My first mistake was showing up on time: when interjecting myself into new social situations, I generally want to draw the least possible attention to myself, so I try to play by the rules and blend in with the natives. Only when we pulled into the gravel parking lot outside Wild Country (a nearly half-hour drive across that bridge in Collinsville, Illinois), hardly any of the natives had arrived yet. I figured that would give me a chance to get settled in and get the lay of the land, before I lost myself in a frenzy of line dancing.
Ever been flipping around the channels late on a Saturday night and come across a screen full of people Cotton Eyed-Joe'ing, boot scootin' or waltzing across a dance floor the size of Texas? You know the ones: some of them give self-conscious grins for the camera as they sweep by, but a not-uncommon facial expression is one I refer to as "the death mask." Those are the denizens of this Wild Country, and the club in Collinsville is the scene of the taping of the show ("St. Louis Country") every Thursday night, for broadcast the following Saturday.
I come from the South; I appreciate a good line dance as much as the next gal. I was even known, in my youth, to clog on occasion. (What can I say? My mother signed me up for lessons.) Though I feigned a desire to attend the show's taping ironically, secretly I hoped I'd get a few two-step pointers from some earnest cowboys and be off to the races, dragging myself out to the car when the club closed. So I showed up at 7, the advertised start time each Thursday night.
There's an impressive (or frightening, depending on your perspective) amount of security outside and inside Wild Country: bouncers of various girths and hilarious hairstyles prowl the place, unmissable in their blacklight-reflecting neon t-shirts. Once we'd shown ID, paid a $5 cover and gotten patted down, we were in. Like a lot of things you see on TV, the actual experience of the room doesn't live up to the expectations you might have, but it's still a sizeable space, with (and I'm quoting from the web site here), "5 bars, a 3,000 square foot hard wood dance floor, high tech lighting and fantastic sound systems." From direct experience, I can tell you that until the 25,000 square feet fill up with a few people, it's mighty cold in there, no doubt climate-controlled to the liking of the eventual dancers.
Until the action commenced, we sat at a dance-floor-side table near the bar (marveling at the drinks on offer, from Jagermeister and "tarantula margaritas" to a foul-looking concoction called a Cherry Bomb), laughing at the faux-flower-bedecked Wine Bar and trying to figure out what the hell was going on. The house DJ, ensconced in a mezzanine-level booth, blasted out the hits, from Martina McBride to a jazzy version of "I'm So Dizzy," and the big screens throughout the place alternated between country music videos and a football game. Some shuffling about on the dance floor had the look of practice sessions, and for a while I thought we were in the wrong place.
Finally, though, the prelims got underway, when Dance Queen Joyce Warren took control of the wireless mic and the dance floor, calling all interested parties out for a few quick lessons. Now, you have to understand: there are only so many ways you can move two feet at the end of two legs, even if you get pretty creative, but after instruction in about three separate dances, I couldn't keep my rock-step straight with my cha-cha-cha, and forget about the pivot I kept turning the wrong way and ending up facing the entire line of people. (Only years of step aerobics classes kept me from feeling like a total fool, as I can grapevine with the best of 'em.) A huge range of ages was represented on the dance floor, from weathered old dudes who look like they could be actual cowboys to a scampering teen (18's the minimum age, but I wonder) I took to calling "galloping girl," because she preferred that quick-and-stompy movement to get where she was going. Perhaps not surprisingly, the crowd was almost completely white.
I don't know if it was the lessons or the adrenaline rage that built up in me when I heard that inane Trace Adkins song, "Swing," but I was suddenly ready to dance. The cameras from KMOV had finally shown up, "St. Louis Country" banners had been strung around the dance floor, and it looked like something might finally start happening...at about 9 p.m.
And then, it didn't. So much didn't happen that we made our way upstairs, to the "Eat This Café," and passed the time sharing French fries and watching a steady parade of hair-primping girls make their way over to hang off the DJ booth. There's no better people-watching than when you are on a different visual plane that your quarry: gawk all you want, and they probably can't see you.
Then, our reverie was interrupted by the actual start of the evening: a few "testing, testings"s from the DJ and Wild Country broke out in full line-dance activity. And what I learned, painful though it was, is that all that coordinated dancing is really damn hard no wonder the folks on TV grimace through the death mask! They're probably counting steps or concentrating so hard on the tap-shuffle-three steps that they forget to smile. I gave it the old college try, but my half-hour of dance lessons did not prepare me for the lockstep precision demanded by Wild Country. The dancers all seemed in on some secret I couldn't fathom: when each new song started, there was a split second of gathering energy, and then suddenly the whole crowd was doing the same dance...but it's not like anyone blew a whistle and said, "Okay, everybody, it's the Louisiana kick," or "Jitterbug, fools! Jitterbug like your life depends on it!" No, they just all got some signal I wasn't getting. The line dancers massed in the middle of the floor, while the outside passing lane seemed reserved for couples engaged in fancy steps, their arms intertwined.
I sidled over to where Dance Queen Joyce sat at a table with her girlfriends, and said, "Um, so I have a question: when a song starts..."
"How does everybody just know what dance to do?" she interrupted, laughing. "It's just getting used to it, coming a few weeks in a row and seeing that when that song comes on, everyone does this particular dance. Someone out there stepped up and was the leader, even though it may not look like it when you're watching. Your feet just do it: you don't even consciously think about it."
In other words, had you been home watching "St. Louis Country" on the following Saturday night, you wouldn't have spotted me lightly sweeping the floor with my booted foot, shaking my hips while above me the Dixie Chicks blared. I'll freely admit I didn't have what it takes, at least not after one casual foray. Instead, I retreated to the overlook, marveling at the organized, morphing blob of dancers below, and turned my thoughts instead to that old Western musical adage, "Save a horse, ride a cowboy."
Amanda Doyle has decent rhythm but no decent cowboy boots.