Jim Ray looks out at nearly 30 people in the activity room at the Clovis Senior Center. Then, he turns his back on them.
“Ready. Five, six, and here we go,” he says, setting in motion all those people line-dancing to his commands.
“Rock step, left.”
“Rock step, right.”
After three minutes, the song ends and the feet stop.
“Woo hoo!” people shout.
Ray, 63, has quite a following as an instructor at Clovis Senior Center, where he teaches various levels of Western dancing — beginner, intermediate, couples and team — four days a week. His beginner class Tuesdays/Thursdays has 52 people. Any more happy feet in the room, and the walls might tumble down. The weeks always end with a big dance on Friday nights.
Many students say that Ray’s easy mannerisms make him a big hit.
“He’s a beautiful dancer,” says Helen Condit, a student in Ray’s classes who will celebrate her 91st birthday on Dec. 24. “He kids with everybody. He makes the class more than fun. He keeps me moving.”
Students also like his Western ways, an epitome of Clovis. Ray dresses in black cowboy hat, black cowboy boots, black leather vest and black pants. On a recent Tuesday, he wore a long-sleeve white shirt with blue Western print beneath his vest. But, usually, it’s a black shirt.
He also pins a shiny Texas Ranger badge onto his vest.
“I walk in Clovis, and children say, ‘Look, mommy, a cowboy,’ ” Ray says. “This is the way everyone used to dress.”
Not born to dance
Ray was born in Long Beach and moved with his family at age 3 to Delta, Colo. After he graduated from high school, he joined the U.S. Navy and was discharged in 1973.
Three years later, he moved to Clovis. One night, he and his wife Tina visited Jim’s Place, a popular Western night spot. Naturally, Ray hit the floor, right?
“I always wanted to dance, but I didn’t know how,” he says. “I couldn’t dance a lick.”
So he took line-dancing lessons at Jim’s Place — and became really good at it. The key, he says, is to start with slow walk-throughs and have patience.
“It’s better that you just get up and start than to remain just sitting down,” he says.
Ray eventually took over as the instructor. By 1994, he was part of a Grapevine Express line-dancing team that won a world championship in AAA competition in Tennessee.
Condit was among Ray’s first students. She left to take up ballroom dancing. But after she had hip replacement surgery, she returned to line-dancing classes with Ray again.
“I needed to get moving again,” she says. “I find it a lot of fun; he’s fun.”
Teaching with compassion
Ray, a retired appliance repairman, shows a sweet helping of compassion to students with two left feet.
“I teach because I remember what it was like to want to dance and not being able to,” he says.
On a recent Tuesday, a newcomer in Ray’s class had a hard time keeping up. Students follow his voice instructions, but they also watch the heels of his boots. Sometimes, the newcomer went the wrong direction and stumbled as she tried to correct herself.
After a song ended, she whispered into Ray’s ear. “I understand,” he says.
Ray always appears the gentleman. On the streets of Old Town Clovis, he is known for politely tipping his cowboy hat to others.
“It’s the way I was raised,” he says. “It’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Janet Nishii says she is grateful for Ray’s ways. She has been taking his line-dancing class for more than six years. She likes that the moves are slow; she used to come to classes with a walker.
“The class has helped me to walk,” says Nishii. She pays $20 a month for classes on Tuesdays/Thursdays and says, “This is real cheap therapy. I also have made new friends here.” (Editors note: Story updated Dec. 11 to correct price.)
And of Ray, she says: “He teases. He makes things fun. I go home laughing.”