people do the two-step,” says country-Western musician Geary Hanley, whose band performs regularly at the Longhorn, “you don’t have to get real close to somebody if you don’t know ‘em.”

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Hanley, a veteran of the Southern California country-Western music scene, has seen a dramatic shift in dance styles in recent years. In fact, compared to the country-Western dancing of the early 1970s, that of the ‘90s is so sedate as to be unrecognizable.

“It used to be really ass-kicking rock dancing to the up-tempo numbers in country music clubs,” says Hanley. “Now it’s all Texas Two-Step, the Cotton-Eyed Joe and all the line dances.”

Paul Marshall of Tujunga, another veteran country-Western musician, whose songs have been recorded by Juice Newton, Highway 101 and Patty Loveless, saw the shift in country-Western dance styles follow the popularity of the 1980 John Travolta movie “Urban Cowboy.”

“Back in the late 1970s, people would do rock dancing to the up-tempo songs in California country-Western bars,” says Marshall. “Some of the older couples would do swing dancing, but the others would do straight rock dancing. Then the ‘Urban Cowboy’ brought Texas-style dancing to California. Now the rock dancing has disappeared.”

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Line dancing is what brings almost everyone to the dance floor at country-Western clubs. Done without partners, line dances put everyone on the floor facing the same direction, following a pattern of steps, somewhat like an aerobics class, or a marching band drill.

“The line dance is great,” says instructor Goldstein, “because everybody can get up and do their own thing, without feeling intimidated. Sometimes it’s hard to get the guys out on the floor.”

Different line dances go with different songs: “Redneck Girl,” "(Livin’ on) Tulsa Time,” “Pink Cadillac” and the “Boot-Scootin’ Boogie.” A line dance called the “Achey-Breaky” was created to promote the mega-hit “Achey-Breaky Heart.”

“The ‘Achey-Breaky’ is going downhill now,” says Hanley, “and the ‘Boot-Scootin’ Boogie’ ” is a real favorite. There’s all kinds of line dances out now.”

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On Ventura Boulevard in Woodland Hills, a line stretches out to the sidewalk from the entrance to the flashy new country-Western dance emporium, Denim & Diamonds, open since November. At 9:30 on a Thursday night there is already an hour’s wait to get in. It’s the Woodland Hills branch of a dance club chain that opened two years ago to purvey country chic to the BMW-and-Brie set in Santa Monica.

“This is just fun, down-home people havin’ a good time,” says Denim & Diamonds manager Joe Esposito of the jampacked floors of the Woodland Hills club.

“It’s not just country-Western people. There’s a large crossover market, with people from all walks of life: lawyers, laborers, doctors, sports figures.”

The parking lot, already full at 8 p.m., bears that out, with a number of Mercedes-Benzes, BMWS, Corvettes, Acuras, Jeeps and other up-market urban status vehicles. Esposito calls Denim & Diamonds, with two bars, a main dance floor and a practice dance floor, the easiest club he has managed.

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“This is probably the friendliest place I’ve worked in. Here, when someone bumps into you, they say, ‘Excuse me.’ The women are not intimidated. The dance lessons are a big icebreaker.”

The music at Denim & Diamonds, to make it even easier for the crossover customers, is not exclusively country-Western. Deejays mix in the occasional rock tune with the country songs, for people who have not yet learned the Two-Step or the line dances.

A young man named Steve Castro of Woodland Hills waits outside in line behind young women in tight jeans, even tighter tops and immaculately styled hair.

“I’m here for the girls,” says Castro. “I don’t frankly care that much for the music, and I’m not likely to get into the dancing. But this place has the best-looking turnout around.”

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Where to Two-Step Cousin’s, 2381 Tapo St., Simi Valley. (805) 522-2559. Live country music. Country dance lessons Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday nights. Closed Mondays. Open 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Tuesday-Friday, 3 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday, Sunday. Cowboy Palace Saloon, 21635 Devonshire St., Chatsworth. (818) 341-0166. Live country music nightly. Dance lessons 7 p.m. Monday-Thursday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Open 2 p.m.-2 a.m. Denim & Diamonds, 21055 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 888-5134. No live music. Open 5 p.m.-1:45 a.m. daily, dance lessons nightly. The Forge, 617 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale (818) 246-1717. Dance lessons Thursday, Sunday nights. Live music Thursday-Sunday nights. Open 7 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Thursday-Sunday, 8 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday. In Cahoots, 223 N. Glendale Ave., Glendale. (818) 500-1665. Live music Sunday and Monday nights. Open 5 p.m.-2 a.m. daily, dance lessons nightly. Longhorn Saloon, 21211 Sherman Way, Canoga Park. (818) 340-4788. Live country music. Closed Monday. Dance lessons Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday-Sunday. Open 6:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Tuesday-Saturday, from 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Jack & Jill contest with $100 prize Wednesdays. Ranch House Bar & Grill, 27413 N. Tourney Road, Valencia. (805) 255-0555. Live country music Monday and Tuesdays, dance lessons both nights. Open 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily.


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