A Clint-meets-Ralph-Lauren dance

Line dancing, new country-style, has arrived in Britain. Bernardine Coverley reports
AT ASHTON'S Club in Cricklewood, north London, Angelique is demonstrating the Tennessee Twister. Spotlit on a high stage, microphone in hand, she bawls out directions in a twangy American accent. Then 100 pairs of Cuban heels hit the dance floor in unison.

Arriving here in the wake of the success of "new country" singers such as Garth Brooks, line dancing is the latest American dance import. Country and western clubs have flourished here for years, but a younger generation of fans are creating a different kind of scene.

"I have a lot of respect for the old country and western," says Angelique, "but over here it's regarded as hokey. My nickname for people who stick to that and run around with little six-guns is the gingham-and-Wyatt Earp set. That's a Hollywood fantasy. This is real." Ashton's is built like a barn, and packs in 400 line dancers every Thursday.

No partner is needed; a line of individuals moves as one. The massive dance floor doesn't take long to fill and some experienced stompers are showing off double spins in perfectly synchronised symmetry. Line dancing owes a lot to the Latin influence of some southern states. It's easy to learn the few simple steps which are put together to make up some 600 dances - like the Rebel Strut, Boot Scootin' Boogie, Cotton Eye Reggae Cowboy, and One Step Forward And Two Steps Back.

Angelique takes her role seriously. "I'm the MC for the evening, I energise, I psych them up and show them how enjoyable it is." Other venues like the Roadhouse in Covent Garden or Diamond Rio's, a monthly club night in West Kensington, have started country nights with live music or disco to capture the surge of interest in new country music. The new venues have demonstration groups to show the steps with authentic style and rustle the dudes on to the dance floor. At Diamond Rio's, dancers do the California Freeze; 10 or so in each line, shoulder to shoulder, learning to glide, stomp, do the box step and the grape vine, led by Kelley Duggan from California.

Many of the twenty- to fortysomething clientle first came across line dancing while visiting America. Fans hear of the venues via London's 24- hour country music station, 1035. Lessons are also becoming popular; Bob and Ian Jupp's weekly class in north London has expanded from 25 to 65 in just two months. June, a Scot living in London, is a regular. She was mesmerised by Denims and Diamonds, a New York club: "Serious dancers, very dressy - they didn't tolerate any beginners on the floor, but I was hooked."

Singer/songwriter Martin Sutton, initiated in a warehouse-sized club in Nashville, is nattily dressed in jeans, waistcoat and cowboy hat. Among new country aficionados, style and dance go together, something between Ralph Lauren and Clint Eastwood - black jeans, jackets with a touch of fringe, silver tipped boots. The hat is regarded as acceptable, but it is distinctly naff to sport the full-blown satin shirts and fake six guns of the older C&W enthusiast.

The first signs that line dancing was about to follow lambada and salsa into popular club culture were in gay venues such as the Cactus Club and Rawhide. The Ranch at Bromptons in Kensington, affectionately known as the Raunch, has been going for more than a year, attracting 200 to 300 - and that's on Sunday afternoons. It began as a one-off event for an Aids charity and never looked back. "It's very friendly, not a pick-up atmosphere, but just like a big party. I don't dance disco, but I do line dance because you don't have to worry about making a fool of yourself," explains enthusiast Nigel Williams.

Big Country, newly opened in Soho, is the biggest venture so far with six nights a week. That lonesome cowboy has moved off the range and into the city.