'Excuse me, ma'am. Would you like to dance?"
We've only just set foot in the bar, but have already been invited onto the dance floor a few times. Our two left feet are hesitant to oblige.
"Come on," she coaxes. "She'll hold your drink, I'm sure."
Nancy, the woman standing over us at Neon Boots Dancehall & Saloon, grins as we explain our two-step difficulties. She just laughs as she leads us out onto the floor, as we silently hope she knows what she's in for. Our nickname is most assuredly not "Grace."
Luckily Nancy is a regular in this Spring Branch-area LGBT country bar and knows what she's doing when it comes to country-music dancing. She takes the lead and tosses us around the dance floor with ease. We even start to feel a wee bit coordinated — until Nancy tries to pull some fancy moves, that is. She twirls us and we stumble right into another couple, Carl and Rich. It's a good thing the two men are patient with the dancing novices in this place, though. They laugh, help us up and dance away together.
On the other hand, we die of embarrassment right there on the dance floor.
Recently chosen by USA Today as one of Texas's Top 10 dance halls, Neon Boots has probably seen worse moves than ours, though. The spacious venue, originally called the Esquire Ballroom, has been hosting country-music fans since 1955. The bar is widely touted as the place where Willie Nelson got his start on the path to superstardom. Flat broke and family in tow one day in 1959, he stopped off at the Esquire on his way into Houston to try to sell the house band some of his songs for cash.
The house band refused — the songs were allegedly "too good" to claim as their own — but offered Nelson a gig performing six nights a week in the club instead. He took it, and the $50 loan for an apartment, and settled down in Pasadena. The rest is country-music history.
Until closing in 1995, the Esquire hosted stars from Merle Haggard and Porter Wagoner to Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, and many more besides. Once Mickey Gilley's honky-tonk got going over in Pasadena in the early '70s, the Esquire stood as its main rival for top country musicians passing through the Houston area.
The Esquire even earned a spot on Broadway. The '80s musical Always...Patsy Cline — which is still playing in New York — is based around the bar's history with Cline, on the night the "I Fall to Pieces" singer met lifelong friend and eventual fan-club president Louise Seger before a show here and the two talked long after last call.
After various businesses came and went from the building for almost 20 years, Neon Boots opened in August 2013 and has restored live country performances; hometown boy Curtis Braly is scheduled for Friday, May 9. But what has earned the bar even more praise this time around is its welcoming vibe.
Neon Boots is an LGBT-friendly bar, but lacks any air of exclusivity whatsoever. Sure, same-sex couples may two-step a hole or two in the bottom of their boots while a rainbow flag flies nobly above the bar, but couples of any sort are made to feel comfortable here. Cassandra and Eric, for example, are dancing next to us and happen to be sporting some seriously old-school cowboy hats. They say they're more than happy to share the dance floor with whoever wants to cut a rug.
"Houston needed a good country-western bar, especially in this area," Cassandra explains. "There just wasn't much to do over here before this; you'd have to drive to the middle of town, and even then it just never felt quite like this place."
The feeling seems to be mutual. Neon Boots may be catering to the LGBT crowd, but the gay couples who frequent it aren't planning any kind of hostile takeover or anything like that. In fact, they think it's nice that Neon Boots sets no rules or expectations for its crowd — other than dancing, of course.
"It's silly that people need a label for things, especially bars," says Jesse, a handsome dark-haired man in some seriously blingy jeans. "Isn't the whole goal of equality to remove the labels and just kind of coexist?"
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Right now Jesse is taking a break from dancing with his partner, Tim, who is still learning the ins and outs of two-stepping.
"We're here to dance and have a drink," Jesse continues. "Gay, straight or somewhere in between, it really shouldn't be about leaving people out so that you can feel included."
That inclusive feeling is ultimately what stands out about Neon Boots. Hell, even left-footed souls are welcome here.
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