There he was, in his feather-trimmed Stetson, custom-made ribbon-trimmed calico shirt, tight jeans and snakeskin boots. The closest I'd seen to a real cowboy. The band finished "You Never Even Called Me by My Name" and started tuning up for the Cotton-Eyed Joe.
He said, "Dance, ma'am?"
I couldn't refuse.
No, it wasn't Texas, or even Oklahoma. It was Saturday night at Bronco Billy's Good Time Saloon at 18th and L NW, in downtown D.C. A long way from the ranch, but you can hardly tell once you're inside.
Down one flight from the street, the room is packed with cowgirls, cowboys and Indians (and a few strangers in sport coats and turtlenecks). Nobody's legs are bowed, nobody smells of earth and work, and some of the duds are by Ralph Lauren. But the dancing's authentic. Cowboy dancing. Depending where you're from, it's called the Texas Two-Step or the Oklahoma Two- Step. Other variations are the Cotton-Eyed Joe and the schottische (from the German word for Scottish). And you don't have to be a cowboy to do it, even though it resembles a combination of jitterbugging and roping steers. This dancing is fast-moving, arm- swinging, leg-skipping and people-touching. The man leads and the lady follows and people dance together -- most of the time with their hats on.
A recent poll says there is more country and western music in Washington than anywhere else outside of Nashville. You might believe it if you try to squeeze in after after 11 on a Saturday night. Steve the bouncer wears his Deputy Sheriff badge prominently and his black hat jauntily, and handles the crowds as easily as the reins of a horse. Inside, around the enormous wraparound bar, small tables, chairs and couches (a decor more disco than Western, save for the neon outlines of winged boots and lone stars on the walls) the atmosphere is wall-to-wall Western. While the fast, wild sounds of the Whitewater Band ring out to the stampede of a whirling two-step or shuffle, the rest of the room is fairly exploding in down-home friendliness. Marlboro men with handlebar mustaches, fringed jackets and toothpicks in their teeth are moving among the tables; girls in Pocahontas buckskin are whisked away to dance, their ribboned braids flying. It might remind you of a party in someone's recreation room. It reminds Pat McLaughlin, 23, from El Paso, of home. Stationed here with the United States Marine Silent Drill Team, he's a "regular" who comes to Billy's almost every night: "Most of us that come here come because we love country-western dancing. I call us home boys. . . a lot of boys from Texas who want to come here because it reminds us of home." Along with other regulars, McLaughlin teaches cowboy dancing at Billy's on Wednesday nights. He taught ballroom dancing during his college days at the University of Texas at El Paso. "I been dancin' since I was six. These dances have been around a long time. It's been in the Southwest for years. I started comin' here regular and they asked all the regulars to show the other people how to do it," says McLaughlin, properly dressed for dancing in a brown plaid shirt, brown cords and a feathered straw hat festooned with pins depicting the Lone Star state. Lessons are free and instructors do not get paid. "It may sound strange, but we enjoy the dancing and that allows us to enter in the contest," he says. McLaughlin usually enters the dance contests, which begin near midnight, with Debbie Malina, who works days for a Virginia computer time-sharing firm. How did she become a cowgirl? "We converted her," McLaughlin says. They also taught her to dance, and she now teaches newcomers. Malina is dressed this night in her convert clothes: imitation buckskin vest with tassels and feathers, lace blouse, blue jeans and Dan Post leather boots. McLaughlin's boots are Anaconda snakeskin, as is his belt with a mammoth brass buckle overlaid with a silver- and gold- plated outline of the state of Texas. Demonstrating the Cotton-Eyed Joe, McLaughlin does a basic one, two, three- step and then a step kick. He holds his lady tightly, controlling their movements with tense arms and straight elbows -- a do-si-do right out of square dancing. "The dances are fairly simple and straightforward. You only have to know how to count to three," says Gary Robbins, a Treasury Department economist from Corpus Christi. Did Robbins do these dances at home? "No, ma'am, but I've seen 'em done and I'm learnin' 'em tonight," he says. Robbins' date ("the lady who drug me here and she's from Dallas") is Cynthia Powell; she has always danced cowboy. "I'm a regular. I've been doing this all my life -- since I was born: twenty-eight years old, but still a tadpole in the stream of life." Powell went to school in Dallas, but her family has a ranch in Utopia, Texas, where, she says, you drive 75 miles to go to a dance. "It was little kids and grandparents. Everyone from the valley would spend the evening there. It was gowns and blue jeans." And, although Powell says Bronco Billy's is not really the "real" thing, "It's the closest thing Washington has." To those bred on disco, cowboy dancing may seem revolutionary -- completely new to people used to being on their own on the dance floor. These dances require two people to move as one, sashaying and twirling to the impulse of the man's lead. Skipping and stamping in time to the music. A measured beat and measured steps. Intricacy comes as movements are layered on one another and shuffling becomes faster, twirls more frequent. Ladies are never alone. It's a pleasure to watch as well as dance. And there's not the disco pressure. "This isn't a meat market," says Debbie Malina. "It's a place you can go to have fun and dance with a lot of people and not worry about the usual pressures." "It's not a pickup joint," McLaughlin says, "it's a lot of good people who want to have a good time." Some people think it's just an urban-cowboy syndrome, another John Travolta dance rage: Dave Porieca is from Marina Del Rey, California. He and steady date Donna Fink, of northern Virginia, met at a dude ranch in Kansas last year. Porieca's been doing the two-step for years, but he says the dance is finished on the West Coast: "This is passe already in California. It was B.T. -- Before Travolta." Porieca learned the two-step several years back, when he worked in Lawton, Oklahoma. He needed to learn it, he says, to dance at all. "There ain't no urban cowboys there, because there ain't no urban. If you want to dance in Lawton when you're a stranger, you learn how to do this stuff or you don't dance." On Wednesday nights at Billy's it pays to know these dances and do them well. One recent Wednesday, winners received prizes of complete ski equipment: boots, skis and poles, donated by a local radio station. Other nights there are cash prizes up to $100. Billy Patterson, the Billy of Bronco Billy's, runs the newly flourishing saloon from the bar or a windowless back office that might have been a former stage room. He calls himself "a Georgetown Boy." A D.C. native, Patterson previously owned The Keg on Wisconsin Avenue and the Crazy Horse Saloon on M Street. Patterson says he switched from rock'n'roll clubs to country because he wanted something different after 19 years in the business. So last April, he opened Bronco Billy's. "We were scared to death to do it. I was used to rock'n'roll and my partner was used to disco. We figured we'd take a shot. Either we'd make it or break it. We didn' bad guy." From 9:30 to 11, when lessons are given, 30 regulars teach and "fifty other people are learning," Patterson says, making it difficult for anyone to feel nervous or conspicuous. Of course, not everyone can be on the tiny dance floor at once. And, if you came by early, in time for the free Texas-style food served 4:30 to 8:30 -- barbecue beef, chili meatballs, coleslaw and potato salad -- you might want to rest your digestion for a few hours first. At Annie Oakley's in Georgetown, at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, there is supposed to be cowboy dancing. But on a recent weekday evening there was television instead, wide-screen, featuring a ballgame. No dancers, just several crew-neck- sweater types taking up the barstools. Commenting on this state of affairs, Diane, the bartender, observed that sports "is like a religious experience." In contrast to Billy's, Annie Oakley's is at ground level and trying very hard to be Western: Old posters of Grade B movies paper the room -- Gene Autrey and Smiley Burnette, heroes of the purple sage, loom over the stairway. Annie Oakley's has a pool table, video games, Tiffany-style lamps, Texas state flags draped from the ceiling and a raised wooden dance floor. But at Annie's there is no live band. "There's no band because of the small space. A DJ plays records and it's 80 per cent cowboy and 20 per cent disco," explains Diane. Cynthia Powell says she once took some Texans to Annie's and they threatened to pull down the flags because it really wasn't Western. Bands are vital to cowboy dancing; the interaction of musicians and dancers important. Fiddles play and feet fly. No right- minded country musician would lose himself in his music while a dancer needed the beat. All that's missing are the dance calls; instead, homespun philosophical lyrics seem to do. It's an old style with a new feel. Another '80s trend toward tradition and a backward look, a yearning for the past -- scarcely surprising when the real world appears confused and out of control. People want to dress in costume and go back to an era when people controlled their horses and their destinies. Unrealistic? Maybe. Fun? Definitely. Crowded? Yes. Not everywhere, though: "In Texas, ma'am, the dance floor is as big as this whole bar," brags McLaughlin. It's enough to make a girl want to change dreams and dance off into the sunset.