WATCHING DANCERS TWIRL past in a blur of boots and bolos at the Town House country bar in St. Paul, it's hard to see right off what distinguishes this place from any other two-stepping joint in town. There's the faux kerosene lanterns suspended from the low ceiling over the dance floor. There's the long, wooden bar under frosted lamps, with a mirror behind it and the rows of bottles. There's blackjack being dealt in the back room and glam posters of country-western stars on the walls, alongside a painting of cowpokes riding into a sunrise and another of a bare-chested Indian brave. And there's the dance floor itself, styled like a corral and bordered by raw cedar planks and railroad ties.
But look closer and you realize that the rough-hewn boards are smooth, that the star on the wall is lesbian idol k.d. lang, and the Indian's pecs are hyped and oiled for maximum beefcake value. At the far end of the dance floor hangs a gay-pride rainbow flag. And the delicate figure waltzing in the arms of that 6-foot-2-inch cowboy with the handlebar mustache and silver buckle is in fact another man, in a Stetson and boots.
When I arrive at this home of queer country western on a Saturday night, the place is only half full, but there are no seats left at the bar or floor-side tables, and only standing room remaining at the railing overlooking the dance floor. So I make the rounds instead. Posted in the back room is a schedule of this month's hot dates: the Sunday night Circle Jerk, the Tuesday evening Tush Push. Clogging. Having come from New York City, where leather bars in the meat-market district down by the Hudson feature euphemistic "water sports," in which patrons urinate on one another, the names conjure images of colonics and sound more dangerous than they are. But these are innocent dance euphemisms. One of the things that distinguishes the Town House, patrons say, is that it's not about sex--at least not overtly.
When the Town House, which ranks among the oldest gay bars in the Cities, went country western in October 1990, "It appealed to those who quit going to bars years ago," put off by the pressures of sex and beauty, and by the lack of conversation, explains Holly, one of the co-owners. The room is charged with restrained desire, which is a lot sexier than straightforward lust. Couples waltz around the floor with a precise distance kept between their bodies; a knee placed between legs but not quite touching makes for a charged space, not just between dancers but among all of us who stand watching from the raised platform above the floor--the "lesbian loft."
By 10:30 the place is packed to capacity on any given night, some 300 people. I count nine couples on the floor, three of them pairs of women. Although Holly says the average age of her clientele is 35 to 40, the diverse ages, fashions, and demeanors on display make all generalizations seem risky. By the far wall, a pair of women in their 40s, decked in black turtlenecks and jeans, writhe unrhythmically in what appears to be a disco flashback. The rest of the dancers waltz in a counterclockwise circle around the floor. A short barrel-chested man in his 60s, wearing a plaid tamashanter and striped shirt, glides in the arms of a tall mustached cowboy in a red shirt open three buttons at the collar, a black leather vest, jeans, and boots. A few couples promenade forward, side by side, with arms crossed over one another's chests; occasionally a lead spins his or her partner out in a double or triple twirl before the two embrace again. No collisions yet.
Everyone here will tell you that this sort of dancing inspires intimacy: A lean, pale guy who looks to be from Oklahoma (the musical if not the state), wearing a ten-gallon hat and what looks to be an authentic checked cotton rodeo shirt, says he's met more people since he started coming to the Town House four months ago than in two years of visiting the Saloon, a local gay bar. Having grown up with an uncle in the rodeo, where fights broke out often and touch between men was always violent, he particularly likes that contact between men here is gentle, and not loaded with come-ons.
Like converts to a religion, the patrons take obvious delight in relating the details of their conversion to country. Kathy, a regular, smiles and asks Barb, her current dancemate, if she remembers when she first changed her clock radio to the country-western station. Barb, who hated country growing up, began two-stepping eight years ago, when her girlfriend from Tennessee introduced her to it at the Gay 90's in Minneapolis. Kathy came to it after her life was shattered by a family suicide, the end of a love affair, and personal illness. It was part of her "wellness program," she says.
Dance etiquette here is simple: Don't wear spurs. Folks wear tennis shoes out on the floor, one regular tells me, as if even a neophyte like me must understand the sudden liberty of it. Jeff, a dark-haired guy in black cowboy gear, tells me the Town House is far less regimented than elsewhere, where bars are often enough strictly single-sex and the silent uniform code doesn't allow so much as a straw hat on the floor after Labor Day.