Rhythm and rhinestones
Paper guitars, streamers and balloons drape from the ballroom ceiling at the annual Texas Hoe-Down in Fort Worth.Four couples move to a favorite corner on the dance floor and stand, poised for movement — like music-box dancers waiting for the lid to open. A twangy note releases them. Teased hair flies, suede-soled boots slide and prairie skirts twirl as they dance to a country-western beat. The dancers’ facial expressions range from furrowed brows of concentration to genuine grins of enjoyment. With arms clasped above their heads — the men’s arms curved a little extra to compensate for their Stetson hats — the dancers silently mouth the familiar lyrics.A petite, graceful woman with the number 656 pinned to her western-yoked ensemble fidgets on the sidelines. Judi Caudle mentally braces for her turn on the dance floor. She stretches. She breathes deeply. She doesn’t watch the competition. Caudle prefers to replay her own routine in her head or practice with her competitive-dance partner, John Desanges, in a remote corner of the room.The evening before was a little less nerve wracking. The non-competitive Saturday Night Show, themed “Retro Country,” was a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the flamboyant western wear of the early 1990s. Caudle and a cohort of women and girls wore “wild” western shirts as they performed a couple of line dances. She couldn’t keep from smiling as her feet, shoulder-width apart, pivoted and stepped to the music, and her hands gestured to her “Achy Breaky Heart” or lassoed an imaginary “Funky Cowboy.”But Sunday afternoon is different. Dressed in her competition wear, Caudle knows some of the eyes following her choreographed routines will be more discerning. She looks to the audience and locks eyes with her husband and No. 1 fan, Chris Caudle. She smiles and relaxes. She knows she’ll compete to the best of her ability — and have fun doing it.“I feel like Cinderella on the dance floor,” confesses Caudle. “It’s exhilarating.”Dance isn’t her profession, however. Caudle trained to be an audiologist at the University of North Texas in the 1980s, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She works in Denton and Lewisville during the day.In the evenings, however, she is one of thousands of dancers active in the rhinestone-studded circuits of competitive country dance. At the Hoe-Down in Fort Worth, a American Country Dance Association event, she is one of almost 90 dancers. Now in its 15th year, the Hoe-Down is scheduled this year for March 25-28 at the Holiday Inn-Fort Worth North.Caudle also competes in United Country Western Dance Council events in Amsterdam, Germany, England, Canada and the United States. She has won three world championships. “I love to dance to country music. Like disco, it has a beat,” says Caudle, who studied ballet as a child and continues to pursue a passion for dance.She’s been competing for seven years. To prepare, she practices six hours a week with a professional choreographer to learn precisely timed footwork, capture the character of the dance and sell it to the audience.“The nuances are key to great performances,” she says.At the Hoe-Down, Caudle hopes for seamless execution in front of the judges. She and Desanges, in coordinating costumes, strike a pose on the dance floor and with several other matching couples wait for the first musical note. A nightclub song begins to play — a heartfelt melody of someone pleading to be remembered. Caudle and Desanges sway to the music, the kind of slow dance found in honky-tonks. The two remain perfectly synchronized while expertly avoiding other couples on the dance floor.The music fades and the couple repositions. A new song begins. This time, the rustling of Caudle's short skirt reflects a cha-cha with a tangier, snappier rhythm.After a short break, Caudle and her female counterparts return in skirts with ankle-grazing hemlines. The long fabric creates romantic silhouettes as the women waltz with their partners. One-two-three. One-two-three. Desanges twirls Caudle like a figure skater in Western boots until the audience erupts into cheers and whistles. The competition ends with Caudle back in her sassy, short skirt, perfect for the granddaddy of all country music — the two-step — and swing dancing.“You learn to wear what sparkles on the dance floor,” she says. “You can’t be shy when you dance.”As the music ends, the emcee reminds the dancers to remember good Southern etiquette: “Thank your partner for dancing with you.”Caudle thanks Desanges and heads in the direction of her husband. He kisses her.By the end of the weekend, Caudle and Desanges have placed first in their division, winning jackets, a bracelet for her and a belt buckle for him. On Monday morning, Caudle returns to her hearing practice and her normal daily activities. But evenings and weekends, she continues to practice her fancy footwork. Another competition is always a two-step away.
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