Sweat trickles from Jeffrey Barnett’s brow and drops onto his damp black T-shirt as he guides his partner up and down the dance floor while music ranging from Al Green to Maroon 5 blares over the sound system.
After a song or two, a smiling Barnett leans in for a hug, gets a kiss on the cheek and moves on to his next partner at Club 8 at the Night Hotel in Farmers Branch.
The scene is one that plays out a couple of times each week for Barnett, who is not the average dancer.
He’s 6-foot-2, a former college athlete, and at age 35 a bit younger than the average amateur male dancing in the West Coast swing style. Also, there’s that thing about what he does for a living.
Barnett happens to be an offensive line coach for the two-time defending state champion Guyer Wildcats.
“I don’t fit into this [dancing] community at all — like at all,” Barnett said. “Most of the girls are very religious and grew up dancing at churches or in Young Life. The guys are all computer guys, math guys, engineer-type guys.”
It has been a long journey to where Barnett is now as a dancer, filled with odd twists of fate that quickly turned him from a guy just looking for something to do on the weekends to someone who is taking lessons from some of the world’s top professionals and competing in local and national competitions.
Through hard work and a few strokes of luck, Barnett has now found something else to devote his time to when he’s not helping lead a bunch of teenagers to success for one of the top programs on the Texas high school football landscape.
Barnett’s unique journey to becoming a competitor in something on the opposite end of the spectrum from football began with some bad fortune.
Guyer High School, in December 2010, lost 24-21 to Cibolo Steele in the Class 5A Division II state championship game, sending Barnett into a somber state.
He tried going out to soothe his pain, and he even took a vacation to St. Lucia, but he couldn’t find a way to make himself feel better.
With a small swim in country-Western dancing as a teenager in Taos, New Mexico, Barnett obliged when a friend of his asked if he’d go two-stepping with her. After about a month of diving into that scene, Barnett discovered another style of dancing called West Coast swing.
“We lost that title game, and I needed to get out,” Barnett said. “I started going to Cowboys Red River [to country dance] and did that for a month, and then I found out about West Coast swing. Some people told me that Electric Cowboy in Lewisville had West Coast swing lessons on Sunday nights, and I went up there. The combination of the dancing and the music — I was just hooked immediately.”
In layman’s terms, West Coast swing is a rhythmic dance form similar to salsa but performed in linear paths with the man guiding the woman along imaginary lines, known as a slot, and the woman working around him. At times, the man can seem almost stationary while the woman is more active. It’s billed as the second-most social style of dance in the world behind salsa.
Soon after Barnett’s introduction to West Coast swing, he crossed paths with Benjamin Hooten, a professional who travels around the world to teach workshops and compete. Hooten is one of the top dancers in the world and a four-time country dancing world champion. Hooten choreographed a routine for a team dance Barnett was a part of for an entire year leading up to a competition in September 2012.
Hooten, 27, said he was initially threatened by Barnett’s friendship with Hooten’s then-girlfriend, another dancer. But they grew to be friends, and when Hooten and the woman split up, Barnett offered a room for Hooten in his house while he searched for a new place to live. The two lived together from June 2012 to June 2013 and just recently moved back in together.
Barnett took advantage of his roommate’s expertise and began soaking up everything Hooten offered about the dancing business and was able to learn from one of the best, as well as Hooten’s peers.
Barnett would still socialize with the dance community and support his friend when Guyer was in the midst of a playoff run, taking his laptop to Hooten’s classes so he could observe but still have access to Hudl — a Web-based film service high school coaches use to exchange film — to study the upcoming week’s opponent.
“Living with him, he really pulled me out of football, and that’s good,” said Barnett, who is single. “You have to [get away] for your own sanity. Everyone else has kids to help them do that. I don’t have kids.”
As reluctant as he was to do so, the time eventually came when Barnett had to tell his fellow Guyer coaches what he was doing with his spare time.
In leading up to that initial team competition in 2012, Barnett wanted to attend a weekly Sunday night class, which conflicted with a weekly Guyer coaches meeting.
Barnett went to Guyer head coach John Walsh and asked him to move the time of the meeting to the morning.
When he told his boss the reason, he asked that Walsh not tell anyone else.
“My reaction was something like this: ‘What the heck are you talking about?’” Walsh said. “It was something I’ve never been asked. Usually when you get asked to move something like that, it’s maybe a family emergency. It was definitely uncharted territory for me. To be honest, when he said, ‘Don’t tell anybody,’ I went to the next office over and told them all.”
Former Guyer running backs coach Oschlor Flemming, who left this spring to take the head coaching job at Fort Bend Dulles, was Barnett’s best friend on the staff and said that as soon as the news broke in the office, the expected reaction followed.
“No matter what you do on that staff, you catch hell for it,” Flemming said, laughing. “You win the Nobel Peace Prize, and you’ll get hell for it. That’s just how close that staff is.
“I think it’s a neat deal. I wish I knew how to dance like that.”
Walsh echoed Flemming’s sentiments, but said it was all in good fun.
“There is a level of respect for what he’s done, at least from my end,” Walsh said. “I’ll get some ribbing for that, but someone’s got to stick up for him. If I don’t, no one else is going to.”
After the staff found out, Barnett began slowly telling some of his players, who he said received it more positively than his co-workers.
“I kind of started letting the kids know, and it got out there a little bit,” Barnett said. “I think the kids think it’s cool. The coaching staff is going to make fun of you. It’s just like being in a locker room. I’m not friends with many of them on Facebook anymore. I don’t want to give them any extra ammunition.
“No matter what they say, it doesn’t bother me anymore. If you want to make fun of it, come watch me. You’ll be impressed.”
While Barnett might have thought he was telling his players on his terms, one former player said Barnett’s hobby had already been suspected.
“We weren’t very surprised,” said Jonathan Pershall, a former two-year starter at tight end who graduated this past school year. “It’s something you could tell that he definitely would do.
“Everyone knows he’s the only single coach and the one that always has the girls, so it just made sense.”
The reactions on the other side of the spectrum — the dance community itself — were also mixed.
“There was lots of talk of me being the big jock and stuff,” Barnett said. “Everyone is there to support each other’s growth in the dancing, but I am different. I’m 6-2 and have some build to me; not a lot of the other guys do. I just look different. My mindset is different, too.
“I’m competitive. I want to be better than every guy out there. If I’m at Cowboys Red River or an event, I want every girl to dance with me before they want to dance with every other guy. Not because I want every girl, but because I want to be better than every guy.”
Carla Romine-Haggmark, 43, director of human resources for the city of Denton, has become Barnett’s favorite partner, even though there are not set partners at social dances, as Barnett said he could dance with 50 to 60 women per night. But when a good song comes on, Barnett looks for Romine-Haggmark, who’s been dancing West Coast swing for nearly six years.
“Sometimes when you get the really athletic people in there, you’re wondering if they’re graceful,” she said. “It’s a different kind of grace. I was very impressed in the beginning with his smoothness. A lot of the new people are rough and yank a lot, but he’s not that way. He’s always been very smooth. It’s always been very enjoyable dancing with him. He’s a good lead, and he’s always smiling and letting you know he’s having a good time.”
She said Barnett’s competitiveness is evident to her, but only because he’s a good friend. She added that it’s not an intimidating competitiveness, despite his background as a football coach.
“I think he’s competitive for himself and wanting to improve,” she said. “It drives him, but it’s not intimidating to where people don’t want to dance with him because they’re afraid he’ll be upset if you don’t win.”
From gridiron to dance floor
Barnett played offensive line for Division III Hamilton College in upstate New York before becoming a recruiting and video graduate assistant at the University of Alabama under head coach Dennis Franchione.
When Franchione left for Texas A&M University in 2003, Barnett went with him and was an on-field graduate assistant overseeing the defensive line, with emphasis on defensive tackles. He coached recent Super Bowl winners Michael Bennett and Red Bryant.
In 2005, Barnett took a job at Guyer when the school opened and was part of the inaugural staff as an offensive line coach, focusing on guards and centers.
“He’s a technician as far as coaching the technique and being real particular about it,” Walsh said.
It might seem dancing would come natural to someone who relies so much on footwork, but Barnett said he still has trouble at times with some of the movements, since they go against everything he’s taught his body to do over the past 20 years.
“You actually have to move and shift your weight,” he said. “With O-line, you always keep all your weight in the center of your feet. You never want to shift your weight completely to one foot. If you have a foot in the air, you’re going down. It’s something I still work on, and I’m still trying to get used to that.”
That said, he’s been successful in his relatively new venture. He won a competition at the Electric Cowboy in Lewisville in May 2012. When he concludes the Dance Mardi Gras competition in his hometown of New Orleans today, he will finish his first competition in a year and his first outside the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
When he first started dancing, not only was he the “different one,” but even those who might follow high school football were not familiar with his past.
Now, after two straight state championships and long periods of absence on the dance circuit thanks to the success of his day job, Barnett said the dance community knows who he is.
“It’s strange, but it makes you feel good,” Barnett said. “It feels good when you walk in a room and 40 people say congratulations, and they know why they haven’t seen you in a while. It’s a cool deal.”
Down the road
Barnett has long made it known his ultimate goal is to return to the college coaching world, and he’s had his opportunities at some smaller schools.
Now Barnett is reconsidering that stance, largely because of his current job and also in part because of his newfound passion for dancing. Barnett would have to give up dancing altogether because of the demanding time and travel commitments if he landed a college coaching job.
He’s far from ruling out an eventual return to the college ranks, but his desire isn’t as sure a thing as it once was, especially since he’s dancing more seriously than ever this offseason.
“I’ve been asked by coaches if I ever want to go back to college, and of course I do,” Barnett said. “I’ve also made the argument when dance people ask if I want to do that, that I do know if I do that, I’ll have to give up dance. I don’t think I want to do that. It adds to my quality of life and helps me be happy.”
He also said he enjoys the high school realm, where he can actually mold and teach young people and make a difference in their lives at a younger age.
“How do you ever walk away from Guyer, though, unless you’re getting a head coaching job? And as the O-line coach?” Barnett said. “We run the ball. This is the greatest job in the world.
“I love football. I love offensive line. I know I love coaching offensive line more than I’d ever love coaching West Coast swing at a dance bar. I’ve thought about trying to do this professionally and teach if I ever got that opportunity, but then that becomes your job. I like it as a hobby.”
Whether he ever makes a decision to give that a shot, Hooten said he believes his friend could make the career move if he devoted his full attention to it.
“If football went away, then yeah,” Hooten said. “Aside from his talent, the intelligence is there, too. If tomorrow he said, ‘I’m done coaching,’ and went full force in this, I think, yes, the potential is there for sure.”
That said, he doesn’t believe that day will ever come.
“There’s a lot of stuff people don’t see on the coaching end that I saw from living with him,” Hooten said. “He’s just so invested. When the season starts, everyone he’s close with knows his life will revolve around football. He dives in wholeheartedly and has such an investment with the students. He’s just a very invested, quality person.”
Barnett said he would like to keep the dancing a hobby, but his ultimate goal might not allow that as he is considering trying to compete more in the offseason than he has in the past and not just focus on the fun, social aspect of dancing.
“My goal is really just to continue to get better and feel better and more confident about my own dance,” he said. “Sadly, we need the competition to see where our dance is. I want to keep this as a hobby, so I don’t want to compete, but I feel like I have to just to prove to myself I am getting better.”
And if he continues to dance as nothing more than a hobby and competitive outlet in the offseason, he said he has at least outgrown the embarrassment around his fellow football coaches and now lets the mocking roll right off his back.
“You walk into an office of 14 guys and it’s, ‘Hey, Barnett, you go dancing this weekend?’ And it feels like they’re mocking me,” he said. “In reality, they should be jealous because how many of them got to hold 57 girls’ hands and hug them and get kisses on the cheek from 57 different beautiful women? Not any of them. But I sure did.”
ADAM BOEDEKER can be reached at 940-566-6872 and via Twitter at @aboedeker.