by Elizabeth Milligan
In three words, I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on. —Robert Frost
When I first moved to Boston from Houston, I insisted on wearing my prized cowboy boots. If anyone commented on them, I was quick to point out that my boots were not just any cowboy boots. Most of them, the ones that tourists bought as souvenirs, had walking heels. My boots had riding heels – they are less common in cities, higher than walking heels, and cut at a slant (thirty degrees on the outside and five degrees on the inside. For cowboys, the riding heels made for a better grip on stirrups and the treadless soles made for easy sliding over them.
My boots were further distinguished by a great variety of texture, pattern, and shading. Meandering rows of stitching traced the boots' underlays (cutout designs) of anchor and steer horns and their overlays of braided strips of smooth leather and lizard skin. Colored a light tan, the cowhide on the boot's shaft was intricately tooled and stitched. Paler tan lizard skin, veined tightly in ivory, ran around the sole and slightly pointed the boot. The tops of the boots were arched in a lazy scallop and flared slightly. About an inch from the top, each boot boasted a pair of loops at the midpoint of the outer side. Like a totally relaxed mouse-tail, a thin pipe of tan cowhide, also stitched to the boot, dropped straight down from each loop to the sole. Proper western boots fit so tightly that loops were necessary to help wedge feet into them.
In Houston, I would clean the leather every week with warm water and saddle soap, cure it overnight with mink oil for luster and buttery softness, and brush for a sheen. Then, I would go out dancing with friends. We all took dancing lessons from the leader of the pack—constantly competing to perfect footwork, flourishes, and grace. The treadless soles of special shoes or cowboy boots allowed us to glide over the dance floor.
At least three evenings a week, my dancing friends and I would meet in the parking lot of dance halls off the roads of flat East Texas. Often, we would pull up to the dance hall just before the doors opened. Then, we would brush and dig patterns into the parking lot's dirt and gravel as we practiced footwork.
The dancehalls shared many characteristics – low slung buildings that were spacious like airplane hangars, a large rectangular dance floor, a cover charge, lots of wooden picnic tables and benches, sawdust, beer, bourbon, water, beer nuts, and nachos, cigarette smoke, amplifiers, bands, restrooms, and large unpaved parking lots.
Waitresses in tight jeans, their young faces set in a smile or a no nonsense grimace, balanced trays of plastic mugs of foaming beer and shot glasses of bourbon and darted among the tables as the noise and haze of cigarette smoke escalated throughout the evening. They lighted only to take or deliver an order. Serious dancers ordered only water with a cherry or a twist and always tipped generously.
One time, my brother was visiting from Snowbird land. Early in the evening, before the doors opened, we tried to show him some simple footwork out in the parking lot. We thought that he would have more fun if he knew some basics about footwork and timing. After few minutes of humoring us, he said incredulously, "You guys are really serious about this!" So, while we happily spent the evening dancing seriously, he happily drank and danced free form.
All dancers had partners – they either came as a couple or met partners that evening. All dance floors were covered with a fine layer of sawdust at the beginning of the night; new sawdust was added during breaks throughout the night. The sawdust made for smoother and more fluid movement as well as satisfying shuffling sounds as dancers flowed in an oblong-pattern close to the outside of the dance floor.
We danced the western polka, the two-step, the waltz, the Cotton-Eye Joe and the Schottische. The last two were line dances and every, absolutely every evening closed with them. Usually, people would yell out for them numerous times during the evening and always the band would play them.
Most of the time, the dancing flowed just inside the perimeter of the rectangular dance floor. At the turns at each end of the floor, the dancers' heads swiveled to spot. Sometimes, however, the dancers scattered and claimed tight orbs of floor for the jitterbug, the swing, and the waltz. And of course, the crowds parted for the most accomplished dancers, the smoothest with the best pacing and most elegant flourishes.
There were always guitarists, and drummers on the stage, sometimes fiddle, accordion, harp, and banjo players, also. Whatever the mix, the musician's always asked for and honored requests from the floor. Three of my favorite dancing songs were for fast-paced polkas: The Devil Went Down to Georgia, Orange Blossom Special, and The Cannon Ball Express.
During the day, I worked for an oil company. Sometimes, I would tell Owen, my Drilling Manager at the office, about my dance classes in between discussing a typhoon off coast Australia that severed the pipe from the well head. Owen chuckled and said that he especially liked the steps called, Cuddles and Reverse Cuddles. I just laughed and continued to dance after a day at the office.
My fiancé lived in Boston. When I moved there, he confessed to me that he did not know how to dance. I encouraged him to take dancing lessons with me. The only offering at the time was for instruction in formal dance steps. After the first lesson, we knew it was probably a disaster. Both of us wanted to lead. Without a doubt, we were the most awkward couple in that introductory class. We did not continue with lessons.
Summer passed and then fall. The seal between the soles and the lowers of my western boots was worn and the creases where the little toes push against the leather cracked for lack of regular maintenance. Nonetheless, I wore the boots - outside of dancing lessons, to be sure - until, one day in my first Massachusetts’s winter.
My fiancé and I were sloshing through sidewalk puddles along Brattle Street in Cambridge. He wore sturdy water resistant work boots, I wore my cowboy boots and complained that my socks were cold and wet. My fiancé asked me why I still wore the boots if they leaked. I was slightly stunned. All this time, I had believed the Massachusetts weather - not my beloved boots - to be the culprit. When we got home, I pushed the boots to the rear of the closet.
This summer - I had my boots patched and cured.
One dreamed of becoming somebody, another remained awake and became - a fortune cookie
—Elizabeth Milligan © 2009