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RELUCTANT NOVICE

Staying in Step : Stomping comes easily, but it's the fancy footwork that tangles the toes in country line dancing.

July 29, 1994|ROBERTA G. WAX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Roberta G. Wax writes regularly for The Times.

It seems like a good omen that the first song I hear entering the cowboy bar has the refrain, "If Bubba can dance, then I can, too." I am ready to try country line dancing, where everyone queues up and, precise as a chorus line, kicks their feet, stomps their heels and twirls in syncopation.

My country music epiphany came at a company picnic, when an office secretary taught the Tush Push line dance. She looked adorable in her tight jeans, and appeared to be getting nearly as much exercise doing the three-minute dance as I do in an hour of aerobics.

There are two major advantages to line dancing: It's great exercise and you don't need a partner--a distinct plus when your husband would rather sing than dance.

Country music has become less twangy and more rock 'n' roll since I scoffed at it in college, when Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones were staples on my stereo. (Although it is disconcerting to hear Janis Joplin's bluesy "Piece of My Heart" rendered country.)

Corralling two friends for moral support, I struggle into jeans, pull on boots and gallop off to the Cowboy Palace Saloon in Chatsworth for their free dance lessons.

Instructor Charlotte Millerd, a bubbly blonde wearing a short red, tiered skirt, matching fringed shirt and white boots, jokingly warns that she has two "right" feet--she confuses her right and left when calling out the steps. This is my kind of dancer.

*

"Boot Scootin' Boogie" is the first lesson--a relatively simple dance with about two dozen steps done to a catchy Brooks & Dunn tune of the same name. The trick is remembering all the steps, and in the right order. I am nearly lost from the first beat, when we step forward, turn halfway round and back again. (Is the room spinning or is it me?)

Learning the steps, I am all thumbs, which is even worse than having two left feet when trying to dance. But patient Charlotte reviews each step before moving on. The "grapevine" is next . . . whew, something I remember from aerobics: a simple step to the right, cross behind with the left foot and repeat.

My toes tangle a bit when I try to do a sort of hop-skip-scoot forward, but I get the kick OK, and I am great at the stomping part. Putting the steps together requires my total concentration; if my mind wanders, so do my feet.

"Now turn around and face the 'outhouse,' " drawls Charlotte. I immediately lose my bearings trying to dance facing the opposite direction. We do one repetition, then two. Then whaddaya know--we've done the entire dance.

Crank up the jukebox, Roy, I'm ready to rock.

Whoa! The music is much faster than the way we practiced.

But within a couple of beats, with Charlotte shouting instructions, we're dancin' and stompin' and even having fun.

*

The next week, we mosey over to the larger and more upscale Denim & Diamonds in Woodland Hills, which boasts two bars, a free happy hour buffet and two dance floors--a large one in the middle and a smaller one where folks can practice or learn new steps.

I've even bought one of those short, swirly skirts. (My teen-ager made gagging noises and made me swear not to wear it around her friends.)

At D&D, we're in luck--the class is a beginning two-step, one of the most basic of the couples dances. If you don't have a partner, don't worry, instructor Paula Benedetti will coax the cowboys from the bar stools and match you up.

She teaches the gals their moves first, then the guys, then we put our steps together. There is momentary panic as I seek my partner. (What if I don't remember what he looks like? What if he's left?) But we connect as Paula tells the men where to put their hands.

"The right hand is your turn signal," she says, demonstrating how he uses it like a tiller to guide his backward-moving partner around the floor, guiding her deftly around corners and avoiding collisions with other couples.

*

Paula also explains dance floor etiquette--slower dancers move inside, preserving the outer circle for the movers, twisters and twirlers. We try two-stepping to music. You can spot the newcomers--we look very serious and don't engage in small talk. Our lips move as we count off the steps--slow . . . slow . . . quick-quick . . . slow . . . .

My partner and I actually two-step our way through a song and are doing fine until the music gets faster. After I crush his Tony Llamas for the fourth time, he thanks me and leads me off the floor mid-song.

After the lessons, the serious dancers come out. I watch enviously for awhile, and when the DJ announces the Boot Scootin' Boogie, I feel cocky enough to sashay onto the floor. Tappin' my boots to the opening beat, wondering just how far my skirt will swirl, I move on the first note--left foot out, turn, turn . . . . Yikes! I turn right into my neighbor, who was grapevining while I was pivoting. What's wrong here?

I scoot my boots right off that floor and watch, frustrated: They're doing the new, improved Boogie with fancier footwork and different moves.

But redemption is only a song away. Ah, the Electric Slide, a dance so easy even my mother could do it. This time, I turn on time, grapevine with aplomb and even add a fancy spin and some good ol' country "attitude" when I stomp my boots.

When the music stops, I'm breathless and sweaty and ready to dance again.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: Country line-dancing lessons.

Location: Cowboy Palace Saloon, 21633 Devonshire St., Chatsworth.

Hours: Free lessons nightly. Call for times.

Call: (818) 341-0166.

Location: Denim & Diamonds, 21055 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills.

Hours: Free lessons nightly. Call for times.

Call: (818) 888-5134.

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