While flipping through the cable TV channels, I was stopped by the sight of a large number of men and women who seemed to be afflicted with some terrible nervous disorder. They appeared to be twitching and staggering and experiencing severe spastic attacks.
Overwhelmed by compassion, I stayed with the channel, waiting for someone like Sally Struthers to appear and ask me to contribute to a fund to find a cure for this terrible malady.
But after a few minutes, I realized that the people on my screen were behaving that way by choice.
So I assumed that it was a comedy show and waited to see what the comedic finale would be. Would they all fall down?
But there was no funny finale. The music ended and they applauded and then they started doing it again.
And it slowly sunk in. They were dancing. It was the most ungainly, ungraceful dancing I had ever seen. And I was there in the Blue Sky Lounge when Slats Grobnik's Uncle Fats picked up the jukebox and did a polka, so I have seen some bad dancing.
But compared with the people on my TV screen, Uncle Fats Grobnik was a Gene Kelly.
The next day, I mentioned this to a colleague who keeps up with trends and developments in the world of popular culture.
She said: "Were the women wearing big poof hairdos, something out of the '50s?"
Exactly. They must have squirted enough spray on their hair to poke a hole through the ozone layer 10 miles long.
"And were the men wearing Western garb, blue jeans, boots and huge belt buckles?"
Right. And most did not have the physiques for tight jeans, which were never designed for those with pear-shaped bodies and heroic midsections.
"And did they flap their arms and shimmy their legs like terrified turkeys being rounded up for Thanksgiving dinner?"
Definitely, although some looked more like they had serious hemorrhoid problems.
"What you were seeing, then, is the biggest dance craze in the country. It is known as country line dancing. It is probably as big or bigger than disco dancing was several years ago. There are line-dancing bars and clubs everywhere."
I assume you mean everywhere in the rural South or West, since most of the people I saw on that show appeared to be rustics.
She laughed and said: "No, it's probably more popular in the suburbs of big cities than anywhere else. It's the biggest thing going."
I found that hard to believe. But several local experts confirmed it.
Vic DeCola, of the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in a Chicago suburb, and a dance teacher for 25 years, said: "It's awfully popular right now. But to be frank, it's been around a long time. It's taken from dances like the stroll and the grapevine."
Which was Greek to me, since I am of the jitterbug and fox trot generation.
"It's not all that graceful. In traditional ballroom dancing, we stand up straight, stay relaxed and always look up. Everything we say is wrong in ballroom dancing is considered proper in country line dancing. Your arms flap around like a chicken, you look anywhere you like. But it brings people in. They've even been taking the rumba and the cha-cha and making it into country.
"On some people, it looks terrible. I shouldn't say that, but at least it gets them up to dance. It gets them off the couch."
Which just proves that there are worse things than being a couch potato.
The manager of a country-western dance bar called Whiskey River said:
"We get people ages 20 to 81. Doctors, lawyers, construction workers. It's not typical to one age group or social class. It's everyone. We teach a basic two-step, but it's the individual dances that are most popular: the tush push, slapping leather and the electric horseman."
Millions of Americans are doing something called the tush push? I wonder if Romans did the tush push before their empire fell.
But I was assured by Susan Lee, director of the dance program at Northwestern University, that there is no cause for worry.
"Line dancing is not new. Dance phenomena recycle about every 10 years. You will have a period of dances with partners, then partner-less dances. In the '50s, we had the hip hop and the jitterbug. In the '60s, you did your own thing. Then we had disco in the '70s and weird stuff in the '80s like slam dancing or no dancing at all, just an 'intellectual experience with the music.'
"The '50s dances took real skill. There were intense jitterbug competitions. Country line dances are not what we call sophisticated forms of dance. If you can walk, you can learn these dances. That's part of the appeal. People who think they can't dance are able to jump in and do the tush push.
"That's also why some people look a little silly doing it. They put on cowboy boots, but they don't have the roots in these sounds or rhythms. But it's great fun. You put on a costume and move in a different way than you do in your daily life. Dance has always done that for society."
I thought about what she said:
You put on a costume and move in a different way than you do in your daily life. . . . Some people look a little silly doing it.
Now I understand.
It's something like golf.