Safeguarding The Dance Hall Days Of Texas
A line of people decked in cowboy hats, cowboy boots, jeans, and skirts spills out of the double doors of Fair Pavilion Hall, a 1925 white-clapboard community center in La Grange, Texas. Voices and polka music filter into the cool evening air, punctuated by the dull thunk of boots on wooden steps. On nights like tonight—a cool, cloud-cobbled Saturday—hundreds of dances used to take place in halls just like this across the hills, deserts, and cities of Texas.
Inside the hall, the eight-piece Texas swing band Asleep at the Wheel walks onto the stage, led by frontman Ray Benson—a tall, deep-voiced guitarist with a white beard, a white blazer, and a big hat, plus a personality to match. The band begins to play old classics, such as “Don’t Fence Me In,” “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” and “Waltz Across Texas.” The keyboardist bobs his head, and his long hair waves to the rhythm as Benson’s voice bellows into the night.
Sitting at tables lining the perimeter of a scuffed dance floor with exposed rafters overhead, people tap their feet and bounce their knees. Couples sift out onto the floor as if heeding some migratory instinct. The shutters are opened up to let in the air, fans start whirring, and a dancer takes a break to dab her forehead. To my surprise, a cowboy wearing a beige hat, a pink shirt, and a five o’clock shadow asks me to dance.
“I don’t know how to two-step,” I say.
“I’ll teach you,” he says, offering his hand. I take it, and we are off, swaying back and forth down the dance floor. I laugh as I scramble to match his shuffling feet. Around us, couples turn into a blur of sparkly tops, swishing skirts, Concho belts, and cowboy hats. Some of the old folks dance cheek to cheek, barely moving to the rhythm. A mother and her hip-high son bounce across the room. I feel klutzy, but I love being surrounded by two-steppers, welcomed into this tradition by immersion. As the band wraps up the song, the knot of dancers loosens, and I thank my partner.
“We grew up playing dance halls, and so many of ’em are gone,” Benson says from the stage before starting up the next song. “And this one is so gorgeous … Y’all have a great time dancing tonight and spread the word around.”
Between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, Texans built as many as 1,000 dance halls across the state. Some were little more than four wooden walls and a tin roof standing out in a field. Others were glorious multisided Victorian structures painted in gem tones, or handsome brick buildings on city streets. Typically built and used by ethnic groups, such as Germans, Czechs, Poles, Tejanos, and African-Americans, they served as family-friendly gathering places for music, dancing, and social occasions. Now, of the 400 or so dance halls that still stand, around a quarter are at risk. Without proper care and stewardship, they could easily fall prey to disintegration, fire, or vandalism.
A disparate group of Texas preservationists and dance lovers is working to save these historic structures, in part by devising creative business strategies. In some cases, halls are leased to churches or antiques shops. Others have become wedding and nightclub venues that still hold occasional public dances. Some have been relocated and repurposed. And a small handful operate as they always have, hosting regular dances.
I’ve flown to Texas from my home in Colorado to see some of the dance halls in the counties east of Austin, where the densest concentration remains. I want to see what they are like—and get a feel for the deep, family-oriented, music-loving culture they preserve.
The following morning in La Grange, I meet Deb Fleming, board president of Texas Dance Hall Preservation, a 10-year-old Austin-based organization. We take off in her white Toyota sedan onto the narrow back roads that thread the area’s verdant farmland.
Hawks loop overhead as we hurtle past barns, farmhouses, and hills adorned with tight rounds of hay bales. Fleming became especially interested in dance halls after a road trip south to Panna Maria, where she discovered a personal connection: Her great-great-grandparents were among the town’s original settlers in the mid-1800s, and the hall they frequented was still standing.
When we arrive at the church in Dubina, a blink-sized town, the congregation is filing out into the bright sunshine. We meet Ed Janecka, a white-haired man with a slight stoop, as he chats with fellow parishioners. Janecka, the county judge, helped restore the church’s interior murals and is one of a group of churchgoers who look after Dubina Hall next door. The community of Czech immigrants—and now their descendants—has held weddings, parties, picnics, and dances locally since the mid-1800s, but it wasn’t until 1936 that they constructed the simple white-clapboard, one-room dance hall.
Janecka leads us through the kitchen and onto the hardwood dance floor. Overhead, two-by-six beams hold the structure together. Sunlight spills through the long windows and onto the floor, bathing the interior in a warm glow. Decades-old advertisements from long-defunct businesses adorn the wall.
“I’m sure some people would just as soon tear this down and put up another building here, but we have fought very hard to keep it,” says Janecka as he leans up against a table and admires the open space. The church’s congregation painted the dance hall’s exterior, had the plumbing upgraded, and had fans installed, among many other projects over the years. Now the hall is booked almost every weekend for weddings, reunions, parties, and meetings. The first Sunday in July, the community hosts an annual picnic that attracts at least 2,000 people.
That afternoon, Fleming and I drive 20 miles south to Appelt’s Hill Gun Club, a multi-sided, cross-shaped structure with beautiful exposed rafters. When we arrive, we find young women gathering decorations, flower arrangements, and antiques from a wedding the night before. Glittery lights still hang from the beams, and a few beer bottles lie strewn about. Inside, I meet Gladys Devall, a tiny blue-haired octogenarian with a hearty laugh, and Robert Zappe, the president of the gun club, who sports a mustache, crisp jeans, and gold-rimmed glasses.
“When I became president 10 years ago, they were lettin’ this thing do this,” says Zappe, making a sinking motion with his hands. “You coulda set a golf ball here in the middle of the floor and it’d go that way or that way.” He laughs. “My intents were to not only get this place looking good again, but to get it goin’ again.”
Before Zappe’s time, the gun club put a metal roof on the structure. Under his leadership, the group had the floor leveled, mounted skirting on the exterior, and installed emergency exit lights, better plumbing, fire extinguishers, and front steps that match the building’s vintage look. Now the club supports the upkeep of the hall with member fees, raffles, and event rentals for $350 per night.
Devall lives across the street—she pretty much always has—and acts as the booking agent and the security guard. She grew up dancing here and loves to keep an eye on the place, making sure it stays true to its heritage as a community gathering spot. The hall has never been out of use, but now it’s busier than ever.
“The only difference,” she says, “is the weddings are now a whole lot fancier.”
As the sun approaches the horizon, Fleming and I pull up to Schneider Hall in Columbus. It’s a beautiful one-room wooden building constructed in the early 20th century and still framed by the graceful limbs of 100-year-old live oaks. Amber Burris Becerra, the ponytailed young proprietor, is cleaning up after a wedding but pauses to chat. Long before she was born and grew up in the farmhouse up the hill, Becerra’s great-uncles turned this structure into a dance hall and hosted dances every Saturday through the 1920s and ’30s. After World War II, however, the dances petered out. The family, which owns these 175 acres of farm and ranchland, used it to store hay.
As Becerra’s sister was planning her 2010 wedding, she broached a novel idea: hosting her wedding there. The family removed part of the entryway to level the floor, restored the old ticket booth, built a back deck, added ceiling lights and fans, and ran electricity and plumbing. To preserve the integrity of the building, they decided not to install air-conditioning.
After her sister’s wedding, Becerra’s mom occasionally rented it out for events. When she died in a car accident in 2013, the calls started coming directly to Becerra. She moved back here to run the dance hall as a wedding venue in part to honor her mother’s memory, but also because she simply loves this place.
Perhaps it’s the soft light of sunset, but the building does seem to have presence. The scuffed flooring imparts a sort of well-worn charm, a patina earned from countless nights of celebration.
Over the course of the weekend, I visit a dozen halls in the counties around Austin, and am struck by their diversity. The Historic Casino Hall, for example, is an imposing two-story brick masonry building constructed by German immigrants in downtown La Grange in 1881. The town spent more than $3.5 million refinishing the wood floors, restoring the balcony, adding interior shutters for temperature control, and upgrading the lighting, sound, heating, and cooling systems, among many other projects. Last spring, it opened to plays, performances, dances, weddings, and business functions. The second-floor dance hall is so grand and polished that it’s hard to imagine it was once inhabited by pigeons.
On the other end of the spectrum, Swiss Alp, an 1890s dance hall, is a big, drafty space with old band posters tacked to the walls and a floor as wavy as the grassy hills around it. It’s for sale, but teenagers still gather every Wednesday night during the summer for booze-free dances. And Helvetia, in a remote field in New Bern, is crawling with weeds, on the verge of falling down, and a common target for vandals.
Without champions, dance halls fall apart, which is why Deb Fleming, a petite 64-year-old with a wellspring of energy and a Texas drawl, encourages owners and community associations to continue hosting public events. With the help of the Texas Dance Hall Preservation (TDHP) board, she raised enough money last year to dole out its first grants for projects such as fixing roofs and repainting exterior walls. TDHP also won a grant from the Texas Historical Commission in 2016 to develop a series of online resources for owners of at-risk dance halls. This year, Lone Star Beer pledged $30,000 to support TDHP’s grant program. And, using sponsorships secured through their week-long Texas Dance Hall Tour in March, the band Asleep at the Wheel is raising funds and awareness for TDHP, as well.
Fleming hopes to preserve not only the boards and beams of these places, but also their roles as living places where local culture can thrive.
“To me—and I’m a Texan—this is what Texas is all about,” Fleming says. “This is what made Texas who we are today—the music, the food, family. It’s this whole community culture.”
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On Monday morning, I visit a hall that was rescued and now stands as a paragon of preservation: Sengelmann, a handsome two-story brick structure on the historic main drag of Schulenburg. Built in 1894, the building was a bar and dance hall until 1949. Western Auto bought it, and it later became a bakery and an ice-cream parlor, then sat vacant for years.
“It was a total wreck in here,” says Garrett Pettit, who now runs the bar and restaurant business at Sengelmann Hall. He unlocks the door and ushers me inside, where an antique dark-wood bar backed with a mirror presides over the saloon. “There was Sheetrock over the walls. They had dropped the ceiling. The whole thing had to be leveled.”
In 2007, Dana Harper, a Houston artist, bought the place and spent about $1.5 million to restore it, saving the long-pine dance floor, granite pillars, tin ceilings, and plaster walls. Pettit had grown up in Schulenburg, moved away, and then came back to help with the renovation and, eventually, run the business. He pads about in pink flip-flops as he shows me the vaulted space lined with tables and chairs. Upstairs, the old dance hall still hosts weddings, funerals, and occasional public dances.
“I love when the old people tell me stories about how when they were kids, their parents would bring them here to dances,” Pettit says as we walk through the dance hall. “They would make little pallets under the benches so while they were dancing the kids would sleep. Some of those kids still come here.”
Later, Pettit leads me along country roads to a different dance hall—his own. Freyburg Hall isn’t polished or fancy. It’s a 106-year-old rural wood-frame space with its name and a Texas flag painted on one exterior flank. Pettit comes from a family of musicians, and on a whim he and his siblings bought it from the Freyburg Dance Hall Association.
Sitting in a field and framed by live oaks, it resists decrepitude with a solid roof and a decent floor. The decor includes an old stoplight, a skull and antlers, and vintage beer signs. Occasionally an intrepid possum takes up residence.
Every year, the family hosts a community picnic here, icing down hundreds of beers in horse troughs. Admittedly, the building could use a good cleaning, a paint job, and some yard work, among other things.
But in a way, I love its worn-out charm. The fact that it is surviving just by the grace of a family that adores music and dancing feels in keeping with the spirit of these halls as community centers. It reminds me that the preservation of each remaining dance hall lies in the hands of the individuals who love and care for them, the people who recognize the thread that connects them to the past—and, perhaps just as important, the thread connecting them to the future.