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Two-Step Turned Into Wedding March : A professor and his sweetheart started studying dancing from scratch and went on to become the best in the West.


If you think Joe Diffie's hit song, "John Deere Green" about Billy Bob and Charlene tells a great love story, keep reading. But be warned: It might lead you to Ventura Western Days, a three-day dance workshop weekend March 11 through 13 in Ventura.

Eight years ago, Bob Gray, then a 52-year-old geology professor at Santa Barbara City College, had never danced a step in his life. But the Mucker's Ball, his department's annual fund-raising event, was ominously near. So Bob, who was recently divorced, signed up for a six-week basic country-Western dance class.

Well, Cinderfella made it to the ball. But he was so frustrated trying to coordinate his footwork and turns that Professor Bob dropped out of dance class. And he took it four more times before giving himself a passing grade.

But he did meet a sweetheart. And in November, 1991, Marcia Spranger, a marketing consultant with an MBA, put on her cream-colored waltz competition dress. Bob, the Ph.D., wore a Western suit. They were married among friends on the dance floor at the SouthWestern Regional Grand Championships, in Burlingame, Calif.

"We met through dancing. And it was and is still a big piece of our lives. So it seemed right," she said.

When they met in 1988, Marcia was engaged to someone else and was fighting breast cancer. "I was working hard to do positive, fun things. Dancing was really good therapy for me. I had fun and forgot everything," she said.

Bob was in the class because "he didn't want to look like a complete idiot," said Marcia, who turns 52 this month.

"Then Bob took me to see my very first competition event. I remember telling him, 'I would really love to do this.' And he said, 'I can't do this!' But he did," she said.

Bob and Marcia have competed nationally for four years in the Silver Division (minimum age 45, joint age 100+), and they have a roomful of trophies to show for it.

In 1992, they were recognized as Best in the West and named Overall Champions of the SouthWestern Regional Grand Championships by placing first in all seven of their dances. It was the first time this had ever been done by a competing couple. Last year, they became Silver World Champions in East Coast Swing and Pony Swing at the First World Championship of Country Western Dance, held in Nashville. And about six weeks ago they took second place overall at the same event.

To help defray the cost of competing, Bob and Marcia began teaching four years ago for the Santa Barbara Recreation Department and for the Goleta Valley Community Center. They also give private lessons in their home studio.

And Marcia is the editor and publisher of a bimonthly country-Western dance magazine, Western Express, which began as a newsletter for the Grays' dance classes in Santa Barbara, and grew into a national magazine with a circulation of 1,500.

And on March 12, local dance enthusiasts can take advantage of the couple's experience during their workshop and demo for Ventura Western Days. There, Bob will draw on personal experience to help beleaguered weekend social dancers.

"We tell our story to the guys and they say it makes them hang in there," said Bob. "It's very difficult for the man. Most are there to please their significant other. And it takes an enormous amount of time to learn how to turn the lady at the right time, maintain the flow of the music patterns and keep footwork going as well.

"The man initiates the move and has got to do it on the right count. So it's like learning how to drive a car: clutch, take your foot off the gas, brake and shift all at the same time."

So take it from Bob, who's been there. "Men's egos are fragile and dancing doesn't always come easy. If you want to be a good two-stepper--as in athletics--you've got to have persistence and practice," he said.

"A man doesn't want to look foolish on the floor. But unless he's got enough gumption to learn, he will throw the lady all over the dance floor."


* WHAT: Bob and Marcia Gray will teach intermediate two-step and perform a dance demonstration during Ventura Western Days, an annual three-day weekend of country dancing, workshops and competitions.

* WHERE: California Ballroom-American Legion Hall, 83 S. Palm St., Ventura.

* WHEN: Dance workshop, 12:30 p.m. and demo at 9:15 p.m. Saturday, March 12

* COST: Three-day admission pass per person until March 5, $35, $15 for age 17 and under one-day tickets, $10.

* FYI: 647-1893 for details on Ventura Western Days; 682-8437 for information on Bob & Marcia Gray's country-Western Dance classes or for Western Express magazine.

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