Details, Texas dance halls
The movements weren’t unfamiliar. After all, in the preceding days I’d found myself on countless dance floors, dancing with strangers to live music, taking lessons and remembering to let my partner lead. I just didn’t expect — on my day off from visiting dance halls — to find my skills tested in a smoky saloon during a playoff game. We shuffled around the gritty floor for a couple of jukebox songs before we returned to the bar for the fourth quarter.
After the game, I said goodbye and headed to my hotel, uncertain exactly how I would protect myself with the knife, but with a deeper understanding of how people in this state roll. I realized that when it comes to the act of facing a partner and stepping in unison — which Texans do so well — the venue, the music and the atmosphere are all secondary.
In this state, people just dance.
Anyone who has driven across Texas knows that simply setting your sights on the next state’s faraway border is a form of torture that could last for days. So when I was offered a writing assignment that involved traveling to Big Bend National Park in West Texas, I decided to break up the long drive with some dancing. I knew that the dance halls in Texas were like no others, and I love hearing the sweet croons of Western music enough to take on a few detours. I packed my boots in Washington just before New Year’s and headed west.
According to Stephen Dean, co-founder of an organization called Texas Dance Hall Preservation, most of the state’s historic dance halls are in the central and coastal regions. This is where German, Czech and Polish immigrants settled in the mid- to late 1800s. They would preserve their culture by gathering to celebrate the harvest or a holiday, sharing food and dancing the polka. The polka evolved into one type of two-step (quick-quick-slow pattern), but the more popular version — what’s known as Texas two-step (quick-quick-slow-slow) — evolved from the fox trot and looks like dancers taking small walking steps together.
The charm of these dance halls is that they’re very much the same today as they were back when: You go for no-frills fellowship, cheap beer, good music and dancing. “Some are nothing more than a barn with a dance floor,” said Dean, who has been to more than 750 Texas dance halls, most of which are rarely used. “There’s something special about it. You’re dancing, the outside is coming in through the windows, and you’re in a historic wood building.”