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Cowboy Cardio : A Reebok-Wearing Greenhorn Finally Puts His Foot Down

June 24, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

The woman in the purple cowboy hat, black boots and jangly concho belt is giving me a tight look that says, You don't stand a chance, tinhorn. I gaze back with a blank smile that answers, Uh, can I help you?

"You need to slide a bit, be smooth," she sniffs, her eyes focused on my worn high-tops. "This isn't a regular aerobics class, did you know that?"

Sure. It's "cowpoke aerobics," something that can't be as silly as it sounds. I don't say that, though. What I say is, "Oh yeah, I'm here to try it out, kind of get a feel for it."

"Hmmm." Then she moves through a frenzied series of gliding heel-to-toe steps punctuated by dig-that-boot-into-the carpet climaxes. After a few moments, she stops, with a satisfied grin that approaches a sneer. "See, the Reeboks have too much grip. Good luck."

I scan the workout floor at the Costa Mesa Family Fitness Center, where I find myself this sunny Wednesday afternoon. There's only one other guy in the class of about 20, and he looks ridiculous in shorts, knee braces and brown boots decorated with colorful swirls of stitchery. Somehow, all the women seem right, even attractive, in their tights, leotards and cowpoke attire.

I wonder if this is sexist on my part, but don't have much time to ponder. A fast-riding country tune is blaring, and the instructor is yipping. She's tall, muscled, blond and wildly enthusiastic. The class has started, and I'm completely lost.

"Cowpoke aerobics," or the more serious-sounding "country-cardio," is sweeping the country like a prairie fire on a summer day. OK, it's not sweeping the country, but it is sweeping Orange County. OK, it's not really sweeping Orange County, but there are quite a few gyms and clubs that have included it in their exercise programs.

Libby Franklin of Lake Forest, who has taught several other aerobics instructors the program's techniques, says it's an idea that had to happen. Take a trend-giddy Southland, mix in the rising number of Western dance devotees with a hard-body fanaticism and "cowpoke aerobics" seems as natural as, well, bungee jumping or in-line skating.

Once the session is underway, "cowpoke aerobics" feels as natural as roping a stray dogie with a long piece of spaghetti. Things happen fast, with the instructor shouting out commands like a Texas auctioneer working a herd of hungry cattlemen.

Strange phrases such as "the tush push," "the cotton-eyed boogie" and "the achy breaky" flow out of her mouth almost as quickly as she moves her boots. I realize she's talking about steps and patterns, the kind that make up "line dances" at such nightclubs as "Denim & Diamonds" in Huntington Beach and Santa Monica.

As I plow along, all the while being eyed triumphantly by the woman who scoffed at my shoes, I can't forget Franklin's warning when I watched her teach a class at the Sports Club/Irvine. Franklin, who offers seminars and videos for other aerobics instructors besides heading workouts in Irvine and at the El Toro Fitness Center, said men generally don't turn out for "country-cardio" because "they get discouraged so easily. It has something to do with their ego."

I'm feeling very discouraged, especially as I catch glimpses of myself in the big mirrors. Even way in the back, far behind all these yee-hawers who know what they're doing, I stand out. I'm hesitant, slow, frowning. They yip, I groan. The guy with the boots and braces doesn't look so ridiculous now.

The steps aren't simple--a lot of forward moving, then back, then sideways, some shuffles and a few kicks thrown in--and my sneakers do stick too much. But I realize it's not only my inexperience that confounds me: I don't like Western dancing. Never did.

The thing is, I love dancing, ever since winning a twist contest in the fourth grade. I went crazy at love-ins and rock concerts and got feverish at discos. I'm a seductive slow-dancer (believe me, it's true) and still get out to the clubs. But Western? No way. A former girlfriend of mine who grew up strutting in Austin, Tex., spent many exasperated moments trying to get me to swing with her.

What I didn't like then and don't like now is the conformity, the lack of spontaneity. Everyone follows the rigid patterns, stays in line, does what the person next to them is doing, and, in the couples dances, even goes around in a circle; try going against the flow of that circle and face a shootout in the Two-Step corral. Mastering the subtleties of technique may please some people, but I go for acting out, for more personal stylings.

As these thoughts filter through, I begin to notice that I'm starting to get it a bit. Not the complex moves, but some of the easier glides the instructor keeps coming back to. I'm not doing great but do feel a little hypnotized by the repetition. When the tough stuff comes up, I more or less jog in place.

I couldn't name many country tunes not sung by Hank Williams (the father, not the son) and really don't know what I'm flailing to, but the music is nice, almost soothing. Most important, I'm breathing heavy and sweating. This is supposed to be a workout, right? That part is working out.

When the instructor finally ends the class on a gentle note--a slow number by the Judds, ideal for cooling down--I'm ready to saddle up and ride on out of there. Before my getaway, the woman with the purple cowboy hat, now soaked, pink-faced and smiling, asks me if I had a good time.

"Well," I drawl unconvincingly, "it was about the most fun I've had in years." Almost as fun as kissing cactus, is what I'm thinking.

This annoys her. "Oh, and you looked like you were having such a ball." She adjusts her hat and stares at my shoes one last time. "Those," she says before sashaying into the sunset, "have got to go."

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