New York Times

Fancy This

When President Jacques Chirac of France refused to wear cowboy boots at an economic summit meeting in Denver last year, he pointedly explained that ”France intends to remain France.” The folks back home knew the real reason. If he had put on those kickers, he would have been the laughing-stock of Paris.

Most French people would just as soon spread Cheez Whiz on their croissants as be associated with anything remotely country-and-western. So it is mighty strange to walk into a cavernous bar in an industrial suburb of Paris and find 100 of them all wearing cowboy boots and doing the two-step.

Here they are in Stetson hats, bolo ties, gingham skirts and Wrangler jeans and packing cell phones in pocket holsters. From the loudspeakers the Oak Ridge Boys wail ”My heart’s on fire-ah for Elvira,” and the pointy tips of 100 pairs of boots stamp out the rhythm.

At first glance you might mistake this for Dallas, but then telltale differences give it away. There is a notable absence of ”yahoos!” and ”yeehas!” in the air. Some dancers timidly sing along, a French accent replacing a Texan twang, but most are silent as they concentrate on getting the steps right. Given that any attempt to form a line in this country can quickly turn to anarchy, the French are a bit thrown by country-and-western’s strict dance-floor etiquette. When an organizer demonstrates the ”Nashville hustle,” it takes several minutes before he is able to coax the dancers from something resembling a herd of confused buffalo into two straight rows.

There is only one American on the floor. Slim, carefully rough-shaven, more urban cowboy than country boy, Robert Wanstreet, 37, is the man who brought the ”tush push” and other standards to Paris. In 1993, he created a club, Les Amis du Far West, and advertised it in a local English-language paper. ”I had no clear idea of what I wanted to do,” he says, ”other than get together with other people and dance.” Ten people showed up, five French and five American. Then Disneyland Paris called and asked Mr. Wanstreet to teach its staff country dancing, at Billy Bob’s Saloon.

That exposure was the turning point. In 1994, Mr. Wanstreet’s group made the French edition of the Guinness Book of World Records for France’s longest line dance (124 people). ”It was the only line dance in France,” he points out. Today, close to 1,000 members belong to about a dozen clubs throughout the country, in cities as far-flung as Brest, Lille and Strasbourg. In regal Versailles, an exercise club has integrated country-and-western dance classes into its curriculum. ”Once you know the steps, you can really work up a sweat,” says Sylvie Robin, an aerobics instructor.

The dance form is experiencing a burst of popularity in other European countries — England, Holland, Germany — but nowhere is it more surprising than in France, where most people are likely to roll their eyes and exclaim ”Quelle horreur!” at the mere mention of Willie Nelson and hoedowns.

Thus it remains a modest movement, restricted to those who don’t subscribe to the hate part of the French-American love-hate relationship. Its followers, however, are fervent. ”For a lot of our members, country is a way of life,” says Mr. Wanstreet. ”They dress the part, listen to the music, travel to competitions and festivals.” He points out Christophe Renoncourt, a 30-year-old flower vendor wearing a star-shaped deputy sheriff badge. ”When I wear my hat in the city,” says Mr. Renoncourt, ”strangers ask me where I parked my horse.” What he actually drives is an even rarer beast in Paris, a Chrysler Le Baron.

Determined that country-and-western not become just another fad, Mr. Wanstreet has created an umbrella association for the country’s various clubs so that teachers can receive standardized instruction. Frequently he invites American guest artists to teach, like Larry Sepulvado, a Houston-based former dance champion who remarks that these days country dance fever is hotter on the old continent than it is back home. ”I felt like an American jazz musician going to Europe in the 1950’s,” he says.

On a Monday evening, a dozen men and women show up at the Body Gym in the Bastille neighborhood for an intermediate-level dance class. Most come straight from their jobs — as accountants, furniture restorers, police officers — and pull their boots out of their bags when they arrive.

Among them are Laurence and Francoise Pellet, 26-year-old twins so pretty and fresh-faced that Coca-Cola recently cast them in a local commercial for World Cup soccer. The Pellets are singers who dream of going to Texas and meeting Dolly Parton. They fell for the Wild West years ago while watching old episodes of ”Chips,” a police show about the California Highway Patrol, on French television. ”I’ll never forget Erik Estrada dancing ‘slapping leather,’ ” confides Francoise. She then demonstrates by bending her leg up behind and giving her heel an enthusiastic smack.

In a mixture of French and English, Mr. Wanstreet walks the group through the steps to the ”mambo shuffle,” his hips shimmying. The footwork is tricky, and the students move a little stiffly as they struggle with the sequence. ”The French hate to look stupid in front of other people,” observes Mr. Wanstreet. ”If they can’t get it right immediately, they would rather get off the floor.”

The class loosens up to a song by Wynonna Judd. The dancers shuffle and stomp and wave their arms in small cattle-roping circles. A plate-glass window divides the dance room from a weight room, where half-naked bodybuilders are splayed on their backs pushing barbells. From time to time the iron-pumpers stop and peer curiously through the glass. The Rocky Mountains could not be farther away.

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