Step Right Up

Ever wonder what happened to the good old country dance halls, where the floors are packed with boot-scootin’ couples, the beer costs two bucks, and the folks at the table in the corner can tell stories all night? It’s all still out there. Follow me . . .
Quihi Gun Club and Dance Hall, photographed on September 26, 2009.
Photograph by Jeff Wilson

The way to a true Texas dance hall—not the urban simulations, with their cosmetic trusses, last-call footraces, and she’s-mine testosterone—is through the country, a long drive by pastures and cornfields and cattle guards, past driveways that look like roads and roads with numbers for names. You’ll half think you’re lost on the way, then feel a shock when you get there, not at the size of the structure but at the number of trucks parked outside.

An older couple at the front door will take your money and smile like they know you. They’ll gab at length, if you linger, about the bands they saw here when they were kids, dropping names like Adolph Hofner and the Pearl Wranglers, the Texas Top Hands, Johnny Bush, acts you can tell you ought to know better.

You listen, but your eyes go to the dance floor. If the band hasn’t started yet and the floor is empty, you’ll notice the long, dark planks, probably pine or oak, shining from decades of being polished by boot leather. They show none of the proverbial sawdust, just splashes of light reflected from Christmas lights hanging from the rafters. As you scout for an open table along the worn, clapboard walls—where parents pull supper from small coolers and granddads fold brown bags on half-pints and kids itch to go slide on their knees in front of the bandstand—you’ll keep looking back at the floor.

It fills the instant the music starts. The band is probably another you don’t know, maybe Billy Mata or Bobby Flores. No matter what hall or which band, certain songs are guaranteed: “Heartaches by the Number,” “Crazy Arms,” “New San Antonio Rose,” “Corrine Corrina.” Fiddle and steel guitar ring through the room. Songs with different beats drop in and out, “Night in May Waltz” and “Yesterday I Waited Polka.” The band plays “The Cotton-Eyed Joe,” but nobody yells, “Bullshit!” Though some of the songs shuffle and some of them bounce, you realize that all of it’s dance music. That’s the whole point. And when you see a little kid learning to two-step by balancing on her grandfather’s feet, you’ll ask yourself, “Has this always been here?”

The short answer is yes, in a way. The oldest Texas dance halls date to the late 1800’s, built by Germans and Czechs who’d started coming to Central Texas about the time Texas became a state. In Europe they’d lived in villages and farmed fields out in the country. Here they claimed large spreads and lived miles from one another, so the new communities were held together by fraternal orders like the Czech SPJSTs, which sold insurance and loaned money, and the German vereins, or clubs, for shooting and athletics. Every group built a hall, and the hall became the center of life in the New World. On weekends families would ride in for Saturday night dances, bed down under trees afterward, then attend church the next morning. Communities watched whole lives play out there, from baptism to first kiss to wedding to funeral.

The buildings themselves were typically nothing fancy, built by neighbors and designed by whoever provided the lumber. But even the exceptions, like the famous round halls of Austin County, owed their special quality to what happened inside, the festivals and picnics, the sausage and beer, and above all, the dancing. When the Old World ties started to wane in the fifties, the infusion of country music actually broadened the halls’ appeal. Songwriter Robert Earl Keen was raised in Houston in the sixties but spent weekends and summers on his family ranch in Frelsburg, with five dance halls within twenty miles. “From the time I was fifteen to my second year in college, I would go to these halls every weekend. If it wasn’t happening at one, we’d pile back in the car and go to another, burning up two hundred and fifty miles in a night. We’d see regional country bands like the Moods and the Velvets or go to flat-out Czech dances by the Baca Family or Lee Roy Matocha. I saw Ernest Tubb in Hallettsville. You’d just stop at a convenience store, look at a poster in the window to see who was playing, then make your best guess at where the rest of the kids were.”

He describes a period more distant than you’d think. In the past thirty years, dance halls have faded, their constituencies depleted by urban migration, cultural assimilation, and competition from the modern myriad of entertainment options. Few host regular dances; the buildings get more use for antiques shows and storage. And that’s if they’re still standing. A number have been destroyed by fires and storms. Last year they collectively made a list of endangered places, chiefly on the efforts of a nonprofit group, Texas Dance Hall Preservation. TDHP’s mission is to see dance halls revered like county courthouses; its governing principle is that the best way to save them is to use them.

Which is also the premise of this story. What follows are looks at eight classic halls. Note that in the compilation of this list, some hairs have been split. For one, these are not the most famous places. Institutions like Gruene Hall, Luckenbach, and Austin’s Broken Spoke do not want for exposure. Note also that this list is not honky-tonks or nightclubs. Those are places where whiskey and hooking up are as important as music and dancing. (Johnny Bush says that you know you’re in a honky-tonk if you can smell the men’s room.) Though country music is integral to honky-tonks—just as blues is to juke joints and conjunto to cantinas—those are not places where folks take their families. These are true Texas dance halls, places that, on the right Saturday night, you can still take your kids and teach them to dance.

Tom Sefcik Hall, Seaton

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