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An old-fashioned barn dance sounded like a nice change of pace -- hay bales, fiddles, do-si-dos, and the like -- and even though it was scheduled for the plush confines of the Hi-Ball Lounge, I thought that was nothing a few straw hats couldn't fix. When the lazy Sunday night finally rolls 'round, I find the Hi-Ball decorated with a wall-size backdrop depicting a country landscape (complete with a broken-down barn and an outhouse). The usual swanky crowd sports cowboy hats and a few tasteful plaid shirts, and a number of cowboy boots peek out from under the cocktail tables. Unfortunately, when Rick Quisol and his six-piece band climb onstage I realize that most of the "cowboys" are in the band and the rest of them are just swing kids dressed in overalls.
"You see, this is western, not country music," clarifies a pretty young retro woman. She smiles helpfully and fingers the olive in her martini glass while a friend at a nearby table hastily pulls on her overcoat. "I usually come in on the regular swing nights," she says, trying to explain her early departure. "I'm really not dressed appropriately for [a barn dance]." Somewhat disappointed with my country experience, I follow her to the exit just as Quisol introduces another number.
"I know that there are some cowboys out there that want to slow dance with their cowgirls," he says with a slight drawl, and I wonder if he is poking fun.
"You gotta go to the 'Rack!"
If you mention country dancing, this is by far the most common response on the street. The 'Rack, so I am told, is the largest dance club in California, with two live stages, five dance floors, and a mechanical bull that runs seven days a week. Neither wild horses nor the 45-minute drive to San Jose could keep me away.
The Saddlerack, as it is properly known, looks like it may have been a bowling alley before being transformed into a nightclub over 20 years ago. It is a big, square concrete structure that looms over its nearest neighbor, Phu Dong, a Vietnamese youth club where several ping-pong tables are the main attraction. From the road, two enormous neon signs direct country lovers into a sprawling parking lot filled with trucks of every imaginable model and make. By 10 o'clock on a Saturday night, this lot is already full, and a constant stream of men and women in cowboy hats and tassels make their way through the 'Rack's double doors.
Inside, the mind-blowing club decor is more Vegas theme casino than Urban Cowboy. Bright lights and neon blink from every wall; more than half a dozen bars line the walls like county fair stands; beer carts separate the dance floors; wagon wheels and saddles are draped over faux wooden roofs; electronic billboards announce dance lessons and upcoming events; numerous video screens show country-themed cartoons starring Elmer Fudd and the Roadrunner; and the "Country Store," which sells shirts, hats and such, is having a big sale.
I walk to the center of the room, where a small man in a big Stetson hat flails about on the back of a mechanical bull. The man's grip is strong and he moves with an agility that could only come from years of practice. Despite the apparent efforts of the operator, the man finishes his ride and dismounts unscathed. He walks to a nearby table, where he kisses his girlfriend on the cheek -- without jarring either of their matching hats -- and takes a swig of beer.
Moments later, a large, bearded man approaches me with a warm smile and a curious look. "Hey there, you writin' down the words to this song?" I note that the band is playing a countrified version of a traditional Christmas carol, and he takes a long, hard look at my well-pierced lobes. "You're from the city." I nod and brace myself. "Thought so. Well, if you wind up needing a dance lesson, I'm sure I could rassle something up for ya." He gives me a fatherly wink and walks back to his wife and, what appears to be, his adult son. I smile and squirm until a huge collective hoot draws me to one of the dance floors where nearly a hundred people are line dancing.
Apparently, line dancing, with all of its boot-stomping and hooting, is for the younger generation, while the couples' dance floor is popular with lovers and older country fans. Several grandparent sightings prove that Andy Buchanan, the manager of the 'Rack for the last 18 years, wasn't exaggerating when he said that the Saddlerack clientele ranges from 21 to 80. But it's the line dancing that is most fascinating to watch. The lack of physical contact and the complexity of the dance steps encourage partnerless men to engage in energetic bouts of dance showoffmanship. They inevitably end in jubilant howls.
One dance-floor favorite -- a mighty-tall young man with perfect posture and a huge black hat -- finishes a set and saunters over to "Margaritaville," a shot bar with a South of the Border theme. He removes his hat, politely places his order, and sits down in an old-fashioned barber's chair. The barmaid, dressed in a bust-enhancing Wild West wench outfit, smiles, gently leans the chair back, and free-pours into the man's open mouth. The man stands, says, "Thank you, ma'am," and tips his hat to the young miss. So polite. Is it any wonder that he is the subject of much discussion in the little cowgals' room?
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By Silke Tudor
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