Country Western Dancers Stompede into San Francisco
By Jim Provenzano
Don't be surprised by a lot more Stetson-wearing folks in town this weekend. The annual Sundance Stompede corrals hundreds of LGBT Country-Western two-stepping and line-dancing fans.
Although gay history documents known cowboys and cowgirls going back to the frontier days, the legacy of Sundance Saloon goes back to 1998, according to cofounder Ingu Yun.
"It was basically started as an alternative to the Rawhide II events," said Yun. The Western gay bar, then owned by the now-deceased Ray Chalker, who also published the gay newspaper the SF Sentinel, became problematic when he realized attendees weren't drinking enough alcohol to please him. As the story goes, Chalker's surly demeanor toward patrons was less than friendly. So the dance night moved.
"We started off in the back of the old Pleasuredome on Sunday nights," said Yun. "Audrey Joseph invited us, and we stayed there for four years."
In 2002 the event moved to Space 550, located in the China Basin area. According to Yun, "At first, it was not as popular or easy to get to. People who drove liked the free parking. People who took the bus didn't like it," although the 24 Divisadero and the 9 buses both have stops near the club. "But people who want Country-Western dancing found their way there."
With more and more two-stepping communities growing in cities around the U.S., the first annual Stompede was created in 2001.
Venues have included the Hotel Whitcomb, which was then the Ramada Plaza, the Regency Center, and the Galleria Design Center, as well as Space 550.
For the past few years, most events have been held at the Holiday Inn on Van Ness Avenue. With anywhere between 500 and 750 attendees both local and visiting, the multiple spaces accommodate the growing popularity of the events. And recently, Sundance Saloon's weekly dance nights have increased, and been added at the SoMa nightclub Beatbox, with additional social nights at The Edge in the Castro. In addition to the annual Stompede and the regular night, New Year's Eve and holiday parties continue to sell out.
Currently the biggest Country-Western LGBT event of its kind, according to Yun, the Stompede brings together groups from around the country for nights of line-dancing, two-stepping, and exhibition performances by regional dance troupes.
For all the socializing and "Yee-haw" atmosphere, the community as a whole is a bit different than most of LGBT nightlife culture, specifically with the issue that spawned their independence; alcohol.
"I would say a large percentage of our people don't drink," said Yun. "Some don't drink because they don/t find it necessary. But these are not alcohol-free events. People drink.
But you can't dance like this and be a mess."
This may be why the atmosphere at a Sundance event is more cordial and friendly. "Asking someone to dance doesn't mean they're hitting on you," Yun said.
"I think some places in San Francisco have taken that to an extreme. If you walk into another bar you can be accosted."
Is it the country music or the dancing that make for a different environment?
"Our events do attract a certain type of person," Yun said. "I think it was a dual thing; the dancing itself really becomes a passion for some. Sometimes on the dance floor, there's a feeling, especially while dancing with another guy, that can't be duplicated anywhere else. It's very unique, and a great place to meet a lot of wonderful people and become a part of a community."
Born in Carmel, Ingu Yun has lived in the Bay Area for most of his life, with some time spent in Boston through his college years. But it wasn't until later that he came out and began to become part of the Country-Western scene.
With the Rawhide II "having issues" with patrons, the call from nightclub veteran Audrey Joseph came as a blessing.
"I got together with my friends and asked, 'Can we create something new?' There was a lot of pent-up energy for folks to have an alternate space, so there was kind of a ready-made crowd looking for something like this."
The event's opening on April 12, 1998 has its roots in another longstanding community event, the Bare Chest Calendar. Yun had been one of the calendar men for the AIDS Emergency Fund series of fundraisers, and organized a country-Western-themed event at the Galleria Design Center which raised about $4000 for AEF.
"Back then it was all very much word-of-mouth, and we attracted a diverse group of people," said Yun. "That's really another one of the wonderful things about Sundance. We get men, women, from those in their 20s to 70s, people of all races. You don't that with most of the nightclub events."
Asked if there's something about the music itself that attracts a different crowd, Yun recalled, "In the old disco days, the music was uplifting and had a melody, and then it changed. I also remember that I thought I hated country music, until I started dancing to it."
For those who are unskilled in the style, dance lessons in two-stepping and line-dancing are always available in the early hours of most nights, so, said Yun, "The newbies can get an easier dance under their feet."
And while cowboy boots are not required, smooth- or leather-soled shoes are recommended. Rubber-soled shoes or sneakers impede one's footsteps.
"The whole point is to have fun," said Yun. "Some of the best times I've had were when I messed up while dancing."
Event director Dave Hayes' first Country-Western experiences started in Florida, but he has been part of the Sundance community since moving to San Francisco eleven years ago.
"The Florida community is now nonexistent, which is sad," said Hayes. "It was fun and where I learned to dance. For many reasons, San Francisco's continues to go strong."
Having grown from two to four days of events, Hayes sees continued growth in the CW community, because it provides an alternative.
"It is a friendly, more sociable dancing outlet than your standard nightclub," said Hayes. "The music isn't blaring to uncomfortable levels. You actually are able to talk with somebody while dancing, which is hard to do in a nightclub."
Hayes, who's been to events around the country, said that venues like gay nightclubs in Texas have a higher percentage of patrons who merely drink or socialize.
"But I discovered that at Sundance, ninety percent of the people are there to dance, so yes, it's very welcoming for sober people."
Now in his fifth year as event director, and part of the organizing team for a decade, Hayes' duties include inviting the various dance teams that perform at the big event held on Saturday. Most troupes pay an entry fee, like all participants, while others get a break if they need it.
Along with raising funds for various charities, the Sundance organization, a non-profit, has also given back to some of their host venues.
When Space 500's floors were aging, the Sundance folks chipped in to raise funds for a new floor. This nightlife version of a barn-building is just another aspect of this community.
Hayes said he grew up listening to country music, "but not by choice," he said. "At first I did not like it, until I saw same-sex couples dancing arm in arm, and line dancing at a club in Florida. That I understood, and seeing all of that together made me think differently."
The Sundance DJs, including Steven Sullivan and cofounder Yun, provide a variety of traditional and more pop-country music. The mix has proven successful.
With 33 national member clubs, San Francisco's remains the largest. Hayes recalled some that have come and gone. But Sundance continues to grow, in part through the generosity of its sponsors.
"We were looking recently," said Hayes. "Eight years ago, we had six host sponsors, and they gave a little extra. Now we have 88 host sponsors, who donate a little extra. They want to see it succeed."
The event host hotel has also been "very welcoming," according to Hayes. They should be, as room bookings sold out four months ago. "We go in there, and we've got this event down like a well-oiled machine. One event director said we're the easiest group to work to work with."
With tickets selling fast, be sure to get yours for the annual Stompede. Here's a list of daily and nightly events:
THU. 31: Kick-off Dance at Space 550, 6:30pm-11pm.
FRI. 1: Dance workshops 1pm-6pm. Welcome Dance at the Holiday Inn, 7:30pm-1am
SAT. 2: Dance workshops 10am-4pm. Hoedown at the Regency Ballroom, 7:30pm-1am.
SUN. 3: Dance workshops 10am-4pm. Stompede Ball, 5pm-11pm at Space 550.