I come from a family that dances—mostly in the living room and the kitchen, or at parties. During my early years, in Wisconsin, polka was the couple’s dance of choice, and my primary dance partner was my father, though his taste veered more toward the jitterbug—vigorous, highly athletic stomping and whirling that required an experienced lead lest it devolve into a dance-floor disaster and a call to local paramedics. My dad was as awe-inspiring a dancer then as he is now, even if he requires longer breaks these days, and his instruction has always been clear: follow strong, but do follow.
Learning to two-step in Texas, then, after moving to Austin in 1994, seemed like a natural pursuit for me. I was comfortable with a partner and a beat and figured I could handle anything, even if it was country music in a smoky venue filled with strangers. I was wrong. I can’t remember how I first attempted a two-step, but it required a significant departure from past experience. Where I was used to carving out my area of the dance floor like a piece of pie, two-stepping replaced designated territory with shared turf. At the Broken Spoke and Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, couples would rotate across the entire floor like a human lazy Susan.
More disorienting, I was thrown by the asymmetrical pattern of the dance—two steps forward, one back—and I found myself counting and cursing under my breath as I feigned grace. The more experienced leads would say, “Just follow me,” as they glided on, evidently unaware that I was trying. Steered through the points of couples contact—my right hand and my left shoulder—I had to hope that the lead’s strong brace would suffice.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized a better approach (for me, anyway). For a Texas Monthly assignment in 2001, I spent some time with Donald Edwin “Dew” Westbrook, the Gilley’s honky-tonk “Gilleyrat” regular who inspired John Travolta’s character “Bud” in the 1980 film Urban Cowboy. There was good reason that Travolta was hired to play Dew. He displayed a mesmerizing combination of insecurity and swagger in his role, and just as critically, he was a confident and adaptive dancer—bestowing upon the two-step the same technical artistry he’d lavished upon disco in Saturday Night Fever three years earlier.
Watching the Urban Cowboy dance scenes now, you can see the natural mastery: how Travolta and his partner, Debra Winger, lock into the shuffle using a low center of gravity; how Travolta steers Winger with a strong but subtle brace; how he scans the floor with head flicks to the right and left to make sure he isn’t about to knock into another couple; and how he engages Winger in a kind of slow-motion dual pirouette before the couple breaks apart and Travolta goes toe-to-toe with legendary Gilleyrat Gator Conley, “the honky-tonk Fred Astaire.”
You might notice that Travolta keeps Winger at a distance in this two-step scene, though a few others in the background hold on a little closer. This separation, dear reader, can feel wide as an ocean.
But it was this expanse that was about to be breached when I met some Gilleyrats at a reunion for Urban Cowboy in 2001, while writing about Westbrook. Imagine stepping into the world of that film, with all its ass-slapping and innuendo and Wranglers and mechanical bulls and even Gilley’s former owner Sherwood Cryer behind the bar. With Billy Joe Shaver playing onstage at Cryer’s new place, G’s Ice House, in Pasadena, partners who had danced together for decades executed muscular turns and graceful slides as they anticipated each other’s steps. This was the Bolshoi Ballet of honky-tonk dance, and these dancers were lifers, not tourists.
Intimidated but undeterred, I began accepting dance offers, and I was quickly and repeatedly swept up onto the floor. But the initial distance I set with each partner was met with a refrain from various leads: “What are you doing over there?” The requests were not suggestive, more like confused—the same reaction I might have provoked had I gone into a grocery store and shoved carrots up my nose.
I quickly realized I needed to reevaluate my sense of personal space. Some of the Gilleyrat leads could give a foot of distance and still steer with a hand and shoulder, but others realized I was a little slow on the uptake and needed extra guidance. These dancers introduced an element that was new to me: their right hip hitting my right hip and nudging me along, giving a kind of training-wheel assistance. I’d take a deep breath and hold onto my lead like he was a roller coaster seat belt. One of the guys was close enough I could feel what he’d eaten for dinner. There was no doubt, though: I could follow better with that extra guiding point of the hip.
After a few rounds of dancing and beer, I was getting used to the sustained contact—which is not to say that I was comfortable, exactly, but that I recognized it made the dancing better. I was just going to have to get over my prudishness or die a bad two-stepper. By the end of the night, I’d gotten over my hesitation and found unexpected moments of synchronous bliss on the dance floor.
In the years since that night with the Gilleyrats, I have stumbled across other masterful two-steppers, though they are few and far between. Usually, the partners I find are very good, which is still a lot of fun. (I mean, these are low stakes.) But there’s no denying the difference between a very good two-step and a great two-step. Is the partner pulling me in? Is he locked into the shuffle using a low center of gravity? Is he steering with a strong brace? Is he scanning the floor to forge a clear path? As a follower, am I able to trust that this guy isn’t going to go rogue? Trust doesn’t come easily thanks to the number of idiots who will fling you around or try to throw a Lambada move in there.
But when the moment hits and that two-step is in the groove, a door opens, the world falls away, and there you are. These experiences provide deep joy, even when they look or feel silly. I have come to recognize the potential for these moments. They are the ones we wait for, the ones we tend to remember years later. They can feel similar to watching any master perform his or her skill—Simone Biles sailing through the air, Serena Williams smashing a ball—except with a couple’s dance, you are an integral part of the craft, an experience that is increasingly rare. Too bad. Because it is a lucky, magical thing.