Anticipation! I believe that this was one word that adequately described my feelings and thoughts as I sat next to my beautiful wife in this grand theater that we had just entered. We had just been privy to the joyous ruckus of the pre-show in what could have been considered an old time southern saloon made for at least 1000 partiers! Having never been in a southern saloon, and being the only people of color that we could see, I think that we did an excellent job of “blending” and trying to enjoy the folk music and comedy of the all “White” musical quartet. The hall was filled with whoops and hollers and cries of “Yee- HAAA!” If we weren’t in the considerable safety of a public attraction, I might have felt a bit uncomfortable. The musical talent of the quartet eventually distracted me from my discomfort and I began to enjoy the bouncing rhythm that was being performed with as much gusto and enthusiasm as any song recorded by “Fifty cent”. Having played a stringed instrument as a child, I was particularly interested in the dexterity displayed by the violinist. His fingers flew so swiftly and in such a complimentary and harmonious rhythm to the other instruments that I actually began to notice that my feet were tapping. Self consciously, I looked around and laughed at myself inwardly because “I shouldn’t feel guilty for actually enjoying this kind of music should I?” So began our experience of the evening. I decided to see what it was like to join in and experience the whole “country” thing at Dolly Parton’s attraction in Pigeon Forge, TN entitled “The Dixie Stampede!”
We were soon to find out what the title meant in person, and as we stood in front of the red curtain that divided the pre-show saloon from the actual dinner theater. Yes, I was feeling anticipation! I couldn’t help but notice that the backdrop of the stage displayed the image of an old southern plantation house, and with our excellent seats in the front row we had a glorious view of the sand covered arena that was to serve as the full stage for the show. I couldn’t help but to think of the movie “Cable Guy” with Jim Carrey and the scene at “Medieval Knights”. Our servers were dressed in vintage soldiery uniforms from the Civil War era and we, the audience, were seated in different sections representing the "North" (Blue) and the "South" (Grey). I was reveling in the fact that we had been seated in the North section. There was much less cognitive dissonance involved. You see, our host finally came out and instructed us (in grand fashion) that we would be participating in deciding which side would win out in the age-old battle between the North and the South. Our artillery would include hand claps, hoots and hollers, and the rumbling stomping of our feet on the wooden flooring below which sounded like…..A STAMPEDE!!
As the evening progressed, we were treated to such visual novelties as seeing live American Bison, horses, ostriches, and even little pigs and chickens in our experience of the evening! Our teams of soldiers were introduced to each side, and we couldn’t help but feel involved with the rousing triumphal music and the ringleaders’ encouragement to urge our teams on to victory! Of course setting us up to participate in a rivalry against the “old south” really got me involved! I found my self actually enjoying several aspects of the show; cheering for my team to kick the South’s hind parts, enjoying the magical presentation that was actually quite astounding and left me asking “How’d they do that?” And actually learning that clapping on every beat of a song wasn’t so bad after all made the evening one of the most enjoyable that I can remember. My wife and I soon forgot that we were the only African American couple in the whole arena and settled in to enjoy the show, the comedy, the patriotic music, and the competitions that involved members of the audience.
There was also the food!! We were a little concerned because our attendant told us that they had no utensils and we’d be eating with our fingers. When the soup came out, I kept wishing for a spoon even though they provided a succulent biscuit to dip into the soup. WOW! Then, they brought out the rotisserie chicken that was absolutely melting off the bone and flavored to suit any discriminating palate. Baked potato wedges and corn on the cob complemented the whole meal. For a few minutes the audience ceased to clap and hoop and holler because we were all eating a scrumptious southern meal! But, the old grudge match soon called our attention back to the important rivalry being played out in grand fashion on the arena floor. We experienced wagon races with close finishes, displays of balance and skill on horseback, as well as some cheating! All of which made our respective sides cheer more heavily for our own teams to gain the victory. As our attendants finally served the apple fritter that was our dessert, we were all anticipating the final activity that would decide which side would win the competition. Our side, the North, was down by one flag, and we were told that we had to pass our battle flag from person to person until we reached the end of our row. Did I forget to say that we had to stand and salute when the flag was passed to us? Needless to say, I was perturbed by the large over representation of the elderly in our section as the South’s flags seemed to be passing effortlessly in comparison to our retarded progress. Finally, at long last, it was my turn to stand and salute and then pass the flag to my neighbor on my right. Funny, but when I was holding the flag and standing to salute, something seemed to slow down my desire to race and my action became more purposeful. After I had released the flag, I realized that I had probably contributed to my team’s loss….but I wasn’t the only one!! I almost didn’t care until the sad pronouncement was made that the South had won the match! Ohhh what a tragic loss, and here I had been bleating my brains out for no good reason the whole night! Yep, my wife and I had dared to let our “guards” down long enough to get over our marked racial differences from everyone else…and act plum foolish! At the end I was comforted in doing so by an image of Dolly Parton who reminded us that we are all Americans who are fighting for the recognition of fair treatment and rights for all people everywhere across the world! I felt patriotic! I felt proud! Somehow, I felt connected to everyone else in the room, and I felt full! What a wonderful meal!
As I reflect on the whole experience, I remember walking into the saloon area and thinking, “Lord, what have I gotten us into?” I have never been to any “cultural events” of the majority culture as an adult. I assumed that there’d be drinking, a glorification of the “old south”, rebel flags, and the gambit, but what we experienced instead was a healthy dose of interactive fun that made me feel a bit better about some of my brothers and sisters from another culture. Are they really like this? In the real world, perhaps not, but tonight I experienced something that felt great! We even had the little boy who sat next to us at our table win in the chicken-chasing race! It was great!! Even though no one else in the room looked like us, we felt included and able to take part…even if everybody else was clapping on the wrong beat! Am I likely to seek out additional culturally different experiences like this? I’m not certain. I believe that this experience was structured to provide a sense of Americanism and connection. Sometimes our real world of American life forces us to take sides and isolate ourselves from those who think differently. I do wish that others could experience what we enjoyed that night because we weren’t dividing ourselves based upon ethnicity or political alliances, or SES. We all ate chicken, corn on the cob, and potatoes. We all saluted "our" Flag. We all had fun….together.
As a professional counselor, I think that our assumptions about people and their ability to accept us as we are can affect our practice. I also believe that, as a mere citizen of this great country, trepidation about being accepted may inhibit open and honest interactions between cultures in the larger society. While some may never have to think about acceptance and mutual respect, as a person of color who was raised in the South, I can attest to the fact that believing that someone who is different from you is going to judge me in some way, mistreat me, or not understand me is a very real concern. In our counseling practice, I do believe that we should make ourselves available to all groups by our behavior and by our presentation. For example, without the encouragement of the course for which I'm writing this, I never would have been open to experiencing the “Dixie Stampede” simply because of the "connotative meanings" for me attached to the name of the attraction. I really believed that I would not be able to appreciate anything offered by this attraction because I believed that it was just not targeted for me, suited to my interests, or inclusive of my experiences as a Black man. As the evening developed, I am happy that my assumptions were wrong. One question that should come up for me and for other counselors is related. Do we “advertise” acceptance and freedom to our students? Do we carry ourselves in ways that say “I’m approachable.” or “You’re safe to be yourself here.” I think that the answers to these questions are crucially connected to our ability to be effective and provide our students and clients with the full experience of our expertise.
As we were leaving the theater that night, we stopped to congratulate some of the actors on putting on such a fine show! They were all “White”, but they all accepted our compliments with a sincere “Thank you, sir!” eye contact, and a brief handshake. Why do White folks pull away their hands so quickly? I guess I just wanted to show my sincere appreciation by a strong handshake, and I got the withdrawal thing. Anyway, that couldn’t cloud our evening. What a memory this evening will always be. We actually got our first taste of Dixie!...or did we? Leastways, I have a new appreciation for the “Yee-HaaaaaaHH!!”, and I’ll probably be less nervous if I hear it on the streets. It might actually make me smile now and remember the night I got caught in a “stampede”.