Stepping on Some Toes
Rick Archer is not an Aggie, but he likes them an awful lot. A Texas A&M-trained veterinarian once saved Archer's beloved Border collie from an inoperable tumor by getting her into an experimental treatment program in College Station. And back in the '80s Archer dated a woman who had graduated from A&M. He thinks Aggies are generally smart, interesting people, not the boobs who have inspired hundreds of bad jokes. At least that's what the SSQQ Dance Studio owner thought before a former A&M student and lawyers for the university's Collegiate Licensing Office pulled the rug out from under one of his classes.
The first dance that Archer ever taught was the Aggie Jitterbug. Of course it wasn't called the Aggie Jitterbug back in the '70s; it was called disco. But the arm-tangling partner dance popularized by Saturday Night Fever has much in common with the country-and-western version that's now the craze in College Station. It's a walking dance with no set steps or rhythm but lots of flashy spins and pretzelly arms. Last year SSQQ taught the Aggie Jitterbug as a crash course before its dance parties because it's easy enough to learn in an hour or so.
Archer doesn't know exactly how the dance came to be associated with Aggies, but he theorizes that partner dancing has always been more popular in the country than in the city, and what was A&M historically but a college full of country kids? Archer is too smart to even comment on the possible connection between the relative, ahem, simplicity of the Aggie Jitterbug and its popularity at A&M. But he will say that the dance is sort of like "training wheels" or a "lowest common denominator" for real swing dancing, "like a VW Beetle to a fancy sports car."
Whatever the reason, A&M students have adopted this Jitterbug as a school tradition, treating it with almost as much reverence and enthusiasm as they reserve for Bonfire, Muster and Yell Practice. And the Jitterbug, in turn, has adopted the Aggie name. Its most accomplished devotees are the members of an exhibition group called the Aggie Wranglers, but even in the College Station clubs, if you can't dance the Aggie Jitterbug, well, you can't dance at all. And with the Jitterbug, as in most A&M traditions, Aggies don't like outsiders stepping on their toes.
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Stephen Huzar is a former student of Texas A&M University and the special-events director of the Aggie Professional Forum, an alumni organization that raises scholarship money for current students. Huzar thought he would raise that money by offering Aggie dance classes taught by former Wranglers. But when he called Leisure Learning to advertise, the magazine declined. It already had an Aggie dance course, Aggie Jitterbug, taught by SSQQ.
Huzar declined to comment to the Press. (In fact, he tried to play dumb: "Aggie Jitterbug issue? I'm not sure which issue you're talking about.") But judging by an email message he later sent to Archer, we can safely say that he was outraged about the Leisure Learning episode. After all, non-Aggies were profiting off an Aggie tradition -- no, the very Aggie name -- and worse yet, they were preventing Aggie students from getting much-needed scholarship funds.
Tobin Boenig of A&M's Collegiate Licensing Office says that Huzar called and tipped him off to Archer and SSQQ. Texas A&M University holds a trademark on the word "Aggie" in the state of Texas, and SSQQ's use of the word to advertise and sell a service, in this case a dance class, constitutes trademark infringement. Huzar's use of the trademark in "Aggie Professional Forum" is only allowed because the group is associated with the university.
While he claims he didn't know he was infringing on someone's trademark, Archer is not at all surprised that Huzar's frustrations were focused on SSQQ. With six studios, some 100-student classes and a virtual monopoly on swing, salsa, cumbia, merengue, whip, tango, lindy, Charleston, polka and country-and-western instruction in this city, Archer's 20-year-old business was a ripe target. "You go after the Microsoft of dancing," he says.
Archer claims he never received a January letter from the Collegiate Licensing Office informing him of his offense. When he did not respond, Huzar sent him an e-mail, copied to the appropriate officials, of course. "Should you not refrain from using the trademarks," Huzar wrote, "quite honestly, I (and I'm sure many other Houston area Aggies) would find it a blatant act of greed on both the part of SSQQ and Leisure Learning magazine and rather disgusting that you would contribute to end the noble act of raising scholarships for worthy students."
Not wanting to be "disgusting" and hoping to lure some A&M dance enthusiasts into his studio ("not a blatant act of greed," he says, "just a gentle one"), Archer suggested that SSQQ and Huzar's group work together to put on another Aggie Jitterbug crash course in March. Rachel Seff, an SSQQ employee, Aggie and recent recipient of a prestigious A&M award for community service, would assist in teaching the class. And all of the proceeds, Archer promised, would benefit the Aggie scholarship fund. Apparently Huzar didn't like that idea much; he didn't take Archer up on his offer. The Collegiate Licensing Office didn't care for it either. Two days after Archer sent a $500 check to the Houston Association of Former A&M Students, he received a letter from the Cunningham Dalman law firm in Holland, Michigan. The firm represents Licensing Resource Group, the licensing agent for many colleges and universities, including Texas A&M.
"We consider your infringement to be a serious intrusion on the rights of our client," wrote attorney Mark Zietlow. "We demand that you immediately cease and desist in the use of marks exclusively licensed to Licensing Resource Group." The letter went on to say that their client was entitled to "compensatory damages for lost business and punitive damages for willful continued use of the marks" and that SSQQ would see legal action if no written assurance was received within 30 days.
Archer sent a written assurance all right, peppered with sarcasm and jokes: Have you heard the one about the Aggie freshman who wore condoms on his ears because he was afraid of getting hearing aids? Or how about the Aggie smoker who died by throwing the wrong butt off the cliff? "There seems to be a kernel of truth behind all those Aggie jokes," he says. "I never thought that before."
And as for the Aggie Jitterbug, Archer says that from now on at SSQQ the forbidden dance will be known as the "Shaggie Jitterbug."
E-mail Lauren Kern at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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