The Dartmouth-Westport Chronicle
Country and Western dancing livens up fund raiser
December 8, 2004
By Paul Tamburello
Westport lived up to its name last Saturday as cowboys and cowgirls from their homesteads in Massachusetts and Rhode Island rode into town for the annual country and western dance sponsored by the Portuguese American Civic League. The chuck wagon spread that preceded the dance added to the country flavor with huge platters of barbecued ribs and chicken, corn bread, and beans. Once the grub was cleared off the tables the huge dance floor at Our Lady of Grace parish hall on Sanford Road became home on the range for the 240 people, some of whom drove a country mile to get in on the fun.
One of the drawing cards of country and western dancing is that it can be enjoyed on the dance floor either as an individual, a couple, or a group. One group formed their own dance posse twelve years ago and has been dancing together ever since. Their black jackets, embroidered with their brand, “A Country State of Mind”, the men’s black Stetson hats, and their sassy banter with one another mark them as a bunch of folks who’ve been on some long trail drives together.
“We didn’t know each other till we began to take lessons,” said Buzz Ferris of Newport, RI. “ We’ve got teachers, retired teachers, retired Navy, a dairy deli distributor, someone who’s with the Newport Housing Authority, construction workers, you name it.”
They hail from Newport, Middletown, Bristol, Portsmouth, RI, and Swansea, MA and find a dance hall to meet in every Friday or Saturday. They’ve even traveled together to three-day dance weekends in New York.
“We learned how to dance in Newport in lessons with Donna and Jim Essery during the week and then danced every Friday and Saturday,” says Sue Ann Gale, wife of Don, who added, “We’ve made some very strong friendships. There aren’t many places left to do country and western dance. The biggest places around here are the Mishnock Barn in East Greenwich and the Diamond Rodeo in Cranston, RI.”
Country and western dancing actually represents a passel of dance styles and traditions. “If these people hear a song they like they figure out a way to dance to it,” said the evening's DJ, Johnny Dee of Warren, RI. “I play the two step, waltzes, swing, line dances, and cha chas to name a few. Sometimes dance instructors request songs for dances they’ve been teaching their students.
The sight that buffaloes the first time participant in a country/western dance is the fact that often couples and groups are doing different dances to the same song at the same time. There might be a group of forty of fifty people doing a line dance in the middle of the dance floor while another huge group dances clockwise around the perimeter of the floor doing waltzes and two steps and yet another group at each end of the floor has feet flying in a very contained space with east or west coast swing. The old saying, “Don’t fence me” in takes on a whole new meaning here.
Westport dance instructor Regina Chandanais, who’s been teaching for over thirty years, stepped back to watch with a satisfied look on her face. “Many of these people started their dancing with me,” she said. The age range in the crowd was from twenty somethings to senior citizens. Several of the older dancers had lost their spouses, she said. “When I see some those men and women out there again, it makes me want to cry,” she said as she admired the way that dancing had helped them begin to socialize again.
Although most come to dance, many come to support the Portuguese American Civic League. “We’re a bunch of old rock and rollers but once a year we get in a country mood and always come to this dance,” says State Representative Michael Rodrigues, “We also enjoy watching all the people in their dance costumes.”
“We give four $800 scholarships every year to a college bound student who is connected to our league’s council,” said PACL President Alice Harrison. “I think this is the biggest crowd we’ve ever had.”
If you want to learn how to line dance or two step you’ve got a few months to practice some of the moves. The PACL’s next dance is scheduled for April. By then, you’ll be ready to two-step into your own country state of mind.