Posted by: emjb | February 6, 2006

Honkytonk Ballet

Last Friday Matt and I sat in a bar in downtown Fort Worth, drinking Shiner and surrounded by middle-aged rednecks (most seemed to be on their second wives or third husbands, by my estimate), and it was…ok. Not that I’m going to make a habit of honkytonkin’, but it was kind of fun to watch the couples on the dance floor. An older group, meaning everyone had some cellulite and wrinkles to spare. There was plenty of junk in plenty of trunks.

But there was also a grace and a joy that fascinated me. No doubt a lot of these couples voted Republican and went to church (probably Baptist churches that technically would frown upon their divorcing and dancing ways). But here they were in the forgiving dimness of the dance floor, utterly absorbed in the twirl and step and slide of their fancy two-stepping. The women were brave in their makeup, tight jeans, and glittery belts that didn’t hide their bulges. The men were unashamed of the bellies pushing out beneath the bright colors of their Friday-night shirts. In a state that claims to hate capital-A Art, that cuts school funding for things like dance and music to make more room for football, there is still a hunger for that kind of beauty that finds its way out in the honkytonk. The dancers might say, if you asked, they’re just having fun. But the faraway looks on their faces while they twirled under the lights seemed to say something different.

I’ve started to notice things like this, the ways that people who claim to know nothing of art still feel the need to create or absorb themselves into creative things. Why do otherwise normal people spend thousands of dollars and hours of their lives constructing elaborate Christmas displays? Or rebuilding old cars? Making horrible ceramic cats? Following bands around the country? Hooking rugs? Why does Martha have such a following when so much of what she makes is patently useless? It’s not just a desire to make things “pretty” or to have something to do as a hobby in your downtime.

Capital-A Art takes place in a tiny bubble, and most people don’t understand it. They may like a piece here and there, but they are excluded by gatekeepers who speak a special code and who aren’t interested in communicating with them anyway. Most people assume that’s what “art” means, and that it has nothing to do with them. And since most of the jobs people end up doing are anti-creative in nature, it’s natural to assume that only a few can be artists. The rest of us are just normal people. “I wish I could draw/play piano/dance/write like that,” they’ll sigh, and then go back to their normal lives. And when you ask them about art, they’ll tell you it’s for other people, they don’t understand it, they’re not creative, they’re too busy, they can’t be bothered. And if you take them at their word, and you’re a person who needs art of some kind to feel like you can breathe, if you feel like your life was saved when you discovered books or music, you wonder if they’re a different species. You despair.

But then there they were, those dancers in the mediocre bar in the middle of Fort Worth, tire-store managers and secretaries and schoolteachers and mechanics, lost in a trance as they glide and twirl each other around the floor. As much a part of the music as any ballerina or Broadway tapper. Even if the music is wretched Nashville pap, they dance, because they need to, because it makes them feel like they can breathe.

That’s why despots are always so eager to take on the arts, to condemn dance and music and painting and theater as evil, wastes of time, anti-authoritarian. Because while you’re thinking about those things, you’re not, for the moment, thinking what someone else wants you to. You’re caught up in a private place beyond political philosophy or religious rhetoric. Under the lights of the honkytonk, for a few minutes, you’re not a secretary or a mechanic or a Baptist or a disappointment to your parents, or whatever. You’re a piece of the music.

That’s what gives me hope, that people who vote Republican and fear homosexuals and all the rest of the red state woes, still have the same hunger I do, even if they don’t admit it or don’t know it. I keep wondering if that hunger doesn’t make a space for us to meet and talk together.



  1. Nice post.

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