In the dim light near the bar, The Gator King of Joyland leans against the wall, his black hat pulled low over his face as he scans the figures gliding across the dance floor. It doesn't look like there'll be any serious contenders tonight. Seems like most of the usual crowd _ the cowboys, the hustlers, the first-timers.
But you're never sure. Somewhere out in the crowd, maybe there's some kid looking to impress his sweetheart. Or maybe some older guy who's been hanging around Bud Weiser too long and is suddenly feeling bold.
Or maybe it'll be somebody a lot like The Gator King himself. Somebody who practices at home and choreographs his routines. Somebody strong and fast and dedicated. Somebody good.
He's out there. And some day he'll come in here looking for The Gator King.
But for the moment, that 45-by-45-foot parquet square out there belongs to no one but him. He knows every soft spot, every dip. When he won the Joyland Gator Dancing Championship last June, folks say it wasn't even close.
He's kind of a legend now. People constantly come up and shake his hand, tip their hat, or just offer a kind word.
"Yeah," he says as a smile sweeps across his face, "they know me."
And then it's time.
Crazy Heart, the house band at Joyland, hits the first notes of Kaw-Liga, a popular country tune by Hank Williams Jr. At that instant, swarms of people spring from their tables and form a circle around the dance floor. They stand four and five deep in some places.
The Gator King slowly makes his way to the front. He takes the key ring and pager from his belt and hands them to his girlfriend, Patty Purcell. Then he takes off his hat and carefully slips his bolo over his head. Everyone is waiting.
Suddenly he's in the center of the circle. He does a few spin moves, and then he drops to the floor and balances on his shoulders. He looks like he fell off a ladder, until he lowers his feet and starts to tap his heels. The crowd, clapping and stomping along with him, cheers wildly.
A minute later a challenger, Ken Bristol, steps forward. He's one of the rising stars, and he's good; probably one of the best around. But Bristol, who is 24 and works for a lawn and landscaping service, stands more than 6 feet tall and is muscular. He doesn't have the agility The Gator King has.
When Bristol finishes another man tries. After a few seconds, he gives up.
The Gator King scans the crowd. The song is coming to an end, and there are no other challengers. He shrugs his shoulders and grins.
The crowd begins to urge him on.
His kingdom secure for another night, The Gator King moves out onto the floor again.
He's 31, his name is Jim Goebel, and he's got a day job working as a building maintenance man at the Yacht and Tennis Club Associations on St. Petersburg Beach.
He likes it there and the money is okay, but what really counts, what he really looks forward to, is coming here, to Joyland, and doing The Dance of the Gator.
To most of the country music fans on the Suncoast, Joyland is an institution. A defunct amusement park, the dance hall was opened in 1964 and it hasn't changed that much over the years. Paneled walls, steer horns, Marlboro signs, Waylon and Willie.
Outside last Saturday night, under the original 60-foot neon Joyland sign that beckon drivers passing by on U.S. 19, a van was parked by the driveway. On the side of the van, in 2-foot neon letters were the words:
This is Jim Goebel's realm. He's been coming here off and on since 1980. "Took a four-year break when I got married," he said. "When I got divorced I started coming back in here."
About two years ago, he watched someone do the Dance of the Gator. He knew it was difficult, but he gave it a try, and it just came naturally. Now, he'll proudly tell you, he's the only one who can do head stands.
"People say I'm good," he says flatly. "I don't argue with 'em."
Although no one's exactly sure when and where it started, the dance has been around for five or six years, and unless you spend a lot of time in country and western dance halls, you've probably never heard of it.
Performed properly, it looks like what would happen if someone put a live badger down your pants.
It has nothing to do with the University of Florida, or with real gators. And while gator dancing in Ocala may not be precisely the same as gator dancing in Tampa, it usually resembles break-dancing. Instead of spinning on their backs, dancers scurry across the floor on their hands and toes, and occasionally balance themselves on their shoulders.
And not only is the dance difficult, it's potentially dangerous. Jim has broken a finger and sprained an ankle. Ken has broken a thumb and a knee.
What makes Jim so good is that his size (5 feet 7, 135 pounds) is ideal for the dance, and he works hard preparing himself. He does 100 push-ups at a time, makes videotapes of himself to study, and he has an extensive wardrobe of country and western clothes. He even has stuffed gator toys sitting on the dashboard of his Dodge van.
"I ran a little track in high school," he said. "Other than that, I didn't play sports."
Jim and Patty come to Joyland just about every Thursday and Saturday nights.
"This is the highlight of my week," he said. "I walk around for about an hour after I dance and I hear nothing put praise."
Not everyone thinks that way, of course. Some see this as a fad, something that will run its course and die.
While nearly everyone in the hall was crowded around the floor watching Jim work his magic Saturday night, Marvin Anders stayed at his usual seat over by the door. He's 77, he's been coming to Joyland for the past 18 years, and he's just about seen it all.
"I think it's crazy," he said. "Can't everybody do it, that's for sure. You gotta be an acrobat.
"But people seem to like it, so I guess it's okay."