This editorial first appeared in The Dallas Morning News. Guest editorials don’t necessarily reflect the Denton Record-Chronicle’s opinions.
It’s a warm night. Cicadas are crooning loudly in the post oaks. A half-empty bottle of beer sweats on a tree stump next to you. The dance hall’s wood-slat shutters are open, showing a river of straw-hatted dancers flowing past the windows. Through them, you can see someone you’ve been trying to get up the nerve to ask for a dance.
That scene, or one very like it, has repeated for generations in our state. And one historic preservation group is working to make sure it keeps on happening.
There are almost 400 dance halls in Texas, more than in any other state. They have a rich history. The oldest were built in the late 19th century as German and Czech settlers established towns around a community meeting place. Some had specialties: Turnverein were early gyms. Farmer Verein were something like ag extension offices, offering farming seminars on weekends after which members would clear away the furniture and throw a dance. In general, these are rickety wooden structures with more history and less kitsch than bedazzled spectacles like Billy Bob’s Texas. The most famous are Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, Schroeder Hall in Goliad and Luckenbach, where the hall and the settlement are synonymous. But there are others closer to home like Dallas’ Longhorn Ballroom and Sons of Hermann Hall, and Fort Worth’s National Hall and Stagecoach Ballroom.
Some Texas music legends got their start playing these halls, including George Strait, Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen. They have been incubators for polka, Western swing, honky-tonk and Tejano music.
But these gems of history and Texana are in trouble. Even before 2020, many were on life support. Then the pandemic shuttered all but a few. Operators have turned to charity, ingenuity and the occasional drive-through barbecue dinner to stay afloat.
Casey Jordan, executive director of an Austin nonprofit called Texas Dance Hall Preservation, said saving them is important because of their rarity.
“The dance hall thing is fairly uniquely Texan,” Jordan said. “It’s hard to find in other areas of the country … and there’s not another organization that preserves dance halls.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, TDHP has raised more than $265,000 which it awarded in grants as small as $1,200. TDHP also provides advocacy and continuing education for hall managers on things like the best way to advertise or book new acts.
We asked Jordan if Texas dance halls needed something big like federal funding or landmark designation. Many are already recognized as historic sites, she said. No, what Texas dance halls need is patrons.
“The ones still going are kind of tenacious,” Jordan said. “After this whole year of no one being there, they’re definitely anxious for people to come back. The best way to keep them going is to use them.”
So, dear Texans, get your vaccine and get on your boots. The next dance can be for you.