History of Western Swing

(Modern 2 Step, Polka, Waltz)


History of Western Swing
(Modern 2 Step, Polka, and Waltz)

This was excerpted from an article by 
Rick Archer at SSQQ Dance Studio

It has been over two decades since the movie "Urban Cowboy" graced our Bayou City with its presence.  Gilley's is gone; so is the mechanical bull.  The old Winchester Club has been closed so long most of you have never even heard of it.

For that matter epitaphs should be written for Texas, Dallas, Cowboy, the original Rose, the original Wild West, the original Longhorn, Fool's Gold, Bronco, Diamondback, Desperado, Johnny B Dalton's, Midnight Rodeo, Bohickey's and too many others that escape my memory.  Disco is still dead, John Travolta has actually had enough time to be gone and come back again, and Houston's first big western dance studio - Exclusive Dance Club a.k.a. Disco Tech with a chain of 20 locations - is a nearly extinct memory.

All of those places are long gone, but here in the 21st Century, Western dancing is still going as strong as ever here in Houston.

Houstonís Western Swing originated during the Urban Cowboy period back in 1980/1981.  The birth of this dance is an interesting story that traces its roots even further back into the Disco era.  Yes, it is a cosmic joke that even though all the Real Cowboys agreed that Disco Sucked, Western Swing owes its existence to Disco.  Yessirree Cowboys, this wonderful Kicker dance we use to Clint, Garth, George, and Reba tunes would not be around if it wasn't for Donna Summer and John Ravolta.

You can argue all you want, but without "Shake Your Booty" and "Shake Your Groove Thing" all you gals would still be dancing backwards hanging onto belt loops and all you guys would probably still have your right arm crooked around the lady's neck.

The spirit of today's Western Swing was born in the summer of 1977.  "Saturday Night Fever" opened quietly in November 1977.  As you know, this unheralded movie lit up people's imaginations in a big way.  The Disco Craze hit Houston in 1978 as hard as any city in America.  The filming of this movie would cause seismic shifts in the Houston dance scene.  It seems behind the curtain some educated guesses were being made by Houstonís Movers and Shakers about the possible changes that "Urban Cowboy" might have on the Bayou Cityís nightclubs.  

With "Urban Cowboy" being filmed right here in Houston/Pasadena and starring you-know-who, many Disco clubs decided to lead rather than follow - they turned Country before the movie even came out!!  

In the spring of 1980, some of the less popular Disco clubs began to close and re-open as Western clubs.  These clubs were obviously anticipating a shift in interest well before it happened.  Once a few clubs went Country, the herd instinct kicked in.  The holdout owners must have figured someone else knew something they didnít, so now they all made the same move.  Even the Disco clubs that had been packed made the switch to Country.  It was absolutely crazy!!  In the spring of 1979 over a dozen Disco clubs switched to Country in the span of just four months.

 A very popular Disco named "Mirage" became the original "San Antone Rose" on San Felipe and Voss.  The "Rubaiyat" on the Southwest Freeway became the "Bullwhip".  "Foxhunter" became "Cowboy".  "Xanadu" became "Desparado" ad nauseumÖ.

 Other Discos like "Cooters" and "Elan" tried to cover their bet by adding a side floor strictly for Country dance.  The move by Elan was particularly ironic because it had been featured in a big "Urban Cowboy" scene hyped as the 'hottest Disco in Houston'.  Now just 8 months after the filming they were changing their stripes like everyone else. 

 Suddenly there were Western clubs all over the place.  Western apparel stores could barely keep up with the sudden demand.  Practically overnight Houston had gone "Urban Cowboy" before the movie had even premiered!!   By June 1980, the transformation was nearly complete.  The movie was due out in a month and almost all the clubs were country now.

In July 1980 shortly after "Urban Cowboy" was released western dance students began rolling in.  Enrollment in Disco classes dried up simultaneously.  About six months later the Class Factory folded.

Believe it or not, at this point in time the few people in Houston who could actually dance 'Country' could only speak 'Country'.  There were "Urbans" and there were "Cowboys", but despite the movie's premise there were very few 'Urban Cowboys'.  Furthermore neither group seemed to be able to understand each other or even like each other.  As you will read later, there was a huge Redneck backlash that would soon begin to surface. 

First came the club conversion period in the spring of 1979 where all the Disco Clubs went Country.  Then "Urban Cowboy" was released in June, 1979.  The summer of 1979 marked Houston's awkward, yet impassioned love affair with Western Dancing.  By September of 1979, the Western Swing had conquered our entire city!

To understand how an entire city could invent a new dance form in the space of perhaps four months requires some background information.  Western dancing has a strong tradition in Texas that probably dates back to the invention of the fiddle.

The Texas Two-step and the Polka have been around a lot longer than I care to imagine.  A third dance also existed.  Some people called it Aggie Jitterbug.  Others called it Country Swing.  Around the rest of the country this form of Swing dancing is known as Street Swing or High School Swing.  Aggie Jitterbug as we shall refer to it is the most common form of Swing dancing in existence.  It has no specific footwork and does not care what the beat of the music is.  The partners go to the ends of their arms, and then snap in the other direction.  Country Swing was a big part of the Texas Dance Scene in the 70ís because students have told me they either danced it or saw it up at A&M when they were in college.

Street Swing, New Yorker, Aggie Jitterbug, High School Swing, you name it, does not require dance teachers to learn, just strong arms.  What Texas had going for it was a huge love affair with Western music and a strong tradition of Saturday night dances throughout the state in rural communities.  On Saturday nights it is a tradition in many places for parents to take their children dancing with them at local community centers like VFW Halls.  These same kids got an education in Two-step, Polka, and Waltz as well that I regret City Boys like me were never exposed to.

When "Saturday Night Fever" came along, the Aggie Jitterbug became the New Yorker.  When "Urban Cowboy" came along, the New Yorker became the Aggie Jitterbug.  Same dance, same speed, different clothes, different music.  However until "Urban Cowboy" came along Two-step and Aggie Jitterbug remained two separate dances.  That was about to change!

In "Urban Cowboy" 90% of the couples did Circle Turns to Two-step and Polka.  Perhaps one couple in ten added Aggie Jitterbug-style Swing outs and Single Turns to their Two-step, the humble beginnings of Western Swing.  11 minutes before the end of the movie there was a dance contest scene.  All the dancers were quite ordinary until Couple #34 did Double Turns with perhaps the skill of someone taking today's Intermediate Western Swing.  Then came the Stars!

In a spotlighted scene that was part of the dance contest, Couple #66 did smooth-as-glass multiple Circle Turns followed by Western Swing Double Turns.  Although they only did two moves (Double Turn, Cross the Line, Double Turn) their skill-level was equivalent to someone in an advanced class.  In the movie they won the dance contest.

Their dancing was so far superior to anything else shown in the movie it seemed like they might have been beamed in from another planet.  Couple 66 danced just as smoothly in 1979 as anyone in 1999.  This couple was quite a ways ahead of their time.  Their 10 seconds of Fame should probably be credited with inspiring the birth of the Western Swing.  Couple 66 was Ground Zero.  Not that they were the only people in existence who knew the dance, but their brief moment of glory in the movie is likely to have been the spark that lit the fire.

You see, although all your former Disco stars were now irretrievably locked into the Urban Cowboy fantasy, in their heart many still carried the torch for Disco.  Just as "Saturday Night Fever" inspired an entire country to Disco Dance, "Urban Cowboy" certainly carried similar power here in Houston.  How much do you want to bet moviegoers throughout Houston noticed the same scene?  Like any good virus, you only need a carrier and lots of people with weak immunity.

Well, let me tell you, there were plenty of people in Houston, Texas, in the summer of 1979 who still wanted to dance the Turns.

 However, these turns did not catch on like Wildfire.  It took about four months.  For one thing, people did not have access to VCRs.  They couldnít run the scene over and over as we could today.  The scene only lasts 10 seconds.  How many people are going to go see the movie again and again for 10 seconds of dancing?  My hunch is this scene can only be credited with showing everyone what the possibilities were, but not how to get there.

Now on the floors of Houstonís Western clubs, the men started playing with ways to turn the girl.  They would separate from the girl as they traveled around the floor and try some sort of turn.  The patterns clearly resembled the Aggie Jitterbug except that the men and women were trying to travel at the same time.  These were mostly single turns at first, but a few couples even knew a mysterious double turn pattern.

These were the same turns as Couple 66 in the movie.  With the Double Turns, they became the flashiest couple on the floor, but they guarded their secret carefully!  Like a firefly, you could catch a glimpse of their move, but then they disappeared into the crowd.  The Double Turn couples were more than aware they had something everyone else wanted.  When they saw someone watching too closely, they would move to the other side of the floor before they did the turns again.  We would watch like a hawk, but none of us were bright enough to find the key.

 As the summer of 79 progressed, the cat was out of the bag.  Now that we knew it was possible to add turns to Two-step, we were determined to figure how these other guys had put Disco turns into their Polka/Polka.  Nobody was content to simply go backwards and forwards any longer.  Everyone was trying to unlock the mystery of these new turns!

However first we all had to endure the comedy stage.  You might see a couple where the girl would back leading a spin.  Couples would stop dead in the middle of the floor and start to argue about the right way to do a step.  Or we might see some guy cussing up a storm in obvious frustration, as he was unable to figure out how to turn his partner and Two-step at the same time.  Everybody in the place was confused and the ladies were falling all the time because no one knew what they were doing!

A little perspective might help.  Today now that people know how double turns work; the system is so obvious and clear.  Yet it might help to understand the dilemma of 1979 better if we compare the situation to 1999.  Beginning Western Swing classes donít really get the hang of the dance until the third week even though it is explain how it works in the first ten minutes of the first class.  The Western Swing is a tricky dance and very few people can learn it just by watching.

The Double Turns take a lot of practice on the ladiesí part and leading the Double Turns well takes an equal amount of practice on the menís part.  So learning Western Swing is no cakewalk even after you know what you are supposed to be doing.  It would be like showing a couple from todayís Beginning Two-step the Western Swing for one minute at a Practice Party, then with no explanation at all telling them to go figure it out.  Now put yourself back in 1979.  There were no teachers; there were no guides.  It was like a giant riddle for all dancers.  We saw it could be done, but darn if we knew how.  Confusion ruled the day.

 After the movie came out in June, it took about four months for Western Swing to catch on.  Slowly but surely more and more couples seemed to be getting it.  Each week someone new seemed to have discovered that mysterious way to double turn the girls in time to the music.  The next week three more couples had it figured out, the next week six more couplesÖ plus now people were less secretive and starting to share their secrets with others.

By October, 1979, enough people had figured out the key that Critical Mass was reachedÖ  It was a Western Swing Explosion!  Now everywhere you looked, men were spinning women!  Houston's Western dance floors became veritable oceans of women double turning this way, that way, any the guy could think to lead.  It was a very impressive sight to behold!

For a 100 years of Western dancing in Texas, women had danced backwards, holding belt loops with the manís arm wrapped like an Anaconda around their neck.  If she were lucky, maybe the guy would lead a Circle Turn.  Here in Houston those days were gone forever.  In the space of just four short months the entire cityís style of dancing changed!  Western Swing had been created before our very eyes.

People had heard of Bob Wills playing "Western Swing" music back in the 30ís.  They liked the name so they used it to describe these new turns.  While others call it "Two-step with Turns" or "Advanced Two-stepĒ.

Although similar forms of Western Swing are now seen around the country, (especially at Western dance competitions), Houston is where it started.  Compare the simplistic moves danced on The Nashville Network (TNN) to the complex moves taught in dance clubs across the Houston area for perspective.  While parts of the country are still surprised to see a man Two-step backwards and believe line dances were meant by God to be the dominant form of Western dancing, we have an entire city where thousands of dancers do intricate double turns effortlessly.  Houston has the right to be proud of its Western Swing.  Not many cities can take exclusive credit for creating an entire dance.  In fact, with the exception of the Lindy Hop in Harlem, no other city can claim the sole authorship of a national dance form as difficult and impressive as Houstonís very own Western Swing!

 In 1979, the innovation of the Double Turns meant no woman would be stuck going backwards for an entire song any more as long as she lived in Houston, Texas.  Even the die-hard Kickers, the ones with the "Disco Sucks" bumper stickers on their pickup trucks who enjoyed doing the Polka on the heads of Disco dancers, decided it was time to learn the turns.  The ladies enjoyed double turning so much that your basic redneck had to either learn to lead them or spend a lot of time watching at the railing.

Even the style of the Two-step and the Polka got classier.  In a change mostly credited to the old Exclusive Dance Studio, the men were taught to get their arm off the ladyís neck and put it around the ladyís back instead.  This studio helped introduce Ballroom dance techniques to the Two-step, Polka, and Waltz that vastly changed the appearance of these dances for the better.  The fancy Western dance contests- Dance Fever in blue jeansĖ reinforced this emphasis on style to the point that there was no turning back.

The new style of Western Dancing was so superior to the "Redneck" style that soon almost everyone converted from the Neck Lock to the arm wrapped around the ladyís back.  The women agreed this change looked better, felt better, and was easier to follow.  The men had little choice but to give in or visit the railing for long stretches at a time.

Things would never be the same in Western Dancing.  Disco may have died a premature death in the Space City, but it left a legacy that was transformed into Western Swing...  Disco on the Run, a Houston tradition!

This was excerpted from an article by
Rick Archer at SSQQ Dance Studio