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  • November 16th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

Okay, the election is over. We all are disappointed to tears or elevated to joy. Time to get back to the realities of life, like cowboy bars.  There are bars and there are bars. There is the “Cheers” bar where the same group of regulars gather every day to knock back a few and listen to Cliff Clavin  pontificate  on dubious theories and watch Sam Malone try to make out with his latest squeeze. Then there’s Duffy’s Tavern for those of you with long lives and longer memories who recall the opening: “Duffy’s Tavern where the elite meet to eat. Duffy ain’t here. Archie the manager speakin’.”


And there are roadhouses, distinct from cowboy bars although both are far more likely to serve beer in pitchers as opposed to cocktails with fruity little umbrellas in them. Anyone asking for a Manhattan or a James Bond martini, “shaken not stirred”  in either of them would likely wind up in the parking lot with multiple bruises.  Both have music and dancing but there the similarities end.


A roadhouse is far more likely to feature the music of a jukebox, whereas the cowboy bar is more likely to host a live band. And, while beer drinking is the preferred form of exercise while seated, active participation in Terpsichore is so de rigueur the beer often goes flat while the table occupants are busy figuratively cutting rugs (although no carpet ever adorns the scuffed wood floors of either roadhouses or cowboy bars).


I have had a lifelong aversion to barroom dancing faster than what we called buckle polishing  since a traumatic incident in 1955 in Lawton, Oklahoma, where I, filled with misplaced confidence after a couple of beers, dared to ask a beer joint queen to dance with me, possibly to Fats Domino’s spirited rendition of “Ain’t That a Shame?”. The shame, it quickly turned out, was mine when the girl stopped mid-dance and snarled “What the hell are you doing?” Two things were obvious to me. She knew what she was doing— and she knew I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Her words stuck a psychological stiletto in me which has lasted now for some 60 years.


I’ve tried nearly everything to cure myself of this psychosomatic roadblock short of psychiatric treatment, which costs far more than the beer that doesn’t go flat while I sit at the table and watch the active dancers, often with my date as a participant. How I wish I could equal my wife Marty (my date of 62 years) as she pirouettes and gracefully spins like the vintage Ginger Rogers.


She loves dancing and has since her teenage years frequenting Louie’s Sweetshop, a Macon, Missouri, ice cream parlor hangout for the teenage crowd, with no beer, but a jukebox and a throng of dance worthy Macon high school teens who could easily have outclassed the gum chewing teenyboppers of Dick Clark’s Bandstand.


Every time the movie Swing Time appears on television I watch it. Ginger Rogers is a dance instructor who is assigned Fred Astaire, with whom she has had a previous disagreement. Fred pretends to be a bumbling incompetent at learning to dance and she is exasperated with him until, like a beautiful butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, he becomes Fred Astaire and they in turn become Fred and Ginger and not once does she stop him and snarl “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”


I have tried the Astaire approach to dancing many times over the years and have the bumbling Fred part  down pat; however, so far, my butterfly remains locked up in an impenetrable chrysalis. Mr. Astaire summed up my lifelong attitude toward dancing perfectly in 1936 in the movie Roberta when he memorably sang “I won’t dance, don’t ask me” and summed up his reluctance this way: “I feel so absolutely stumped on the floor.”


Of course he finally did get coaxed to the floor and proved that not only he would dance, but that he was not absolutely stumped and instead was Fred Astaire. The few times that I have been coaxed to the floor, mumbling “I won’t dance, etc.” I proved conclusively that I was stumped. Many have tried to turn my feet from stumps to Cinderella’s slippers and have failed , from my mother to my wife.


The mother part began on the rickety floor of the Dalton Hotel, the ramshackle one time railroad hotel where we lived as a family of three people and a small dog in 17 rooms during the 1950s. There are few things more intimidating than dancing with your mother.


My parents were products of the Roaring Twenties, the Flapper Era, who abandoned their origins in the boondocks of Wisconsin and Missouri for the flamboyant lifestyle of Chicago in the Capone years. They would go to nightclubs  for dancing and the kind of upscale revelry only seen in the movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, leaving me in the care of a babysitter who, as best I can remember, was so geriatric as to barely be able to negotiate our apartment, not to mention too feeble to teach me the Charleston. It was left to my mother to indoctrinate me into the mysteries of the foxtrot.  Waltzing was best left to the fans of Wayne King, the Waltz King, and his orchestra, heard on our Zenith upright console radio. I could imagine people waltzing or foxtrotting in a ballroom high atop some exotic hotel in some distant city— but not in Dalton Missouri population about 200 which had no hotel other than the decrepit white elephant in which we lived and which was about as exotic as the noisy feed mill that was directly across the dirt street.


So, my mother and I, squared off in the Dalton hotel, a 78 RPM record tinnily sounding a danceable melody on my record player which, to that moment, had played only Hank Williams laments. Elsewhere, my high school classmates were jitterbugging and, for all I knew, even waltzing. But I was gingerly trying to coordinate my feet with the music and with my mother’s instructions all of which left me in the same mental state I suffered when our algebra teacher tried to explain how “a” equaled “b” over “c”– that is to say helpless confusion and an almost overwhelming urge to burst into tears.  “You take two steps to the left, one to the right,” mom said. “Then you do it again.” She dragged me in a sort of circle around the rickety floor and it must’ve looked the way it looks when a dog’s owner tries to drag him in the door to the vet’s office for a series of painful shots.


There was no attempt to explain dancing to the musical beat or naming the name of this simple exercise which I assumed to be the foxtrot. I’ve never seen a fox trot, but I would suspect one doing what I was doing of being afflicted somehow, possibly with rabies.  If you have seen the movie Frankenstein, the original from the 1930s, and watched Dr. Frankenstein’s monster lurching through the countryside creating havoc, you will know what my dancing looked like. Or perhaps it looked like a wind up mechanical toy with a defective mainspring.


In Keytesville high school there were a few guys who could fast dance and they were universally despised by those of us relegated to the sidelines. All the girls knew how to fast dance and frequently danced with each other, an in your face insult to those of us brooding out of the action. Up the road, in Macon, where Marty thrived, all the guys knew how to fast dance because they had Louie’s Sweetshop as a training ground.   I lived six miles down the road from Keytesville in Dalton where there was no jukebox, no Louie’s Sweetshop and where gilts and heifers were far more common than available human female dance partners.  Even had my mother been capable of teaching me to fast dance, she was a graduate of the era of the Lindy Hop and out of the dancing mainstream by the time the Jitterbug came along.


Fast forward 60 years or so—not too fast or I can’t keep up— to the present time.  Marty and I are fond of sitting on our deck on a soft summer night, the stars sprinkling the sky, our outdoor speaker tuned to a 1950s rock ‘n roll reprise , enjoying a glass of wine, each other, and our cherished memories. Marty’s memories are of dancing at Louie’s Sweetshop, possibly to the same melodies now echoing across the Cole County nightscape, while mine are not of dancing, especially with my mother in the Dalton hotel—although I could have been listening to those same rocking melodies and wishing my feet knew what to do with them. But I probably was listening to the St. Louis Cardinals with Harry Caray shouting exuberantly “it might be—it could be— it is! a home run!”  We have our priorities and I didn’t know Marty and Louie’s Sweetshop existed then but I did know everything there was to know about the St. Louis Cardinals. And, while Stan Musial often danced around the bases, he didn’t do it to a boogie beat.


Every so often now so many years later on our deck, emboldened by wine, the romance of the stars, and the presence of Marty, I will say “let’s dance!”  And I clumsily stumble around the deck trying to emulate what Marty does so effortlessly. To give her credit and, as a measure of our everlasting love, she does not stop me in my tracks and snarl “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”  But after a few fumbling steps, it is painfully obvious that I still do not know what I’m doing, and we go back and sit. Once, on the deck late at night, I saw what I am certain was an unidentified flying object—a bright light which arced across the sky and was not an airplane or a satellite or anything I have ever seen before. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps aliens would land and somehow through superior, alien intelligence,  plant in my mind and body the ability to dance fast.


And now we come by circuitous route to cowboy bars.  We have arrived at a point in life where (and I have photos to prove it) Marty is fast dancing with our married grandson, while I sit ringside, and stare moodily into my rapidly going flat beer. I have done so countless times in roadhouses stretching nearly nationwide, and in a few cowboy bars as well.


. The occasion was a night out in the mountains of Colorado at a bar called Crystola where a live cowboy band delivered high-energy dance music to an enthusiastic local crowd. Woodland Park, at 8500 feet of elevation, is high enough that, for the geriatric crowd, even shambling from the bedroom to the john (a frequent occurrence for us elderly folks) is enough to get you out of breath. Fast dancing is for teenagers and those acclimated to living with minimal oxygen.  Crystola is notable for having a huge cutout of Johnny Cash giving the finger behind the bar and a portrait of a naked woman on the ceiling, obviously visible only to someone passed out on the dance floor (which I figured I would be if I tried fast dancing at 8500 feet).


Our daughter, Carrie, and son-in-law, Ron, had promised us a surprise anniversary present—which turned out to be the night at Crystola.  Was that a strange anniversary present or did they perhaps sense something epochal blowing in the thin mountain winds?  There, at the age of 84, and at a celebration of our 62nd wedding anniversary, I decided that enough was enough


I watched entranced as a thirtysomething father and his adolescent daughter flawlessly emulated one of those boogie-woogie couples from 1940s black-and-white movies, twirling, whirling, and executing acrobatic dance moves that would have left Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse speechless with admiration.  And Marty danced with grandson Nickolas, the years falling away like autumn leaves and Louie’s Sweetshop lived again.


“Enough is enough!” My inner self shouted to my outer self, especially my feet. And I hadn’t even had a sip of beer when I jumped to my feet, grabbed Marty by the hand and said “Let’s dance!” She looked at me as if I had grown a second head and followed me onto the dance floor. Somewhere the spirit of Chuck Berry was writing new lyrics: “Roll over Little Richard/tell Fats Domino the news!”


Well, I won’t say that I suddenly turned into Fred Astaire, playing a con game with Ginger Rogers, but I managed to get through a dance or two with my beloved and without having to relinquish her to the educated feet of our grandson (although my knees ached for several days afterward). Perhaps a new day has dawned.

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