Outside magazine, April 1995
It was 7:30 on a Friday night, and the cavernous dance hall at In Cahoots, a nightclub in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, was thronged with men in western jeans and silver belt buckles and women in swing skirts and Rocketbuster Sweetheart boots. As Jesse Hunter's "Long Legged Hannah (from Butte, Montana)" boomed over the sound system, neon stars shone over the dancers' Stetson hats. The racier cowgirls in fishnet stockings and lacy camisoles line-danced with studied obliviousness while lonesome cowboys in Garth Brooks windowpane shirts looked on.
A lonely geek wearing yellow shorts, sneakers, and a polo shirt wandered toward the exit, and he looked as lost as a buttered scone at a barbecue. Steve Hurt, the club's manager, equably watched him go. "Our goal is to make people like that comfortable here," Hurt said. "Maybe he'll end up buying Wranglers and boots."
Unlike other cowboy clubs in Los Angeles, In Cahoots draws a portion of its clientele from semirural valleys north of the city, where some people have actually touched horses. Nevertheless, a roster of club regulars I saw included the names of their decidedly nonfrontier employers: State Farm Insurance, the Los Angeles Fire Department, Great Western Bank (one point for the name). "They may not be cowboys," said Hurt, a stocky man who wears aviator glasses with his cowboy hat, "but they appreciate the lifestyle."
The actual cowboy lifestyle, of course, is redolent of muddy dawns and large-animal rectal examinations. At In Cahoots it consists of mounted steer skulls, Sunday-night discounts on long-neck beers, a "practice" blackjack table (gambling is illegal, so you pay $20 for chips and can play until you lose), and dances called the Boot-Scootin' Boogie and the Cowboy Cha-Cha.
It's been 15 years now since the movie Urban Cowboy sparked the first great boom of two-step dance clubs in cowpoke capitals like Boston and Greenwich Village. After a couple of years, the stockbrokers and high school guidance counselors lost interest, and their boots got buried somewhere in the backs of their closets. But ever since Billy Ray Cyrus's ubiquitous "Achy Breaky Heart" sparked the modern line-dancing craze in 1992, millions of people from coast to coast have dug out their boots again. It may be no accident that the original boom coincided with the start of the Reagan era and that the boom redux has paralleled the rise of Newt: When the pendulum swings to the right, Americans get an itch to swing their partners.
"These people are suburbanites," said Hurt. "We don't have gang problems here. We don't have steroid problems. We don't have many fights. The ones we do have are usually between girls. Somebody is dating somebody else's ex-husband."
Hurt's ambition, which he has been achieving, is to get 1,500 people through the door of In Cahoots five nights a week. They pay a $5 cover charge after 8 p.m. and consistently consume, according to Hurt's careful arithmetic, one drink per person per hour.
Except for those who come for their health, like Kathy Fisher, a heavyset woman in white fringed boots, whom I found nursing a glass of water near the disk jockey's booth. She's at In Cahoots four nights a week, she said, arriving early to miss the cover charge and catch the free dance lessons. "Line-dancing's better than going to the gym," she explained, breaking off our conversation in midsentence when the DJ called her favorite dance, the Honky Tonk Attitude, based on the tune by Joe Diffie. She couldn't wait to get out on the floor.
Fisher strictly does line-dancing ("because you don't have to wait to be asked"), but clubs like In Cahoots offer dances for couples as well. The West Coast Swing is a subtly stylized maneuver that, experienced dancers assured me, demands up to two years of study to master. The Horseshoe is more traditional country--it requires the men to tip their hats at their partners at specified intervals. Among line dances, The Tumbleweed, which is done to fast numbers like Carlene Carter's "Every Little Thing," is the most dangerous. Its steps include a sudden sideways move that sends dancers who know the drill careening into stationary novices.
The dancing inspires a devotion you can plainly see on the faces of the L.A. cowboys as they follow one another around the big floor. That the only naturally occurring cowboy hats in Los Angeles are on the heads of rural Mexican immigrants laboring as gardeners doesn't seem to bother a soul. These people have worked too hard to learn the dances. They are entitled to their hats.
And to reap the other benefits. Kathy Ryan was a nursing student and hair salon receptionist when she discovered country dancing a couple of years ago. Now she sells a line of cowboy-dancing accessories of her own design, including deerskin-and-rhinestone chaps that fetch as much as $400 a pair. She teaches aerobic line-dancing at a health club (women in leotards and cowboy boots) and manages the Renegade Dancers, a professional group that has performed, among other places, at a birthday party for Elizabeth Taylor and in an episode of Baywatch.
While there is a large singles scene at In Cahoots, regulars insist that the dancing is primary here, and the possibility of a romantic encounter merely an inessential fringe benefit. People say they value the casual mix-and-match atmosphere of the cowboy bars and their emphasis on friendliness.
"After a dance here, it's easy to say goodbye," said Joanne May, an acupuncturist and doctor of homeopathy. "At a disco you're stuck to them." Still, May acknowledged a preference for a man who is a good lead. "You want someone who will take care of you, not some asshole who's more into looking good. The woman goes backward into the turns. It's the job of the lead to make sure the space is clear."
Ron Hamad, a 41-year-old TV commercial director, would certainly qualify as a good lead. "You can learn a lot about a person from one turn around the floor," Hamad told me. "Whether they pay attention, whether they have a lot of fear, whether they're present. You can feel it." Hamad is short and wears glasses, and I hope he will forgive me if I say he is not strikingly handsome. Nevertheless, over the space of two hours, I saw him dance with a succession of gorgeous women. They were doing complicated steps and enjoying his company. "That's what happens when you know how to dance," he said, smiling. "It pays off."
After a Walkin' Wazi and a George Strait two-step, the club DJ cranked up "Ain't Going Down," by Garth Brooks. "Is it too early for a Tush Push?" the DJ called out to the crowd.
Apparently, it wasn't.
Ed Zuckerman lives in Los Angeles, where he writes for the television series Law and Order. He is the author of The Day After World War III and Small Fortunes: Two Guys in Pursuit of the American Dream.