We’ve heard the saying before, “Everything is bigger in Texas.” Hats, homes, and hair all get the special treatment in the Lone Star State, so it’s no surprise that when it comes to how they throw a party, bigger is likely to be better.
In Southern cities, there’s no shortage of options for a good time: In Nashville, you can honkytonk your way around Broadway and in New Orleans, you can hear jazz up and down Bourbon Street. But in Texas, you can let loose at any of 400 different dance halls across the state, none of which feature disorderly tourists trying to sing “Don’t Stop Believin” after a few too many PBRs and Sazeracs.
Going to a dance hall is a soulful, family-friendly experience intended to encourage community interaction and even more important, to celebrate history. It’s part of the allure of the South to honor its past and its traditional values, values that go way deeper than biscuits and barbecue. As you see when you step foot in a dance hall, it’s those traditions, like the “come on in, y’all” hospitality of the South, that we all truly crave.
All across Texas, communities are tending the flame of Southern tradition, including making sure these halls last another century to welcome future generations. Locals happily throw open the doors to travelers who hop off the highway to experience these authentic cultural spots. Come as you are. No need to RSVP.
Here’s what keeps Texans showing up to these hallowed halls night after night.
A WALTZ THROUGH HISTORY
Desperate to escape oppression in the mid-1800s through the early 1900s, many Germans, Czechs, Polish fled to America. Having heard tales of Texas and its size they figured it was a big enough place that they could exist peacefully without consequence. When they arrived in Galveston or Indianola, they loaded up ox carts and followed the rivers North and West to settle. They quickly got to work creating a new life as farmers, business owners, and ranch hands. Homes and crops were popping up as communities began to grow, but they realized they were missing their homelands. As a way to honor their roots they began building social centers, known today as dance halls.
Without the help of power tools, Central and Eastern European immigrants used their skills and craftsmanship to construct these centers for the benefit of their communities. In
side these walls, they discussed agriculture, traded livestock, attended school, worshiped, cooked, and visited with each other. They were free to celebrate their cultural heritage without judgment. This included beer-making, singing in their native languages, playing the instruments they brought with them, and dancing.
As more Europeans began settling in Texas, more multicultural friendships formed and the sharing of traditions spread and new sounds were discovered. Germans were playing accordions in their fields, Irish immigrants picked their fiddles while working on the railroad, Creole trumpets sounded triumphantly on porches while the Mexicans strummed the 12 strings of their baja sextos. People of different backgrounds would teach each other songs, and perform for the community as the music blurred the lines of any differences between the collection of cultures. Music was at the heart of it all and the instrument integration enticed people to stay for days enjoying food, beer and fellowship. These centers transformed into places where all were welcome to come dance and play music together. That’s how they got to be called dance halls.
PRESENT DAY DANCE HALLS
Now, more than a century later, that same desire to share and exchange traditions still prevails. While it may be unfamiliar to tourists from north of the Mason-Dixon line, it’s the same tradition of hospitality that’s been here for generations and is found in today’s Texans, many of whom are descendants of the original settlers.
Folks of all ages, generations and skill levels have polished the wooden floors of Texas dance halls since 1878 when the one of the oldest halls – Gruene Hall – opened. Gathering has always been a family affair; it’s very common to have folks arrive at 10 pm on a Saturdaynight with kids perched on parents’ shoulders.
Do you hear that? The house band is warming up, and so is the weather. Time to pop open the windows, and put on your dancing boots!
Y’ALL COME IN!
When the sun goes down, you’ll know it’s time to head over to the hall. These events have been known to carry on well into the early hours of the morning, so pace yourself. And remember to take along a little cash for the cover at the door and the band’s tip jar!
Pull up. You’ll know you’re there by the sound of the gravel crunching under your wheels. Hop out and while you’re getting your sea legs under you on the uneven turf, take in the fragrant smoke from the nearby barbecue pit as it wafts through the groups of people cooling off in the shade of the century-old oaks that surround the building. Liquid encouragement is always available … grab a Shiner Bock in the beer hut out back before letting the music from inside lure you onto the front porch.
Walk in and listen to your boots connect with the wood floor. As you practice your spins, observe the wood-clad interiors and high ceilings. No air conditioning folks! So pick a spot by a fan. Scan the walls for early hand-painted tool advertisements offering tractor repair and pointing out the local grocery store. Some of them even still have their original three-digit phone numbers! Intertwined initials carved decades ago by young lovers still adorn the wooden benches and ceiling beams, and some of those couples may be on the dance floor as you watch, waltzing together still. Fathers hold onto young daughters who are dancing on their toes, parents polka on date night, and friends celebrate a birthday with the chicken dance. All is well.
While each hall has its own charm and story, a few do require a little more love and care than others. Round Top Dance Hall is one example of a building that was nearly lost to disrepair, but under the new ownership of Jon Perez and after a little Junk Gypsy-style makeover by Amie and Joilie Sikes, it has a second life.
ROUND TOP ON TOP
The Airway Dancehall (now called the Round Top Dance Hall) had been welcoming the townspeople of Wesley, Texas since 1907, but after 90 years of hard dancing and crowded Saturday nights, it was drooping. Slated for demolition, it won a last-minute reprieve in 1995 when it was purchased, disassembled and moved to Fayette County’s own Round Top, Texas where it was reassembled and reopened. It now stands proudly among the largest concentration of dance halls in the state, enjoyed once again by the Czech community for meals and dancing.
“We helped with some of the final restoration of the Round Top Dance Hall by building a stage made out of salvaged materials and a huge chandelier rehabbed from an irrigation wheel with over 24 porcelain light sockets wired in place,” explains Junk Gypsy Amie Sikes. “We reached out to our picker friends to find some vintage stage curtains and we found the perfect ones. They were 1960s, authentic blue velvet stage curtains that had been saved from a school auditorium in Michigan. They found the perfect home in Round Top.”
JUNK GYPSIES HELP THE HALL
“There’s a lot of people in Texas holding on to the history of dance halls, the legend and lore, the grit and the glitter “ explains Jolie Sikes. “ I think people in Texas are trying to save these historic dance halls because, for one, most of them are architecturally beautiful, and they are ‘feel good’ places. Dance halls were part of the Texas culture when family and community were the most important things. These halls were where these communities gathered for dances, weddings, and fried chicken after church on Sundays, back before everyone had access to easily stay home and watch a marathon of Netflix, these halls were hallowed. Today, it’s still where the 85-year-olds and kids gather to dance.”
PRESERVING THE POLKA
As far as motivating the younger generation to stay on the dance floor, leave it up to Deb Fleming, Executive Director and Past Board President of the Texas Dance Hall Preservation Inc. a ten year old state wide non profit whose mission to help preserve the historic halls of Texas as well as the music and culture found in them.
“We want to help our kids understand the history and heritage of their community,” says Deb. “The folks who supported this culture are aging, so we’re inspired to engage younger musicians and their fanbases to get them out and playing at the dance halls. We want this generation to reconnect live music, the kind that’s meant to be heard and danced to in a dance hall.”
The Texas Dance Hall Preservation Inc established that at one time there were around 1,000 dance halls scattered across Texas. It’s their personal mission to preserve the 400 that are left through local awareness, grants and social media.
“People want to see these dance halls restored not because they like to dance, though that is part of the traditon, but because they’re part of Texas history,” says Deb. “It’s an honor to keep my Polish/German/Czech heritage alive through through dance hall preservation work and to keep the stories and memories alive as well”
If you’re interested in learning more about dance hall history and music, sign up to take a Texas Dance Hall Tour led by Deb and the Texas Dance Hall Preservation Team along with Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel and others this coming October!
To close off this Texas piece, let’s let Steinbeck take it away,
“For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America.” Go experience it for yourself and don’t forget your best boots!
Have you ever danced in a dance hall? Tell us about it in the comments below.
Photo/video credits by Amie and Jolie Sikes, Kiki Teague, Deb Fleming, Dave Norris, David Bucek, Patrick Sparks and archival photos from various sources.