THE WHITEHORSE CAFE JUST MIGHT BE the happiest dang dance hall in Dixie. Amid its colored spotlights and neon ponies, men in Wrangler shirts and women in prairie skirts two-step to the strains of Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire and Travis Tritt. So what if the 40-by-60-foot parquet dance floor accommodates only 225 revelers? A million more vicariously boot scoot along every day via TV.

Set up in the Bagwell Communications Center in Knoxville, Tenn., the fictional White Horse is the scene of the Nashville Network's Club Dance—country music's answer to American Bandstand. What started out two years ago "as a simple little dance show," says director Ross Bagwell Jr., 40, has become a phenomenon, airing twice daily and receiving some 700 fan letters a month.

Sure, famous folk such as Billy Ray Cyrus occasionally slop by to say hey, but the real stars are the ordinary people from all over the country who drive up in cars, buses and 18-wheelers, holding reservations made three to six months in advance for the weekend tapings. "We have a couple, both eye surgeons, who fly in once a month from New Jersey," says Bagwell. "If ever there was a show that was America, it's Club Dance."

With a gradually built-up core of some 50 or 60 regulars, most of whom live in the Knoxville area, the program has become as much soap opera as shindig. Linda Griffin, a secretary, and Jerry Sherrod, a computer-science professor at Pellissippi Stale College in Knoxville, got engaged on the air last November. And after Knoxvillians Anthony Reynolds, 36, and Christine Dudley, 25, stopped dancing together, host Shelley Mangrum quizzed the couple about their relationship, resulting in nearly 150 concerned calls. The two agreed to partner each other again—and ended up married. A Connecticut woman dubbed the couple "her kids" and with her husband motored down to Knoxville in her RV to throw three showers for the bride. "I couldn't get all the gifts into my truck," says Reynolds. Another regular, Linda Hadden, 44, a child-care worker from Knoxville, met two half sisters she didn't know she had after her estranged father in Oklahoma recognized her on the show last August. (Club Dance arranged an on-the-air reunion.) Later, when Hadden and her husband, Paul, had to move to Fort Smith, Ark., teary dancers comforted the couple's achy-breaky hearts with a touchy-feely group hug, making the place look like a two-step 12-step program.

In true soap fashion, there's even a villain of sorts, the "Club Dance Casanova," draftsman Rand Davidson, 36. Davidson has partnered four different women and was called a rat on the show by a former girlfriend. "She spilled her guts about how I broke her heart," says Davidson.

But Club Dance's answer to American Bandstand's fabled Bob and Jus-line are Lanny and Debbie Lewis of Oak Ridge, Term. The Lewises received 200 Christmas cards from viewers last year and are even replaced by cardboard likenesses of themselves when they can't make a taping. "We've met all the friends we hope to have for life here," says Debbie, 39. "We'll do this until we drop."

TIM ALLIS
JANE SANDERSON in Knoxville

  • Contributors:
  • Jane Sanderson.