Country comes to Baltimore Arena

October 01, 1993|By Bob Allen | Bob Allen,Contributing Writer

It's Country Music Week all across the U.S.A. Vince Gill was crowned Country Music Association's new Entertainer of the Year on Wednesday, and country dances like the Achy Breaky, the Boot-Scootin' Boogie, the Electric Slide and the Tush Push are sweeping the nation with the fervor of a down-home disco revival.

Meanwhile, yuppies from Towson and good old boys from Dundalk, who just a few years ago wouldn't have been caught dead in a cowboy hat, are out on the floor, line-dancing to the sounds of Marty Stuart's "Hillbilly Rock."

So what better time for the Baltimore Arena, perennial home of heavy metal concerts, to transform itself into what may well be the biggest country dance venue on the East Coast -- a dance floor roughly the size of a hockey field.

That's exactly what happens tonight when high-energy, award-winning country performers like Mr. Stuart, the Kentucky Headhunters, Restless Heart and Pirates of the Mississippi roll into the arena to provide the live soundtrack for a line-dance extravaganza.

"This is the first for the area. Absolutely," says Mike Evans of Musicentre Productions, local promoters of the show, which is one of dozens of arena dance/concerts being presented nationwide as part of the Crown Royal Country Music Series '93.

"We noticed at the Travis Tritt/Trisha Yearwood concert [at the arena last spring] that all these people were spontaneously getting up in back and doing all these line dances," Mr. Evans says. "So we thought, 'Why not give 'em what they want?' "

Mr. Evans admits that it took a while to get the dance/concert concept in motion and out onto the floor.

"For a while, there was no recognition [from arena managers] that the country dance crowd was an older, more mature audience, and they didn't have to worry about people storming the stage, trashing the facility and running out into the street to loot businesses," he says.

"Yet it's important to mention that the hall will be set up so everybody has a reserved seat and the dance floor is open, just like in a club. The dancing will be in back, so folks can dance if they want to. Or they can just sit and watch the performers if they want to . . . though I think the best show will be on the dance floor."

Music and dance: one flows from the other like water from melted ice cubes. Yet the arena mentality, as Mr. Evans points out, has long been one of sitting and star-gazing -- contemplating the utter profundity of a painfully introspective Garth Brooks or the aching poignancy of Wynonna. And you ran the risk of getting your wrists slapped (or worse) if you dared to

stand up in the aisles and shake your booties.

Hard not to dance

But artists like Mr. Stuart, the Pirates of the Mississippi and the ultimate high-decibel, down-home party band, the Kentucky Headhunters have upped the ante. They've fuel-injected contemporary country music with so much back-beat, booming bass and drums and undeniable bounce that it's almost impossible to sit still when they're on the jukebox or on stage.

"No question about it, country music has just gotten a lot more danceable," says Larry Remines, 45, a home improvement contractor who, with his wife Dawn, gives country dance lessons at clubs around the Baltimore area.

"There are waltzes and two-steps, and a while back there were 700-some different line dances -- at least 30 different ones done to the 'Boot-Scootin' Boogie' [a country western mega-hit by Brooks & Dunn that was re-released with an extended dance club mix]," he says.

Mr. Remines himself is a member of the Harford County Country & Western Dance Association -- one of a half-dozen such groups in Maryland that will, no doubt, be in force on the dance floor tonight.

Mr. Remines also notes that, while there was only a trickle of interest in country dancing five or six years ago, his classes are now full almost every night. "We've got everybody from college students and housewives to an eye surgeon and a prominent attorney," he says.

All ages, all walks of life

"We get people from age 21 up into their 60s, from all walks of life," says Rick Bowen, 48, a manager at Kane Trucking Co., who, with his wife Dottie, also conducts country dance classes at local clubs.

"I mean," he says with a chuckle, "there aren't any real cowboys in Baltimore, are there?

"Actually at most dances we usually see 2-to-1 ratio of ladies to guys." Mr. Bowen says. "For the most part, you don't need to come with a partner to line dance. And the ladies don't necessarily have to drag their husbands away from football or baseball or whatever. And it's definitely not a meat market atmosphere. People are courteous and helpful.

"If somebody needs help with a particular step or something, there's usually four or five people right there ready to help you."

Many country dancers -- particularly those who've refined their

intricate moves to the level of a performing art -- favor lavish and costly attire as part of the ritual: hand-tooled boots, designer jeans, embroidered vests, etc. But Mr. Remines insists you really don't need a cowboy hat, or boots, to get started.

Just the right kind of shoes.

"Something with a leather sole that's going to slide good on the floor. That's all. Other than that, it's like one big family. Everybody has a good time."

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