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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.

March 05, 1993|DAVID S. BARRY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; David S. Barry is a regular contributor to Valley Life.

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.

"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.

"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."

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.

"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.

"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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