John Denver be damned. Personally, you thank God you’re not a country boy. Your idea of a hot night of line dancing is navigating a cart through the aisles at Gelson’s. You think a cow chip is some yuppified snack available at Trader Joe’s. And you’d take Donny Osmond’s tepid idea of rock ‘n’ roll over Marie’s little bit of country any old day.
So just how did you, an ultra-savvy urban guerrilla, end up in an embarrassingly old-fashioned square-dancing class?
The first step was taken the day you could no longer blame the snugness of your 501s on the clothes dryer or your theories about a shrinking universe. You know your beloved net surfing would only qualify as a sport in a world designed by Bill Gates, but your other workout options seem less than appealing. Flaunting those gelatinous glutes at the gym scores low on your already diminished self-esteem meter, and the last time you went jogging you snarfed down so much car exhaust you had to add it to your daily calorie count.
Then you heard about square dancing. Apparently swinging your partner to and fro burns between 200 and 400 calories per half hour, and each two-hour class of allemandes and courtesy turns is the equivalent of a three- to five-mile walk. Plus, weekly classes at your local club are a workout bargain at $4 a pop. All this, and no Lycra gym shorts required. Yeehaw!
You enter the commandeered church hall and the doors swing shut behind you with a long, slow creak. Instantly you realize you’ve entered a limbo land somewhere between Los Angeles and rural Kansas. Complete strangers of all ages greet you without asking for spare change. You haven’t seen this many frilly petticoats and cowboy boots since you rented “Wyatt Earp.”
The caller revs up a prehistoric record player and you, along with 70 other people, pile onto the dance floor. As the needle sputters in harmony with a rusty country ditty, you take one deep breath, your smiling partner grabs your arm and somehow guides you through an allemande right. You try desperately to concentrate on what the caller is saying, but considering that you thought a star promenade was a fabric pattern at Ikea, he might as well be yodeling in Urdu. Apelike, you mimic the other dancers in your square, squashing toes at every step. You are thanking God for your soft sneakers and everyone else’s sturdy cowboy boots.
What you never realized about square dancing until this fateful moment is that a simple country beat could be fast. Really fast. You don’t normally think, much less move, this quickly.
As the caller eases you through a roll away and a half sashay, you realize a horrifying truth. No one else in your square is under the age of 60. They are smiling. You, roughly 30 years younger, are wheezing.
You try to remind yourself that square dancing is not an art that can be mastered overnight. Classes to teach the basic program usually last 18 weeks, and advanced dancers often attend class as angels to help hopeless beginners like yourself.
In a short break between songs, other members of your square offer advice, assurance, and at least one casserole recipe. One couple smiles at you sympathetically, recognizing the naked fear etched in your tortured face.
While you take a breather, the smiling couple fills you in on the history of square dancing. You discover that clubs have been operating throughout the greater Los Angeles area for years. While you are in the company of the Western Weavers, other clubs boast names ranging from the cutesy Farmers and Charmers to the positively gleeful Happy Squares. You are relieved to think you will not die surrounded by Happy Squares.
You are told that once you master the 49 steps that make up the basic square-dancing program, you can sashay through a mind-boggling array of social events. A copy of the Open Squares, a monthly directory of happenings in Southern California and beyond, is passed around. Notices for theme dances litter the chunky booklet.
As invitations to the club’s weekend getaways, pizza parties and even the annual picnic are tossed your way, you shiver. People in Los Angeles are only this neighborly when they’re trying to sell you bad real estate or suck you into a religious cult.
When the music starts up again, you try to focus on left and right. The whole square applauds proudly when you finally master a step on your own, and you actually blush. Maybe you could get used to this urban aberration, old-fashioned friendliness.
But niceties aside, this is an activity with rules, strict rules. Some are practical. Men must wear long sleeves so that women are not subjected to sweaty forearms, which can make any promenade more gross than graceful. Women also have their own dress code--skirts, never pants--which many take to with a passion, flaunting colorful cowgirl attire.
There are other rules, which aren’t quite as pleasant. While you take a break, the caller gestures for you to watch one elderly woman in a gingham dress, smiling blissfully as she staggers like an errant bumper car against the otherwise tidy flow of her square.
The caller shakes his head, pained. “I’m afraid I’ll have to ask her to leave the class at this rate,” he said. “And this is her third time, too.” Kicking out subpar students is an unenviable task, but a necessary one. Coordination, memory and the all-important ability to tell left from right are required to mold an effective square dancer. When one participant is slow or simply unable to catch on, their flubs create a domino effect, causing the square to collapse into chaos.
It is time for a line dance, a treat thrown into the program to attract the Denim and Diamonds set. You jump into the fray, plant your hands on your hips and start shuffling. Once your jeans get a little looser, you might consider picking up a pair of cowboy boots even John Denver would envy.
* Western Weavers (Burbank): Call (818) 846-9473 or 249-1824 for information. Location and times vary. Prices vary from club to club as well, but $4 seems to be the norm. There are also clubs in Simi Valley, Tarzana, Glendale, La Crescenta, and for general information about clubs in Southern California, call (800) FUN 4 ALL.