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Dance lessons at Ranchman’s – ‘the place to be for dining, dancing and glancing’ – are put on hold when Stampede is in full swing. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)
Dance lessons at Ranchman’s – ‘the place to be for dining, dancing and glancing’ – are put on hold when Stampede is in full swing. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)

Let your spirit run wild at the 100th Calgary Stampede Add to ...

Opened in 1972, it looks about right, a dank hall lined with neon signs advertising Captain Morgan and Bud. Past the bar sits an unnamed mechanical bull, built to buck 230 pounds of human flesh off his fuzzy back for $10 a ride. “He’s got these really brown eyes that are going to stare at you,” says Steve D’Arnot, a dance instructor who, along with Debbie MacKnight, a blond, 6-foot-1 stunner, have taught lessons at Ranchman’s for a decade, after they learned the steps here as patrons.

Tonight, the bull is stationary, and all eyes are turned toward a two-step lesson that is about to start. In a dance hall bathed in orange light and hung with disco balls and trophy saddles donated by rodeo winners, about 50 couples fill the floor. They’re all ages, and while a handful don cowboy hats, boots and western shirts, the rest look like they could have just ducked in from the office.

Two-step seems simple enough, but it’s a lot of timed shuffling and spins; D’Arnot moves my stiff frame around the room as I count out the steps, surveying my feet in my new boots. “Ladies, you should not feel like you’ve been in a washing machine,” he suggests helpfully. His advice for the gents? “It’s your job to make her look even more beautiful than she already does.”

The younger lovebirds stroke each other’s backs and joke about their missteps while the older couples focus on getting it right. As the lesson progresses, D’Arnot and MacKnight start sounding more like relationship therapists than line-dancing experts. “He may not have a sense of rhythm. Don’t listen to him,” D’Arnot cautions. “If you don’t feel it, don’t fake it,” MacKnight chimes in, as Clint Black’s Nothing But The Taillights pumps through the speakers.

Come Stampede time, there’ll be too many folks wedged in here to fit in any dance lessons – the bar is usually full by noon. For now, a herd of young, tanned and possibly grass-fed waitresses mill about in their Ranchman’s-issued black cowgirl hats: They’re training for July 6. Women will come in from all over Canada for the 10-day party, with waitresses and “tub tarts” – short shorts-donning bartenders slinging cold beer from tubs – known to make a grand in tips a night, easy.

“This gains momentum by the day – people get ramped up,” says MacKnight, herself a cowgirl transplanted from New Brunswick. “You go to Wal-Mart, there’s not a country western shirt left on the rack. It’s like cowboy Christmas.”

With Calgary’s blowout a month away, I leave the city a little more rotund (thanks, Palomino!), faintly bowlegged and ready to break in my new boots.


Hôtel Le Germaine Calgary: It’s Austin Powers-goes-Zen in the lobby with R&B, a spiral staircase, purple moulded couch and spacy chairs (Lemay Michaud design). The Superior Room offers Egyptian silk sheets under pure laine d'agneau blankets from France, big body pillows, Tivoli audio and a bathroom stocked with Molton Brown London bath products, a massive rain shower head and glasses printed with your room number, should you forget. Opened in April, the hotel’s Santé Spa is another draw: Canisters of jelly beans and almonds sit alongside orange-infused water outside a pane of black-out glass, which opens to a candle-lit corridor to the treatment rooms. Each of these is appointed with heat-adjusted, extra-long (and cowboy approved) massage beds shipped from Germany. One-hour relaxation massages ($125 for 60 minutes) do the trick; ask for the tangerine rose oil. A couples room is available, but the spa is also popular with achey business men, who want facials, foot and scalp massages. (899 Centre St. SW; 877-362-8990; germaincalgary.com. Rooms from $279.)

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