Bayou City

Even Left-Footed Dancers Are Welcome at Stampede Houston

"OK. So are you guys now ready to do spins?" Karen politely, yet eagerly, asks our class as she struts over to grab another partner. Sadly, I've already been sitting out for a good five minutes now because I can't keep up with the rest of the dance class. Luckily, though, my Lone Star is only $2.75, as most drinks here are until 11 p.m.

Not even ten minutes north of Loop 610 sits Stampede Houston at 11925 Eastex Fwy., tucked away behind Taqueria Arandas and situated right beside its Tejano sister club, Club Escapade 2001. In less than two years, Stampede has become the destination for local C&W nightlife. Tonight I'll be shuffling my feet and watching some live music care of Houston country singer Jason Cassidy (it's his CD release party) and Jake Worthington from The Voice.

Truth be told, C&W dancing both enchants and terrifies me.

It can look magical when two people do it together and know what the hell they're doing, but one misstep and you look like a fool. Of course, I've been christened with the name "Ladies' Choice" by none other than the Neko Case - the alt-country singer gave me the name when, believe it or not, ladies wouldn't stop asking me to dance at a wedding reception.

So, needless to say, I have some dancing chops: I dance as if no one is watching, but I make it look good. The problem is, choreography isn't my forte. I'm like a wild unicorn that shouldn't be caged.

Or, someone who just can't count.

Not totally sure or confident in what I was getting myself into, I called Kelly, Stampede's Promotions Manager, earlier in the week to ask a couple of questions. I was shocked to find out it wasn't a country line-dancing class; she told me they were working on polka.

So, do I have to have a partner?

"Absolutely not!", Kelly laughed, letting me know that it's free and to show up at 7:30 p.m.

Blame it all on my roots. I showed up boots...

You see, Stampede isn't too far from Humble, Texas, the town I grew up in. Years before Deerbrook Mall was built, Humble was known for its Good Oil Days Festival and feed store. Kids used to race "the drag" and go two-stepping at Wilson Road Hall. (Plus, I come from a long line of hillbillies and rednecks from East Texas, so I should fit in just fine.)

Whoever said that everything's big in Texas must have had this bar in mind. Stampede is huge, some 35,000 square feet of honky-tonk decadence. Not only are there dance lessons tonight, but free pool (with seven tables) and Texas Hold 'Em. Video games are also scattered throughout. If you never made it to the ill-fated Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill before it closed, Stampede Houston is what that should have been: a mammoth dance floor and stage, BBQ pit out front, plenty of big-screen TVs with sports on and, most importantly, a mechanical bull in the corner.

A man named Red was supposed to teach tonight, but he's out of town, so Susan is filling in for him. The two go way back, as she puts it, and have competed against each other in pro-am events all over. Susan has been teaching for many years now and can teach practically any style, but once class starts, you can tell by the joy in her voice that she loves dancing C&W. She's been competing since '97, and has a couple of UCWDC and ACDA titles under her belt.

What initially starts out as four females and six males grows as the night progresses. Somehow, I inadvertently started out dancing my first polka with Susan. She doesn't go easy on me. Not that she goes hard on me, mind you. It just... she takes this stuff seriously.

No "loosey goosey" arms, she says.

"One and two and three and four."

She lets the class know that if there are any screw-ups, it's the guy's fault. I try to crack a joke to ease the tension: "So, it's just like a relationship." Only a couple of the guys chuckle.

I'm in too deep, so I sit out to watch. I'm much better at drinking anyway.

The DJ starts and stops the music at Susan's command, and she stops to check on me. She reassures me that I'm no dummy and these classes move fast. This one is catered to the other, more advanced students who showed up tonight. I didn't even stand a chance.

Lisa and Karen, who have known each other for more than 18 years, are two of the more advanced students here tonight. They started going out to dance together about seven years ago when Lisa was going through a divorce; like many others here, they've strictly come to dance. Karen makes it clear that she's not here to drink, nor to pick up men.

Lisa and Karen frequent practically all the C&W bars in the area, but Stampede is their favorite. Lisa says it's the great sound system and 2,400 square-foot dance floor that keeps her coming back.

"It can get hectic when there are too many dancers on the floor," she admits.

The ladies also school me on some couples C&W-dancing etiquette; as ladies who do this several nights a week on a routine basis, they have rules. Don't dance more than two songs in a row with a person, because that sends out a message that you two are an item. Also, "Women should never refuse a dance by a guy," Lisa says.

Later I find out it's because then other men might not ask, and you might lose out and dancing with someone else. They even go so far as even giving me an earful on "creeps." Lisa and Karen truly have seen it all.

Susan, the instructor, stays after class to help a couple out on their spins. This session has ended, but the night has just begun for most of the students. Some couples who showed up for class will stay the entire night, and the dance floor engulfs a sea of two-steppers. Admittedly, I have no idea who half the artists are that everyone is dancing to, as I gave up on country music in the late '80s, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate everyone having a good time.

Pretty soon, tonight's live entertainment will take the stage for a crowded audience. Some will watch, but others will continue to dance. And I'll continue to dance like no one's watching.

Send your after-dark tips to [email protected].

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Sean McManus