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Way-Out Western : Moving Away From the Herd, O.C. High Schoolers Dance Their Way Into Undiscovered Country

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Judging by the clothes, the mannerisms and the slang of the teens you see two-steppin’ into Orange County’s county-music scene, you’d think they were born in Texas or Tennessee. From their fancy-stitched boots to their responses of “yes, ma’am,” they seem worlds removed from their grunge contemporaries.

Most high schoolers show up at local nightclubs clad in jeans (Wrangler, preferably) and cowboy boots--although chunky sneakers will do. There’s the ubiquitous black felt or straw cowboy hat, but a few guys will opt for their school ball caps or those bearing the name of a professional team such as the Dallas Cowboys. Colorful, Western-cut shirts are hot, as are the massive silver belt buckles many of the young dudes sport.

The scene has boomed with the opening in the past year of country nightclubs that offer family days during the weekends and evenings open to all ages through the week.

Places such as the Depot in San Juan Capistrano, the Barn in Tustin, Denim & Diamonds in Huntington Beach, the Country Rock Cafe in Lake Forest, In Cahoots in Fullerton and even the Phoenix Club in Anaheim allow younger fans, such as University High School senior Timothy (Rocky) Harn, to get in on the action.

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Rocky acquired a taste for country after a friend invited him to a nightclub in Anaheim, which at the time allowed all ages. “A lot of places discriminate if you’re under age. It’s all economics because we don’t buy alcohol. But we (younger patrons) bring in a lot of new moves, so it’s a plus to have us here.”

The steps, turns and splits Rocky and his friends maneuver are hypnotic.

They’ve charged the simple Electric Slide into a powerful routine that could sell a song. Rocky’s moves get plenty of notice as part of the Country Kickers, a newly formed group of South County high schoolers and adults that meets to practice new steps. They will dance in the Swallows Day Parade parade March 26 and have been invited to kick off the San Francisco 49ers’ season this year.

“I love the atmosphere,” Rocky says, throwing his hand--with the sizable, sterling saddle ring--in the direction of the dance floor. Eight months ago, Rocky listened to rap and reggae pretty exclusively; now it’s once in a while.

He figures “about 99%" of the friends he has now he’s met through the country nightclubs. “I just wish more people would get into it,” he says.

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Laguna Hills High School sophomore Candace Reinhart is also a newcomer sold on country.

She showed up at the Country Rock Cafe a couple of months ago with friends. Now her parents drop her off there every weekend, and she’s learned about a dozen dances. “My favorite is the Tush Push, because it’s faster than the others,” she manages to say, in between embracing friends.

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Hugs are popular greetings among the younger crowd; indeed, it’s the cozy camaraderie that’s a big draw for them. Something about being down-home and friendly. That hipper-than-thou attitude so a part of other scenes just doesn’t fit here.

“This is more upbeat and fun than just driving around or whatever other kids do on the weekends,” says Candace, 16. “And I love to dance.”

She also loves country music now more than ever and counts “a whole bunch of CDs” in her record collection. “Not a lot of people listen to it,” she says, so being into country sets her apart from her peers at school. Ironically, an unnatural hair color or a pierced nose won’t deem a kid alternative at some schools. Standing out might be as simple as gushing to a Garth Brooks ballad.

“I like the country theme--the clothes, the horses, which I try to ride whenever I get the chance,” Candace says. “I have about four pairs of cowboy boots.”

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Irvine High senior Travis Runnels, 17, got his first pair of cowboy boots the night he got his first dose of country music. His mother, who was heavy into the Western wave, dragged him to the Crazy Horse for his 16th birthday. “It was the first time I ever listened to country,” he recalls. “I really had no opinion of it before then. Once I saw how many girls were into it, well,” he pauses, then continues with a drawl, “I liked it more.”

Girls are among the top four or five reasons Travis’ buddy Matt Cohen, 17, drives the two of them to clubs as much as possible--sometimes six times a week and, on occasion, Matt says, “as far as Colton.” The two-step is their favorite dance. After all, it’s a great way for them to meet the opposite sex.

If anything, dancing has boosted their confidence, they say. “If you’re a good dancer,” notes Travis, “all the girls want to dance with you. That’s the best part.”

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Besides the telephone numbers he’s gathered, Travis has collected several trophies from contests that, apparently, are pretty nice too. For the competitions, his mom sews his Western shirts, which have become part of his daily wardrobe. He even wears the big, black wool brim to class sometimes. There are a few cracks from his peers, but generally, he says, “people at school know better (than) to act immature that way.”

Lucky for Travis, but not so for many teen country fans who learn rather quickly how little their classmates know about this distinctly native culture.

Laguna Hills senior Mesha Harper says she’s “gotten really criticized at school” since changing her radio dial from rock station Power 106 to KIK-FM. So she avoids flaunting it. “They think it’s a hick scene and that we square-dance.”

Though this self-described die-hard might keep her hat and boots in the closet until the weekends, she finds solace in the number of friends she’s made since her parents introduced her to the clubs last May; many are from different high schools. “Everyone welcomes you here. I think that’s why this scene is growing so tremendously.”

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If not through friends, many high schoolers got hooked on country through an otherwise rare influence: their parents. Rare, because a parent’s concept of what’s hip is usually passe. So either parents are getting cooler or kids are re-evaluating their attitudes.

Not only are these teen cowpokes taking a cue from Mom and Dad, young and old are having a blast side by side. Sure, there are some downers, like when the moment’s right for a kiss and Mom is sure to say something--even if it’s in jest. There are those who take five outside the club and around the bend to light up a cigarette or chew tobacco (and spit) away from watchful adult eyes. But girls and guys still flirt; notes scribbled with telephone numbers are still exchanged, and promises to meet next weekend still go on, regardless of their presence.

“Country has a lot of good values--even for urban cowboys,” says Woodbridge High junior Ryan Dobson. It’s clear that Ryan, an Irvine resident who spends his free time riding horses, roping and doing other rodeo-type activities, doesn’t include himself in this “urban cowboy” category.

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The 16-year-old teaches youngsters--those who still need baby-sitting--how to rope in the parking lot of the Country Rock Cafe almost every weekend. “This is a great scene because it keeps a lot of kids off of a lot of other things that could get them into trouble, and from dressing like gangsters,” he says.

“Yeah, and you get guys in their Wranglers,” yells out his “honey,” Samantha Burlas, a junior at Los Amigos High School.

In unison, Samantha and her friends declare their love for “cowboy butt.” Translated: guys in snug-fitting jeans.

“Hey, this is a family place,” interrupts Ryan. “Ma’am,” he tells me, “it’s not the clothes that make the cowboy.”

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Maybe so, but in these parts, son, the duds and the drawl certainly help.


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