MILLIONS of Americans are whoopin' it up with an energetic cowboy version of ballroom dancing. Started in the '40s on the West Coast as an offshoot of Bob Wills's Western-style swing music, country-dance swing style reemerged in Arizona and Colorado in the 1970s. After the release of ``Urban Cowboy'' in 1980, more country nightclubs sprung up. ``Country is the easiest form of couples dance to learn because it lacks ballroom dancing's pressure to be good,'' says Barry Durand, country dance national champion, choreographer, and teacher. ``People can accomplish the turns in the basic two-step in one one-hour class....
``It can be rougher, more macho'' than ballroom dancing, he says. ``We attract more men than any other dance form.''
Lloyd Thompson has danced for six years and is in the top 20 in the amateur dance competition category nationwide. He calls country dancing ``advanced ballroom.''
Country's two-step, danced to a slow-to-moderate tempo, is ballroom's fox trot. Country's shuffle - or flat foot or three-step, danced to fast music - is ballroom's polka, but features more turns. The country swing is the jitterbug. The box waltz of ballroom dancing is country's progressive waltz.
This informal dance form also offers specialty dancing like the Americanized European Schottische, the wooden nickel, and the Cotton-Eyed Joe - the shuffle-type dance featured in ``Urban Cowboy.'' Individuals can also dance side by side in line dances.
Country dancing's variation ``makes ballroom dancing look staid,'' says Paul Kovenock, a State Department employee who has country-danced for six years. For example, in one song, dancers may change from two-step to the shuffle, swing, double time, or the Norfolk (double-time two-step).
``You're an artist. You make poetry out of movement,'' he says.
Virginia truck driver and part-time rodeo cowboy Richard Cassels chooses country over ballroom dancing because ``country is livelier, and I prefer wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat rather than a tuxedo.''
Country dancers wear jeans, mid-calf free-flowing skirts, and flats or heeled shoes. The real devotees spin and twirl in costumes with fringe, beads, bangles, scarves, and exotic-skinned cowboy boots and beaver felt hats costing $60 to $4,000 - some with gold inlay and feathers.
``I dress down to go dancing,'' Mr. Kovenock says. ``I leave the pinstripe [work] environment for the cotton shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots' honky-tonk environment. ... There's a great mix of people drawn together by an attraction to a common interest in country dancing.''
``People leave their degrees, sheepskins, and titles at the front door and all become urban cowboys,'' Mr. Thompson says.
Mr. Durand owns metro Washington, D.C.'s, most successful country-dance nightclub - the Country Junction in Rockville, Md. He calls his nightclub ``a little dance factory'' where people are forced to meet one another. In 12 years, he says, he has taught about 20,000 students around the country. ``For singles and couples alike, it's a great way to meet people in a comfortable way,'' Durand says.
There are no wrong moves in country dancing, he tells his students. ``You just invent new ones, which you may not want to repeat but you had fun trying. If you miss a step, so what? Someone will lead you or teach you the correct step.''
Almost half the dancers are single. ``In other dance forms, a woman could sprout roots before someone asks her to dance,'' he says. ``Women can come country dancing without partners and still be asked to dance.''
Orthodontist Carmine Petrarca, a country dancer for four years, believes a country dance hall is ``the only place where women can go alone and feel at ease. The regular men will look after the women. We have a small-town atmosphere in a large city.''
``Country dancers treat me like a lady,'' says Helen Lycken, a federal government employee and divorced mother of three. ``Men are gentlemanly. I have a tendency to get dizzy during turns so they don't spin me much. And,'' she says, ``they apologize when I tromp on their feet.''