Silver Dollar Bar, Wort Hotel, Tuesday Night
“Let’s burn it down, burn it down” sings the lead singer for One Ton Pig, an outlaw Americana band that has packed the tiny dance floor with ranch hands, catalog cowboys, hikers, dudes, granola heads, hippies, and money ranchers. The booty shakers and swing dancers in tennis shoes, flips-flops, and penny loafers wag their tails in the center of the floor while couples in boots three-step around the perimeter in a swirling mass.
The neon stripe around the top of the S-shaped bar tints it the color of a pink sunset. Spotlights illuminate the cedar walls and the original Ray McCarty paintings of cowboys and saloon girls. On this best night of the week to dance at the Silver Dollar, everybody is here: locals, seasonals, and tourists.
Local chiropractor and horseman Cowboy Chris, wearing boots, baggy Wranglers, suspenders, and a cream-colored felt, grabs Dancing Deb, one of the best female dancers in town, and rocks and spins her in his trademark hoedown style. Deb’s skirt twirls like a spinning plate, and Cowboy Chris’s white Fu Manchu mustache, surrounding his mouth like a doorframe, widens into a smile.
In comes Ralph the Dipper, a TSA agent at the airport, sporting his goatee, potbelly, and a black hat covering his bald head. In seconds he has identified every danceable hottie in the saloon. He grabs the hand of a tall one, a well-endowed 20-ish brunette with a newscaster hairstyle, Daisy Dukes, and western boots, and triple-steps her around. The closer he draws her, the more strained her smile becomes; but he’s Fred Astaire in boots, so she squelches her objections and enjoys the ride. As the song ends, Ralph spins her one last time and extends his leg. Every local knows what is about to happen. Using his thigh as a fulcrum, he dips the girl, tilting her legs upward and dusting the floor with her hair. Before she can exit the dance floor, he whisks her off for another. Six songs pass before she breaks free.
It goes on like this until late. Food and libations flow, and the music blares. The whole joint pitches and rolls.
Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, Saturday Night
The whatchamacallit band at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar sounds like a house act at a Ramada Inn lounge, but the drummer, bassist, and lead guitarist get on the same beat long enough for dancers to make a turn or two around the floor. Tourists sit on saddle barstools, shoot pool, watch people, or stare around the room at furlongs of knotty pine, western murals, and a full-mount grizzly standing on its back feet with its paws jabbing like Muhammad Ali.
Most of the tourists must have missed the free Thursday night dance lessons, for at first they only observe. The seven locals have their choice of partners. Dressed in jeans, boots, and western hat, one elderly Saturday night cowboy, Herky Jerky, plays the role of teacher dancing with every girl he can. Without rhythm, he twitches around the floor as if having an epileptic seizure. Each of his partners acts as if she is dancing with someone else. A tourist, a 70-ish geezer in polyester pants, tortoiseshell glasses, and a newsboy hat, throws down his make-love-not-war dance movements, thinking he is impressing the equivalent of his granddaughter, who dances five feet from him and avoids eye contact.
Dancing Deb is whirling her skirt again tonight. 80-something Claire is here, too. In Wranglers and a western shirt and ball cap, he thrills every woman he dances with, for he looks like everybody’s grandpa and can keep the beat.
One after another, tourists work up the nerve to dance. Once on the floor, they stay. And wouldn’t you know it, here comes Ralph the Dipper. As usual he targets the young and beautiful, drawing them close and dipping them at the end of every song.
The big surprise tonight is an appearance from Ted, 51, maybe the most-loved male western dancer in Jackson. Cancer nearly killed Ted. It ripped him away from dancing until a bone marrow transplant gave him a fighter’s chance. After each song he wipes his forehead and leans against the railing. His presence makes Jackson whole. Off he goes, a bowling ball of a man on two stumpy bowlegs, gliding as if balancing a basket on his head. Tourists ask him to dance, and he obliges them all. But Ted doesn’t last long.
The clock ticks on, and the band shifts from country to rock. The locals abdicate the bar to the visitors, who stream onto the dance floor gyrating and twerking. The music and alcohol lubricate the party until closing time.
Stagecoach Bar, Sunday Night
Derrick the Dynamo wails on his Fendercaster while Phil Round sings, “The road goes on forever, and the party never ends!” Having played every Sunday night since 1969, the Stagecoach Band is overheating this concrete-floored box. The dancers are dripping sweat.
Every type of person in Jackson Hole is here: real and fake cowboys, hippies, fly fishers, paddlers, hikers, venture capitalists. The crowd’s age averages about 55. Some middle-aged guy wearing head-to-toe khakis like Jungle Jack Hanna dances with a Janis Joplin lookalike. Too mature to care what people think, Jungle Jack flails like an octopus on speed.
Onto the stage steps silver-haired Hort decked out in a silk scarf and a pinched felt hat with a hole worn in the crown. The locals, 80% of the crowd, know the routine. To the polka “Airplane Yodel,” Hort yowls like a coyote in heat. When the song is nearly over, everyone cheers. The last drumbeat sounds, the signal for Hort to throw his hat onto the floor.
Good ole Barb perches on her usual stool at the end of the bar. A few years back she nearly died in a car crash. No one minds that she dances a little slower now. Having her here is enough. After dancing with the same men for years, she knows their every move but doesn’t complain about the repetition. She simply holds on tight, bobbles her head, and grins.
A few songs later, everybody but the onlookers grabs the first available partner. The dancers form two long lines and hold their partners’ hands in the air as if playing “London Bridge.” The bridge soon stretches almost to the pool tables where the couple on the end peels off, dances around, and ducks back dancing through the bridge. Under raised arms spins Dancing Deb. Mr. Epileptic Seizure almost throws out a hip, and Ralph the Dipper hugs up some sweet young thing and then dips her over his knee.
The music builds until the band starts in on the customary final tune. Everybody scurries to find a partner. The band sings, “Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side. Keep on the sunny side of life.”
The crowd rotates like a hurricane, dancers kicking up their heels smiling at any friend or stranger whirling by. “It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way, if we keep on the sunny side of life.”
I fell in love with country dancing while in college at Auburn. Every Thursday night many of the students from Ag Hill would drive an hour through rural Alabama and descend on the Rodeo Club, the definitive juke joint, a colossal rusty metal building in the sticks with its ceiling covered in the kind of blown-on insulation which reeks of years of cigarette smoke. The bands played bad clubs and Ramada Inns. We students dared not go any other night when we would stand little chance against the regular clientele. For years after college when traveling for my career, I went to dance halls in every town I visited. Met some wonderful people. Places like The Fox in Huntsville Texas, The Tumbleweed in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where two-stepping was not a fad but a way of life, and a cowboy would never commit the unpardonable sin of line dancing. After moving to Jackson Hole, for years I danced two to four nights a week. Cowboy dancing was a part of my person. Then one year, possibly bored with years of the same scene, I never went again, there or anywhere else.