Western Swing 1
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The History of Western Swing

written by Rick Archer, SSQQ, 2003

Chapter One:  1979 - Disco Dies a Horrible Death in Houston

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 that was just a couple blocks down the street from SSQQ 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 aka 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 at SSQQ and in Houston.

Houston’s Western Swing originated during the Urban Cowboy period back in 1979-1981. 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 and Indians, this wonderful Kicker dance we use to Clint, Garth, George, and Reba would not be around if it wasn't for Donna Summer and John Travolta's "other movie".

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 be going forward with your right arm crooked around the lady's neck.

To start my story of Western Swing, I need to explain that my dance career and my as-yet-unnamed studio were moving along a parallel line to our saga of Western dancing in Houston .

The spirit of today's SSQQ was born in the summer of 1977 when I taught my first dance class here in Houston at the Jewish Community Center on Braeswood. It was a Disco Line Dance class (the Hustle, the Bus Stop, the Four Corners) with maybe 20 people in it.  The JCC experience led to another job teaching Disco at Stevens of Hollywood (corner of Shepherd/Westheimer across the street from the St. Anne Catholic Church). 

One months later "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. 

In January 1978, I was teaching a Disco class one night a week. By March I was teaching seven nights a week.  In the Spring of 1978 everybody with a pulse and two legs began taking lessons, new Disco clubs opened weekly, and there was a dance contest somewhere every night. Can someone say Tidal Wave?

One year later in January 1979, I decided to quit my day job as a child abuse investigator to teach dance full-time for a living. I was exhausted after working two jobs for an entire year. 

At the time, this was a very big move for me. My mother would ask me, "What will you do if Disco fades?" 

My reply was always a smug, "Oh, Mom, Disco is too popular to disappear!" 

Ah, such is the ignorance of youth. 

Can you imagine my shock and confusion in the spring of 1979 when some of Houston’s Disco dance clubs began to convert into Western clubs?  

"Urban Cowboy" was filmed here in Houston during the summer/fall of 1979 although it wouldn't be released till June 1980.

While "Urban Cowboy" was still in production, Houston Night Clubs began a metamorphosis of staggering speed. Practically overnight dance clubs across the city changed from Disco to Western in early 1979.

This conversion began just a few months after I had confidently told my mother that Disco would last forever. Don't parents always complain that their 20-year old children never listen to them?  Now that I am 50, I still grimace as I recall my mother's all-knowing look when she said, "Didn't I warn you?"

I hadn't been paying much attention when the papers wrote stories about "Urban Cowboy" being filmed over in Pasadena during the summer/fall of 1979. I do remember reading that my friend Patsy Swayze, mother of movie star Patrick Swayze and my one-time dance teacher, had been hired to do the choreography.  I laughed because to my knowledge Patsy was a jazz teacher.  I couldn't imagine seeing her Kicker dance. I couldn't imagine how she had ever landed an off-the-wall job like that. I suppose she used Patrick's Hollywood connections.  

Unbeknownst to me, 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 Houston’s Movers and Shakers about the possible changes that "Urban Cowboy" might have on the landscape of the Bayou City’s nightclubs.  

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

This was something I had not anticipated. Watching some of the less popular Disco clubs began to close and re-open as Western clubs had been one thing.  Okay, I thought, these clubs aren't making big bucks with Disco so they are willing to take a gamble that "Urban Cowboy" will hit Houston big. These clubs were obviously anticipating a shift in interest well before it happened.  Each night some student would walk in and say, "Guess What?  Another Disco club turned Country!"

Talk about a Bad Omen. I literally had no foresight about this development and I was beginning to worry.

I asked myself, "What will happen to Disco dancing in Houston if the Disco clubs disappear??"  The obvious conclusion was too painful to consider so I would do a Scarlett O'Hara and decide to think about that tomorrow.

Never before and never since have I felt so helpless. Much like a little Kon-Tiki raft buffeted about by the gigantic waves of the Pacific Ocean, I watched in shock as my happy Disco world came tumbling down.  Forces much bigger than I were creating changes Without Even Consulting Me or Asking for My Permission!! 

Never before was my status as a little grain of sand on the great Beach of Life more evident. I had no control over the fate of my beloved Disco Dancing.

What I did have control of was my able to prepare the obvious changes ahead and learn how to Western Dance ahead of time.  But my hatred of Western music at the time and my bitterness about losing the best friend I have ever had - my Disco Dancing - instilled a Titanic-like instinct to go down the Merrye Old Ship Disco to the bottom. I never lifted a finger to learn to Western dance during when I had the chance to do so at a leisurely pace. When it comes to me, if it wasn't for the last minute, I wouldn't get anything done at all.

These switches made little sense to me. Why were they doing this!   After all, as this mass conversion was taking place, there was still quite a bit of interest in Disco in Houston.  What seemed odd to me was that my Disco classes were as busy as ever!!  And the Disco clubs that stayed Disco were still as packed as ever. In 1979, Disco in Houston was just as hot as it had been in 1978. Plus it had reached the stage where the overall dancing had become very sophisticated.

It felt like the shift to Country was being dictated to us.  

My worst fears came to pass. Once a few clubs went Country, the herd instinct kicked in. The holdout owners must have figured someone else knew something they didn’t, 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 by my count 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". "Ciao" became "Diamondback".  "Foxhunter" became "Cowboy". "Xanadu" became "Desperado" ad nauseum….

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. 

My earlier vague worries now grew to full-blown dread.  I was absolutely appalled!  Here I was teaching Disco for a living, and one by one the Discos were vaporizing into thin air. 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!!  

Although Disco was as popular as ever in the rest of the country and "Dance Fever" was a popular weekly show on national TV, here in my hometown I was forced to watch in horror as Disco was being rapidly nudged to the edge of the precipice.

Extinction seemed imminent.

The Looming Disaster

The story you are about to read is so preposterous, you might be tempted to dismiss it as stuff too absurd for anything but a TV sitcom.  Indeed, sometimes when I watch reruns of "Cheers", it crosses my mind just how perfect SSQQ would be as a setting for a similar show. 

For the first few seasons of "SSQQ TV", the scripts are already there.  We wouldn't even have to make stuff up! 

One great episode would revolve around this period where I was panic-stricken to see my entire livelihood jeopardized by a social change totally out of my control including my total inability to force myself to react to the change

As Houston's Dance Scene changed, perhaps I would have seen the humorous side if I had been more detached, but frankly I was stuck in a serious funk.

I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. What was I going to do?   

Obviously I had forgotten to take the 'Reading Tea Leaves' course or maybe I would have seen this coming, but I had been totally blind-sided.  Or maybe the truth was I suspected what was coming, but didn't have the guts to accept it and prepare.

I loved Disco dancing!  Plus I had just quit my other job. My safety net was gone. I did not have an immediate fall-back option. 

Even worse, I didn't know a thing about Western dancing. I had never Two-Stepped in my life. I absolutely HATED the music of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard.

I know because one day as I drove to work I would hit the button of a Kicker Radio Station. Then I listened in a cold sweat. Sure enough, this same twangy music was still dominating the airwaves… "Your Cheatin' Heart!!"

I carried one huge chip on my shoulder towards the whole damn thing.

What was I going to do?

In Chapter Two of the History of Western Swing, read about how our stumbling hero gets into one stupid mess after another as he scrambles to make a living... click here

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