Back in my not-so-halcyon days of youth and yore, when I practised the challenging social craft of ballroom dance instruction, I accepted a contract to teach ‘Country Dance for Beginners’ at a community centre in the small hamlet of Thorhild, Alberta.
I had taught at various community centres in and around Edmonton to urban posers, but this was the first time that I had to teach at a very small town that was a ‘far piece’ – I use the Thorhildian, here – from the urban sanctity of Edmonton.
The thought was frankly terrifying. I was to teach six sessions in six weeks, each class to be two hours in duration, every Monday night. There was barely enough students to fulfill the minimum quota to bother with a class, so this meant that I was actually going to have to get to know my clients. I would not be able to avoid personal involvement by selecting many different couples from a large pool of available attendees, enabling me to go over the basics again and again, until everyone was up to speed. A large class meant a much steeper learning curve, allowing me to stretch my limited knowledge of country dance to make the lessons ‘Fun, Easy and Moving’ as the Arthur Murray Dance (where I had received my training) organization’s handbook for professional instructors had deemed those elements as necessary ingredients for a successful lesson.
With such a small class there would be more time for much more personal attention paid to the students, meaning I would have to fake my way through more ‘country’ steps. I had already modified foxtrot to make two-step, modified East Coast swing to make six-step, modified jive for country swing and two-step. How much more modification would such a small class entail, and would I be able to slough off my modified ballroom patterns as real country, in the heart of real country?
I would also be required to be more amusing and communicative to each of the fewer attendees since, as a professional instructor, I was supposed to be a paragon of amiability and sociability – your classic social butterfly – when I typically felt more like a social moth, hiding in the dimness of mood lighting and moving into the spotlight only under compulsion.
The fact that I was dressed in a suit and tie from my day job, certainly not the embodiment of the attire that might fit into a farming community, and you can understand a certain trepidation about the future teaching calamity that I was certain would be a result of playing in my first ‘away’ game. I felt like Kenny Rogers’ proverbial ‘Coward of the County’ and a total sham and a fraud.
Arriving at Thorhild, Alberta in the dead of night (it was only 7:30 p.m., but dark comes early during winter in the ‘Great White North’), I noticed, with a further sinking sensation, that there was nothing but pickup trucks in the parking lot. Mine would be the only car at the place, but at least there weren’t tractors parked, as well, which I half expected.
However, there were only four trucks parked in the lot, and unless pickup truck people cramming was some rural sport I had not heard of, the class promised to be even smaller and more intimate than I had envisioned in my initial fear-fuelled fantasies. Briefly, ever so briefly, a stab of hope pierced my anxious heart, that the class was too small and I could cancel it, but that would be unfair to those hearty souls who showed up, braving the elements with typical frontier fortitude.
I carried my gear into the hall, wondering how I was going to explain my urban appearance, and ran the gamut of howdies, and how-dos from the full complement of eight couples, which meant I would be visiting these here parts for another five weeks.
‘How is everyone doing? We’ll get started in a few minutes, I just have to get set up.’ As I ran my daring, imaginative greeting out into the community hall, hoping that it would not be my personal, dance hall OK corral, I took a few minutes to take stock of my prospective students. Mine was the only unadorned head in the place; every other head, whether male or female, had a sizeable cowboy hat attached; for a brief moment I imagined a field of denim-stalked, white blossomed Caucasian sunflowers. However, I did resolve not to use my ‘Cowboy hats are for people who lack the manual dexterity to use umbrellas’ line when asked where my headgear was. It seemed a moment for the ‘Didn’t have time to get properly dressed’ response. Thinking if I extrapolated being too busy with the rest of my life to ever purchase a cowboy hat, given my feelings about the whole city cowboy scene and back-to-the-country urban angst, this response would not be completely dishonest.
I further noted that all the men seemed possessed of the huge belt buckles and skinny jeans that I associated with the country scene. The women were equally divided between jeans and skirts, and the only person there who did not seem dwarfed by their headgear was a younger girl, and that is perhaps because of her advanced state of pregnancy; her swollen belly balanced the huge hat. ‘Going to be tough to get into close dance position with her,’ I thought to myself, quickly admonishing myself to focus.
There were 10 women, and six men, which I thought a trifle peculiar. Thorhild did not seem the kind of community to exhibit such sangfroid about a lesbian couple, but who was I to judge? When I am nervous about something, I tend to attack or berate it, an attitude that I am trying to eliminate from my life, but here, the stress of my first country class, in a real country town, was causing all sorts of questionable judgements to leap unbidden, into my consciousness.
When I divided the room up into couples, I noticed that the pregnant girl and an older lady were one of the couples and when I mentioned that one of them would have to adopt the man’s part or lead, the older lady replied: ‘I’m goin’ lead my daughter.’
This utterance wafted out with such powerful alcoholic fumes accompanying it, I feared for my own sobriety. The woman was completely smashed. I had encountered many people who thought they required a few drops of ‘Dutch courage’ before their first dance lesson, but this was overdoing it to the extreme. I am surprised she remembered that she was here for the dance lessons – just standing up was a feat, let alone dancing.
I actually had a good time teaching those country dance lessons in Thorhild. Other than the older lady showing up completely drunk for every lesson and trying to set me up with her young teenage daughter, there were relatively few problems. The students were grateful that someone would come all the way out from the city to teach them, and brought this bachelor instructor all sorts of fresh-baked country goodies. I opted not to go for the young girl with a bun in the oven, reasoning that the completely baked mother had come up with a rather half-baked scheme for her daughter’s future happiness.
In fact, her attitude led me to believe that I was not just in a different county, but a different country – but the rest of the class broadened my horizons and expanded my consciousness. Real country folk proved to be a welcome change from the urban posers I usually had to deal with. I even accepted the gift of a John Deere tractor cap, and dawned it as useful camouflage when the entire graduating class went out to celebrate at Thorhild’s only bar.
Dana Wilson is an Edmonton-based freelance writer and poet.