Tonight, they dance: Inside the GLBT country western dance scene

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Cowboy boots click on faded linoleum as men file into the Lyndale Avenue VFW shortly before 9 p.m. on a Saturday in early November.

Some sport full western regalia, from shiny-buttoned shirts to stiff-toed cowboy boots. Others wear T-shirts and tennis shoes. They pay the $10 admission, bring their red drink ticket to the bar and exchange it for beer or bottled water, then gather at folding tables arranged around the dance floor.

They hug each other fiercely, wave, touch fingertips to hat brims. Harmonious chatter punctuated with laughter warms the room.

The DJ turns a knob and the barnburner song playing through the speakers fades into a ballad. A country twang, the singer Jewel’s:

The union we propose

Is dangerous, I know

Men stand, extend hands to each other, and walk in pairs to the dance floor. They clasp one right hand to one left, rest remaining hands on shoulders and waists. Two quick steps, two slow, repeat.

Life can take a long time

If you make the wrong choice

Time sure seems to fly by

When I hear your voice

The stakes are high,

How will we find

The courage to believe

We will succeed

The older men talk as they twirl while the younger ones focus on their feet and grimace when they lose the beat. They’ve all avoided dance floors in plenty of unsafe places, weddings populated with little-known relatives and bars that left them cold, weathering the looks, convincing themselves against all logic that they were the only ones.

Not here. Not tonight.

Tonight they dance.

‘Like going from Kansas to Oz’

Michael McGee walked into the Gay ’90s one night in 1989 with low expectations. Same people drinking the same drinks, swapping the same stories.

A few minutes and he was ready to leave. But first, on a whim, he stepped into the dance annex. He couldn’t believe his eyes: A live country band. Folks clad in cowboy hats and boots, stomping and turning in unison.

“It was like going from Kansas to Oz,” Michael said. “The lights were brighter, the music was a little bit softer, and everyone was laughing and smiling and talking and having a good time. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is what going out is supposed to be.’”

Country dancing is not “just wiggling in front of someone,” as Michael put it, it is not disco or hip-hop or anything else that requires dancing side-by-side. It’s an old-fashioned, intimate form braved in an often cold new world.

You step toward him. You look him in the eye. You clasp hands, the music starts and you dance. Two pairs of hips, legs and feet, moving as one.

Michael went back the next week. And the week after.

Soon, he was a regular, joining some dozen other men who began frequenting the country-dance night since the club launched it in the mid-’80s. Most of them were in their 30s and 40s and, like Michael, were tired of the bar scene, all the drinking and the conversations that felt too focused on one thing. Finally, here was a comfortable place to meet new people, to visit and to dance just to dance.

When the Gay ’90s canceled the country dances in the early ’90s, the regulars, led by Lyndale resident David Buchkosky, took the name — GLBT Country Western Dances — and the event with them. When only the dance matters, details fuzz. Nobody’s exactly sure of the timeline, but it goes something like this:

The dances re-launched, using a DJ, at St. Paul’s Town House bar Tuesdays through Sundays, and they drew bigger and bigger crowds. They left the Town House around 1999 and shuffled a few years through a series of bars, dance studios, and other locations before settling in two places: The Lyndale VFW, every other Saturday, and every Sunday night at Lee’s Liquor Lounge in downtown Minneapolis.

The Lee’s dance has continued without interruption ever since, but a few years ago, amid rumors that the VFW would close, those dances moved out to Fridley. Attendance that used to regularly break 200 fell to a few dozen.

And that’s when David, having relinquished his organizing role a few years back, stepped in and resurrected the VFW dances, for no other reason than the one that led him and the others to adopt the dance some two decades ago.

“The more I danced, the better I felt about myself,” David said. “It was just an affirmation to say, ‘This is something you can do. You’re good at it. You’re meeting nice people. You’re having a good time in a safe place.’

Well, what more do you want out of life?”

One step at a time

Any given night features two main dances: The line dance and the two-step.

If you’re interested in learning line dances, you best pay attention to Michael, who’s taught them at Lee’s practically every Sunday for 17 years running.

There are limitless line dances, though, since each one’s just a different combination of preset steps, there’s hope for any beginner. After all, as Michael puts it: “There’s only so many things you can do with your feet.”

He learned by trial and error and a few suggestions, when he first started, that he try something he might have more talent for. Sure, it hurt, hearing that. But it only fired him up. And gave him the patience to teach, whether it takes five minutes or five years for a new dancer to achieve the single illuminative moment when his feet begin to glide as if self-directed.

“All of a sudden, you see somebody’s face light up when they know they got it. You go through the whole pattern of a line dance without making a mistake and your face just lights up; it’s such a high,” he said. “I love that.”

Then there’s the two-step. Sounds easy, right? There are any number of complicated turns and embellishments, but really it’s just two steps, alternating fast and slow.

Watch the couples float across the floor and then stumble out there and give it a try. When you stomp on your partner’s foot a few times and then slip out of rhythm until you’re tap-dancing to catch up, don’t worry—you’re not the first and you won’t be the last.

“When I started, I was a bucking bronco out there,” said Don Kvam, a Stevens Square resident who’s hardly missed a Lee’s or VFW dance in five years. “Everyone I would try to dance with, I would pull them off their feet.”

So Don turned to David — a well-fed man with a low center of gravity, a year shy of 70 but nimble as they come — for help. After a few missteps, David discovered a failsafe training method: He leaned so hard on Don’s shoulder that there wasn’t any way Don was getting his feet more than an inch above the floor.

“It’s such an easy dance that it’s hard,” said Adrian DeRosier with the half-sigh, half-laugh that comes from years training. The 54-year-old West Calhoun resident has been dancing about three years now. He’s a little shy, and when he started he wasn’t sure who to ask for lessons.

Then Jake Koller asked him to dance.

You can’t miss Jake, a slight man with sharp eyes and a trim white beard. Likely he’s the one you’ve been admiring all night long, either because he looks 20 years younger than the 68 he is or because you can’t figure how his feet never seem to touch the floor.

He’s taught the two-step to who knows how many newcomers over the years, and some of them say his patient kindness and friendship is the reason they haven’t missed a single dance in the years since they first stepped through the door.

And in the end that’s what these dances are, they’re much more than nimble footwork, more than the western attire that’s encouraged but never required, more than any one of the men or the women present.

They’re a community where all are welcome exactly as they are.

Tonight, they dance

Michael Flug and Lawrence Ennis step through the hall entrance a few minutes before 9 p.m., dressed to the nines and with arms wrapped around each other.

Michael drives 225 miles roundtrip every weekend from his western Wisconsin home. When he first came a decade ago, it was for the dancing, but he’s happy to have a second reason.

Lawrence, a 56-year-old ECCO resident, crisscrosses the country for his job. At night, in cities from Atlanta to Los Angeles, he seeks out western dances. Michael, 54, has been dancing his whole life.

Together they’re a single blur on the floor. Other dancers take one breather after another and Lawrence and Michael whirl on and on with a purposeful joy that suggests that, when this dance night ends, their momentum will carry them right into the next one.

On a recent trip to one of the Fridley dances, they stopped to eat at an Old Country Buffet. People looked at them. The hostess asked them, pleasantly enough, where cowboys lived in those parts. Michael and Lawrence just laughed and moved on.

“We just ignore it,” Michael said. “I’m not going to change.”

“And we’re not going to change them,” Lawrence said.

’Course, they’re talking about the references to their cowboy hats and boots.

Sort of.

Michael taps his foot to the beat as he talks, and before long he’s standing and Lawrence is standing with him, and they’re headed, hand-in-hand, back to the dance floor.

Tonight, they dance.


UPCOMING DANCES

While the title “GLBT Country Western Dances” suggests the dances cater to a specific audience, anyone and everyone is welcome. The crowd’s usually split among the cowboy-boots-and-hats and the tennis-shoes-and-slacks wearers, so you’ll fit in either way. The details on upcoming dances:

Lyndale Avenue VFW (2916 Lyndale Ave. S.)

There are three dances left in 2008: Nov. 26, Dec. 6, and Dec. 31. In 2009, they’ll be held on the first and third Saturdays of every month. Dances start at 9 p.m. Admission is $10 and includes one ticket for an alcoholic or nonalcoholic beverage.

Lee’s Liquor Lounge (101 Glenwood Ave.)

Dances are held every Sunday and they’re free. Lessons start at 7 p.m. and the dance runs from 8–10:30 p.m.