Long before there was an Urban Cowboy or a J. R. Ewing, Paul Hartman was interested in the traditions of the American West.

For more than three decades this Wheaton man has been wearing string ties, western boots and large, Dallas-style belt buckles. What's more, many of his male friends dress the same way. And he knows many women whose favorite outfit is a colorful, full skirt worn over fluffy petticoats.

Just who are these people with a 30-year jump on today's Texas chic? Square dancers.

Now wait a minute, pleads Hartman -- don't jump to conclusions. Square dancing today is not the square dancing most people remember from grade school, where "kids consider it a foul-weather activity" and don't like it much, Hartman said. "That's a shame, because it is one thing that is typically American, and if it were taught properly there would be a great deal of interest in it," he said.

The media haven't helped square dancing's image either -- portraying dancers as half-drunk on moonshine, swaying to country music in some smelly barn, he declared.

So, on his 35th square-dancing anniversary -- he attended his first dance in 1946 -- Hartman is a man with a mission. He'd like to clear up the misconceptions about his favorite activity. He says he wants to "fight this image and replace it."

Hartman, 57, already has made a good start. He is a square-dancing caller and instructor with the Montgomery County Recreation Department, and since retiring from the State Department five years ago has called or instructed nearly every night. He has written articles about square dancing and has recorded three albums and more than 30 singles. His wife and two daughters also are avid square dancers.

The family is part of a growing, yet relatively unknown movement. According to Hartman, there are about 10 million square dancers nationwide, approximately 7,500 in the Washington area.

They dance "modern-western," a style developed in California after World War II. Square dancing had evolved from popular dances and tunes brought to this country by European settlers, and the Californians decided to update it by using contemporary music. The new style -- done in western clothes -- spread across the country. Today's square dances are set to all types of music, including country, pop, classical and disco.

Hartman said part of square dancing's appeal lies in the fellowship it fosters.

"We have people from gas station attendants to bank presidents, from janitors to generals," he said. "A person's station in life is of no consequence; people are just interested in 'what's your first name and can you dance?'"

It is, he said, "a great equalizer."

Hartman said he has seen square dancing rekindle many romances. Because dances are done only by couples, it gives many married persons something to do beside spend the evening in front of the TV set, he said, adding, "Square dancing is one thing that I have found brings many husbands and wives together."

While the average square dancer's age is about 40, Hartman says he has known dancers in their 80s. It's very popular in the retirement communities of Arizona and Florida, he adds, since it involves mild exercise that does not require being in top physical condition.

In the last 35 years, Hartman has called dances for many different groups, but one evening stands out. He was calling a dance for 250 members of Congress and their guests -- more than 600 persons.

Rep. Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill (D-Mass.) was there (it was long before he became House speaker), and Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.) showed up wearing one of her famous hats.

"I never thought I'd get them up to dance. I figured this bunch would have other interests," Hartman recalled. But to his surprise, almost everyone participated.

"They really had a hell of a good time," he remembered.

He recalled the way one reporter captured the scene in an article. "He said I was probably the only person in the world who could get 250 congressmen marching in the same direction at the same time," Hartman said.

For information about square dancing in the Washington area, call Hartman at (301) 946-5241.