Slapping leather in a port town

The Wednesday evening class practices in the newly acquired American Legion Hall.

River City School conducting lively line dancing classes

ILWACO - Who would have thought the place to find country-western-style dancing would be in the harbor town of Ilwaco? Thanks to a class being offered at the old American Legion Hall, you can learn "slap leather" and "boot scoot boogie" with the best of 'em.

Jim Thomas has been line dancing for several years, the seed first planted when he was living in Ohio. Thomas moved to Cannon Beach after coming to the West Coast to be near his two daughters. As soon as he got here he began looking for a place to line dance and found local classes in Astoria and Ilwaco. He has been the volunteer instructor for the Ilwaco class, which is sponsored by the River City School of Arts and Crafts, for the last two years.

"It's for the love of the dance I guess you can say. Back in the Midwest, I was dancing five, six nights a week," said Thomas. "When [the former teacher of the line dancing class] gave it up, I actually moved up here to Seaview, so I wouldn't have to be driving all that way."

The class meets on Wednesdays in the American Legion Hall, which was recently acquired by the River City School (see related story on page B8). Thomas has continued to host an evening class at the same time that he has begun offering a daytime class as well. So far, no one has shown for the afternoon class, but Thomas said he'll wait and see how it goes.

"We're going to give it a try until Christmas," he said. "I'll show up every Wednesday to see if anybody comes. If it doesn't work, we'll just stay with our evening class."

Thomas started offering the afternoon class as an option for those who said they couldn't make it to the evening one and as a way of boosting the attendance. Thomas said that the turnout for his class is constantly fluctuating, with students coming and going. He had 19 students at one point, but today he regularly hosts about seven. He teaches the same class in Astoria and regularly gets up to 15 people there.

The age range for the students in his class has been more adults than younger people as of late, a trend that Thomas said he wouldn't mind seeing change a little bit.

"It's generally an older group," he said. "I did have some high school girls coming, but then homework and other things started to affect it. I'd like to certainly get more [people in their] early 20s."

Thomas related line dancing to simply learning a pattern and then continuing it until the music is over. A line dance can contain anywhere from as few as 20 steps, to as many as 80.

Unlike other dance styles where you have more freedom to improvise what you are doing, with line dancing, the goal is for everyone to do the same thing at the same time.

"You're all doing the same pattern," he explained. "There are little things you can do to make it individual, but for the most part you're all doing the same pattern."

He starts new students out with a few basic dances so they can get some steps down. Thomas is always there a half-hour before class starts for anyone who wants to get some extra help.

"So they get a feel for it and get into the swing," he said. "They'll see we're all having a good time."

Thomas said that line dancing isn't quite as popular here as it is in the Midwest. Part of that, he said, was due to the size of the area.

"The problem here is that you just don't have population here on the coast. There are a number of places in Vancouver and Portland to dance. Bushwhackers is one of my favorite spots," said Thomas.

His class has performed before the annual children's parade during Loyalty Days weekend the last two years. They have also performed at a few local events and venues in the last few years, although it is not something they do regularly.

"Only when somebody asks us to," said Thomas. "We haven't really looked for it, but if somebody says, 'Hey, you want to come and perform here?' if we have time to put something together, why, we'll go do that."

And as far as doing it is concerned, line dancing is something that people can do on their own.

"You can do it individually, you don't need a partner," said Thomas. "But if they want to stick around for an extra half-hour, I go over some partner things."

Kind of like how people would do certain dances to certain songs during the disco days, line dancing is that way too.

"We've gotten pretty good at listening to the song and get up and do something that fits that," Thomas said. "We've gotten pretty good at adjusting a dance to a song."

He said that when he teaches a new dance, he will do it to a few different songs so that way the students will be able to adapt it. They dance mostly to contemporary country music, although Thomas did say that he has done line dances to various songs by the Beach Boys and other rock and roll artists.

"In fact, in the Midwest, not so much here, we did a dance to 'Saturday Night Fever' ['Stayin' Alive'], a dance to the YMCA. You just kind of played around with whatever the music was."

Have no fear about necessarily dressing the part when coming to the class - there is no dress code to participate - although Thomas does suggest the use of cowboy-style boots.

"Sometimes you don't slide very well in tennis shoes," he said. "Loafers or anything with a smooth surface on the bottom is what's recommended.

"I, myself, always try to have cowboy boots on. I used to kid that it was my feather. You know, like Dumbo couldn't fly without his feather, I can't dance without my cowboy boots. That's not true - but that was the joke."

The line dancing class meets every Wednesday at 12:30 to 2 p.m. and 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thomas is there a half-hour early to offer additional help before each class. For more information, call Thomas at 642-8403 or the River City School at 642-8707.

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