I figured it would be like dancing with a grandpa at a wedding, but I get the feeling that this guy is checking me out. Full-length mirrors line the ballroom of the Rick West Theatre in Independence, and I catch him eyeing our reflection in a very ungrandpalike way. A minute later, he confirms it.
"I like your long legs," Rick West whispers in my ear, looking past me into the mirror. His hands are where they're supposed to be one holding mine, the other somewhere midback but they suddenly feel very heavy. A disco ball is spinning overhead. The dance floor is otherwise empty. Actually, the whole ballroom looks nearly abandoned. Most of the dozen or so spectators are family and friends of the band, occupying this space that could easily hold 200. Tea-light candles flicker from unoccupied banquet tables. There's a bartender in a dark corner. Someone's knitting.
This building used to house a Bally's fitness center. Most of the gym elements have been changed or disguised, except for a swimming pool elsewhere in the building that's filled with a few feet of stagnant water. Sound bounces off the walls like sneaker squeaks on a basketball court. The band plays country. Besides a lead guitarist, a piano player, a drummer, a bass player and a male backup singer, there's a slide guitarist whose playing lends an unmistakably weepy, rural sound. It's exactly what Rick West wants. West is the bandleader and the owner, proprietor and namesake of this theater.
"I love those shoes. What do you wear, a 7?" he asks, looking down at my feet. Reacting to my amazed look, he says, "I know women." He laughs.
When the song ends, he walks me back to a plastic cocktail table and rejoins the band. He wears black on black pants, jacket, cummerbund. His black and shiny hair is styled à la Neil Diamond or Wayne Newton, a lacquered helmet. He's fit, with the same straight posture he had as a teenage guitar-playing heartthrob.
West likes to introduce his songs. "Jerry Lee Lewis was one favorite person of mine," he says from the bandstand. "People think things about him. They have misconceptions that he was arrogant and stuck up and conceited, but that's untrue. He was actually 100 percent convinced that he's great, and this song is dedicated to him." The band plays "Great Balls of Fire."
After the song, West tells his audience, "We just don't have anything but the best. Except for Barry, and we're working on him." Barry Boune, the bassist, plays along, aiming a dumb-hick look at the audience.
West pops over to my table between songs, cradling his usual drink, a glass of lemon juice, sour mix and ice. "Just stay most of the night and let me look at you," he says with a smirk. "I thought you'd look good, but not that good." Then he retreats to the stage. Now might be a good time to mention that I'm wearing a modest black dress with a white sweater and black heels. I could be at a baptism. I could be at a funeral.
I lean to the table next to me, where three middle-aged women sit and cheer, and ask if they're related to the band. Turns out they went to school with West at William Chrisman High School in Independence. They graduated in 1969, a few years behind West, and they remember him as an upperclassman who always filled the role of leader of the pack.