When a new, young couple sauntered into a line dancing class at the Durham Mystic Farm and Distillery, instructor Sue Jennings was immediately captivated by their talent.
“You guys are really good dancers. Where do you dance?” she asked.
“Nowhere in North Carolina,” they said. They explained to Jennings that they drive hours to Virginia just to find a spot.
Despite line dancing’s popularity in the South, Durham is far from a mecca of classes and events. Line dancers in North Carolina are nomads of sorts – traveling from place to place just for a couple of hours on the dance floor.
Jennings, a bubbly, enthusiastic instructor, has made it her mission to fill this void with weekly, Thursday line dancing classes.
“It’s really difficult to find a place for line dancers to come together,” Jennings said in her southern accent. Although Jennings has been teaching for 13 years, she has never had a proper studio.
Jennings, 64, is a West Virginia native with waist-length fiery red hair that contrasts with her classic denim-on-denim outfit. She completes her outfit with a line dancing staple: bedazzled cowboy boots.
Twenty years ago, Jennings stumbled into the Longbranch Saloon in Raleigh and has been hooked ever since.
“I went one time and just was addicted,” she said. “What I liked about line dancing was that you don’t have to have a partner.”
But when the Longbranch shut down in 2008, Jennings had nowhere to dance. Since then, she’s been hopping from club to club, many of which have been forced to close. Most clubs make their money by selling alcohol, but line dancers typically aren’t big drinkers, Jennings said. Clubs that don’t make enough profit from line dancers are therefore quick to give them the boot.
However, in January, after tickets for Jennings’ first line dancing party at Mystic sold out immediately, she started hosting additional weekly Thursday classes. Since then, all of her events have sold out.
Once a month, the lucky 135 people who can secure tickets to the Friday evening “Line Dancing Party” commute from Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Wake Forest, and Durham to weave, brush, and kick the night away.
“Dance is that one thing that if you’ve had a bad day at work, you can go out for a couple hours and see other people smiling and laughing,” Jennings said.
An hour before class one Thursday in March, Jennings eagerly sweeps the dust off of the distillery’s special events room floor, ensuring it’s pristine for the boots on the ground. Meanwhile, her self-proclaimed “bodyguard D.J.” — her husband of 44 years, Andrew — helps set up the equipment.
“Testing, testing!” her voice echoes as she begins to practice the steps to Eric Paslay’s “High Class.”
Soon, the boot-scooters begin to file in. The first to enter are the regulars, a gray-haired and smiley couple in their early 80s. They’ve been line dancing for nearly 30 years –“back when it was only country music” – and haven’t missed one of Jennings’ classes since she started teaching at Mystic.
Within minutes, the room bustles with people ranging from their teens to their 80s. Though most sport cowboy boots and jeans, few are professional dancers. They’re coworkers, church friends, moms and daughters, couples and singles. The regulars proudly file to the front of the room while the newbies naturally congregate in the back.
“I’m surprised by how much we’re learning in such a short amount of time,” says Bethany DeGraff, a first-time line dancer in her mid-30s. Her friend Madison Spadafino, a recent college graduate and also a first-time dancer, chimes in. “I want to learn how to line dance so that I can feel like an urban cowboy.”
For Jennings, the most rewarding part of teaching is encouraging students like DeGraff and Spadafino who have never danced before. Typically, it takes Jennings’ students three to six months to go from “two left feet” to a level of ease and comfort.
Jennings herself was not always the confident, striking dancer that she is today. When her own line dancing teacher broke her ankle in 2010, she insisted that Jennings fill in for her. Jennings was reluctant. “I was scared to death. I felt like I had the blue lights behind me, like the police were watching.”
Now, Jennings commands the room with her contagious energy. She has choreographed 20 line dances, many of which have been picked up by acclaimed choreographers nationwide.
Choreographer John Robinson (known as Mr. Showcase, famous in the line dancing world for taking dancing from “fun to ultimate fun”), teaches one of Jennings’ dances at conventions in the Northeast and Florida.
“They’re teaching her choreography all the way in Florida, and she still will say she’s no good!” her husband chides.
“I don’t choreograph dances for the fame,” Jennings says. “But I have to say, it was pretty cool that John Robinson liked the dance.”
In addition to teaching line dancing, Jennings works 50 hours a week on her day job selling crime scene equipment to law enforcement for a company called Sirchie. The devoted, tireless teacher can be her “own worst enemy.” “My husband’s like, uh, do you wanna go to bed? But I gotta finish working on my dances,” she says.
Tonight, Jennings concludes her class by blaring one of her favorite songs, “Shivers” by Ed Sheeran. The regulars step with confidence while some of the newbies totter, but all 50 students smile from ear to ear.
“I love it so much,” Jennings grins. “I just love seeing people happy.”
Photo above: The line dancing at Mystic Farm and Distillery. Photo by Abigail Bromberger – The 9th Street Journal