Where: Layla's Bluegrass Inn
When: 8:54 p.m., Wed., JULY 25
Usually, when I walk into a downtown honky-tonk, my first instinct is to grab a beer and find a stool, a table or a corner from which I can observe the nearby shenanigans without the risk of being dragged to the dance floor. But tonight on Lower Broadway is different. I'm going to dance. In public. In front of other people.
The first dance is awkward. It's a classic country ballad, and my partner and I are the only ones on the tiny dance floor. It feels like we're alone in the middle of LP Field, all eyes on us — and me, with my two left feet. I'm nervous. He grins and gently tells me to relax.
He's a gifted leader, so I do begin to relax. We dance to a few more songs, and I realize that I'm actually enjoying myself. As the dance floor fills up, I loosen up.
We take a drink break, and he tells me, "You're getting better!" I beam with pride.
I've danced with this man before. He's not a boyfriend, a prospective boyfriend, or some mysterious stranger trolling downtown bars for single women. His name is Ken, and he's the father of my friend Kay, a veteran Nashville publicist. He's 78 years old, and he's been married for 54 years. A former national sales manager for Dow Jones, Ken moved to Nashville to be closer to Kay and his granddaughters.
Ken is also one hell of a dancer.
I first met him at Robert's a few weeks ago, when I met Kay for a drink and saw him tearing up the packed dance floor. Women were literally lining up to dance with him. When he offered his hand to me, I hesitantly slid out of my chair before I had a chance to think about it.
I stepped all over his feet. I crashed into other dancers. It wasn't pretty, but it was fun. He was encouraging, he instructed me on how to follow his lead, and after a few spins, I kind of knew what I was doing. I even got asked to dance by some other nice older gentlemen. Yes, gentlemen.
It was a huge departure from a typical night downtown, where it can be treacherous territory for a single girl. Bars are littered with creepy dudes on the hunt, and if you're a girl who managed to run a comb through her hair that day, you're prey. The cramped dance floors in downtown establishments seem to operate under the unspoken code that everyone wants to be groped. And walking down Lower Broad after midnight? It's worse than crossing in front of a construction zone ... or better, if you enjoy hearing obscenity-laced praises about your various body parts.
"These young guys don't know how to dance," Ken remarks. He jokes that after women see him on the dance floor, they all want to dance with him instead of those young guys.
It's true — I've seen it firsthand. His dance card is always full, and with women of all ages. Perhaps, like me, they never really learned how to dance properly. Or maybe it's the first decent dance they've had in years, and with someone who actually knows how to dance.
We take another break — although I swear I'm more tired than he is — and he tells me about each song the night's musical act, Chuck Mead, plays up on the stage. Mead has been playing vintage country songs down here since the mid-'90s, when his band BR549 held a steady gig at Robert's. People came to dance then too — heard the rhythmic clack of boot heels, felt the breeze of whirling skirts.
But Ken remembers when each song was written, and who originally sang it. He perks up when a Willie Nelson song comes up, one that was allegedly written next door at Tootsie's. I'm learning more about classic country music in this conversation than in the entire 11 years I've lived in Nashville.
Ken is sitting next to Kay, who is getting incessantly hit on by a guy who is desperately trying to act nonchalant. "He doesn't have a chance," Ken says, laughing as he shakes his head.
People repeatedly stop him to engage in a quick conversation, or just to shake his hand. I assume he knows everybody, but I quickly realize everyone just wants to talk to him. One guy — probably in his late 30s, with an overgrown frat-boy look about him — gives Ken a business card, remarking that he "liked his style" and would love to go honky-tonking with him. Kay and I giggle that he probably wants a wingman.
Or maybe, like Ken's many dance partners, he appreciated seeing someone having so much fun. Someone who danced these very same dances to these very same songs decades ago, and with as much energy and panache as a man half his age. Maybe it's just comforting to be around dancing that has absolutely nothing to do with bumping and grinding. Maybe we're all craving a little more class and decent manners than we're accustomed to nowadays, even in a bar.
As I leave the bar, a man, probably somewhere in his 60s, stops me and says, "You're a great dancer."
I smile and thank him. It might be one of the sweetest, most sincere things a man has ever said to me. And nobody's ever told me that before.
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