This presentation is part of the Dance Halls, Juke Joints, and Honky Tonks Symposium, March 22-23, 2016. This symposium focuses on the issues associated with the preservation of dance halls and similar sites throughout the rural South. Some of the constant threats include relevancy, development pressures, deterioration, and financial viability. This symposium brings together experts and enthusiasts to discuss history, architecture, and culture associated with these buildings.
Historic Texas Dance Halls by Steve Dean
Steve Dean: Hello my name is Stephen Dean and I’m co-founder along with Steph and Patrick of the Texas Dance Hall Preservation, the nonprofit that they’ve been talking about. I’m also the author of a book over here, Historic Dance Halls of East Central Texas, which I have for sale if anyone would love pick up a copy. I’d be glad to sign one, take your money, whatever. It has tons of photos, probably of eight counties in that very rich area between Austin, San Antonio and Houston, and what I consider East, Central East Texas. It’s archival photos from some of the earliest halls on up to the 60’s. As Patrick talked about a lot of these halls go back until the late 1800’s, one because of the immigration and whatever.
These photos up here, I just have a slide show. I think there’s almost 600 photos. I’ve personally been to over 1000 dance halls in Texas, not all of them are historic necessarily. Some of them are halls that might have been built in the 50’s and 60’s. It seems as though listening every Bud and everyone in Louisiana that most of the halls in Louisiana seem to have been built after the war. We have so many more historic ones in Texas that were built in the 1870’s, 1880’s, 1900’s, 1910’s, like that. A lot of them are in great shape. A lot of them have some problems My background is that my parents grew up having night clubs.
My babysitter was generally a juke box. I loved music immediately. I learned about Jimmy Reed and Fats Domino and on the other hand Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. Those were my babysitters. I grew up loving the music industry. I wanted to be Elvis. I started playing guitar, drums, what not. Immediately when I was about 18, I opened up my first club. That’s my background. I’ve opened up night clubs, involved in the music industry all my life. Once I moved down to Austin from Dallas, I started hearing about dance halls. I decided I needed to start checking these out. A lot of the dance halls weren’t on the front pages of the newspaper.
You didn’t hear about them as much as you did the urban halls where everybody was hanging out and stuff. I started going out. I started seeing them on the back roads and having a great time. I started taking pictures. I found something very special about them. I found out, I’m also a big history buff. I found out that these halls, as much as I love music, these halls were the one most important facet of keeping Texas music alive. They’re the ones where the music was born in Texas. They were raised. They were incubated. Many times the color lines were crossed in these dance halls, long before they were in the communities.
They shared different types of music genres were played in them. Now a lot of times too, they were very segregated, but the musicians themselves were almost always the first ones to cross those color lines. They heard things from other cultures and put it into their own music. In Texas we’re proud to say that we’ve got a lot of indigenous music, what we call conjunto music. It was kind of born there in Texas. It was when the Germans came over with their accordions. The tejanos then picked up the accordions and adapted and started a new genre of music in conjunto. Western swing was also a melting pot of styles from blues to jazz, country to swing and, therefore Bob Wills and Milton Brown then invented what we call western swing.
We also have tons of other kinds of music. We have tons of different halls and these musicians all these years would go from hall to hall to hall. What I found out also is that many times the halls in the concentrated areas were only a horse ride, day ride away each other, which translated to about 25 or 30 miles. In some counties you’d go 25 or 30 miles and there’d be a new dance all. I talked to a fellow one time, I also have under managed three dance halls in Central Texas. I was in Swiss Alp Hall which is on the cover of that magazine back over there. I was talking to an older fellow. He was well into his 60’s.
He was looking around like he’d been there before. I asked him, I said “what you looking at?” He said, “man I’ve been in this hall before.” I said, “really?” I said, “when was that?” I think it was about 1951 or so. He had been playing in these halls since the 40’s. He had told me, we did an interview, he lived in Lexington, Texas and all his life as a musician, his profession was a musician. He played sometimes as many as four or five nights a week in the early days. He never really traveled more than an hour and a half, two hours away from his home, so he could always drive back home. That’s how thick and that’s how many that we had in Texas at one time.
Now today we have a lot of problems and that’s what they were talking about; to help get around these problems and maintain these halls and keep these halls alive. There’s still a lot of them in Texas and things are changing. There’s some good, some bad, but the music is the one thing that is always at the center of the core of these dance halls. That’s what we really want to maintain. Sometimes late at night I see the advertisements, Louisiana and all of a sudden you see, come to Louisiana from your tourist department. What is there? There’s craw fish and there’s accordions and I want to go.
It makes me want to go. It’s very important that Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, it’s tied to music. That’s where people from Russia and China and Japan, or whatever, if they’re coming, even from Michigan or whatever. They come, because we have something very unique in these states and the number one thing is music. Food is another. Just our culture. People know about the Texas culture all over the world. People know about the Louisiana culture all over the world. It’s very, very important that we somehow retain these halls and this culture and this history and talk about it if we’re to bring tourism dollars into these states.
It’s probably the single most, certainly being from my point of view, the single most important thing that we have to bring tourists in. It’s a clean industry. It’s fun. If you ever get a chance go to Texas, go on the website TDHP. Find out some of the places that nearby where you’re going. Go to a dance hall. You go in and you step on these dance floors, you see those windows are open. Beautiful air is coming in. There’s great music. There’s food and there’s fellowship. There’s people. There’s families. There’s multi-generational. Like Pat talked about over here, I guess you all in Louisiana are just a lot meaner or something, I don’t know.
Back where we are when music was involved there was never any problems. There’s not any fights. They were family. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say, “well you know I learned how to dance with grandpa on his feet.” A little girl dancing on their feet, that’s how they learned to dance. It was multi-generational. It was family. That’s what we want to keep and make sure that is a part of this whole dance hall situation, that it’s family. We just didn’t have the fights, because a lot of times to these were secluded as Patrick talked about. These were secluded towns many times, and if the Johnson boy over here started a fight, not only would Mr. Johnson whip his butt, but everyone else in the whole community knew what was happening and he was ostracized for the next week or two, because everybody knew everybody.
Everybody took care. There’s a thing called community and that’s what it was all about. A lot of times these halls were community halls. They were multi-purpose. What happened was after they were built for many times, the dancing and the music took over as the primary object in these dance halls. There was a golden age. Now we’ve got social media. We’ve got TV’s. We’ve got cars. We’ve got big cities. A lot of people have moved off into the big cities for their careers, for college, families. We’re also seeing the resurgence of people now moving back towards the halls and the old ways and getting out of the big cities and stuff.
We also see a lot of people getting married either at a nearby church or inside a hall, and having the reception in the hall. That’s a big business model that’s happening now. People love that idea. People that have grown up in Texas, but don’t necessarily wear boots every day of the week. All of a sudden their wedding dressing is on and they’ve got boots on. They’ve got hay bales over here back behind the preacher and stuff. As Dan talked about there’s lots of different ways we can help with these halls. There’s also a very big problem and what I see is probably one of the biggest problems in the Texas Dance Halls, is that a lot of the times the people that started with the halls or have possession of the halls become older.
They don’t want to change. Well you know I don’t like change either. I really don’t, but in order to keep a business afloat you do have to change with the times and you have to involve the young people. You just can’t have 60-year-olds all the times having dances by the same 60-year-old band, and expecting your sons and daughters that are 40, and then your grand kids at 20 to be coming in and listening to grandpa’s music. It ain’t going to happen. Sometimes it does, when like me, I’m a retro guy. I like that old music and stuff, but most people don’t, so you really have to adapt and you have to introduce the youngsters into the halls and let them start having their events.
Let them bring their bands in and stuff. A lot of these older people don’t want to do that, so that’s a big problem. Be sure and involve the youth. Get the youth involved. The older generation they’re very slow to accept social media, and so therefore you try to find out who’s playing, well how do you do that? Well you’ve got to drive 60 miles to the hall just to find out who’s playing or if nobody is playing. There’s one particular hall that I called one time. Now we have the Texas Dance Hall Preservation, there’s a whole place that you can go to look and see who’s playing and stuff. I called this one hall that was down in San Antonio.
I need to get a list of everybody that’s playing. He said, “we don’t like your type.” It’s like, I’m trying to help you. You don’t like our type. He didn’t want to talk to us, because I was an outsider. I wasn’t there every week picking up the little thing that said who’s playing next week. The older people really need to adapt. Of course they called us a year later and asked us for our help, because they needed sprinkler systems and wanted to raise money. All of a sudden our type is all right. Again, I can’t stress about how instrumental these halls were in forging the Texas identity, particularly with music.
There was also a lot of these halls, these Germans, these Czechs, these early settlers brought a way of life with them, it was a joyous life. It was a hardworking life. Many of them came over and worked very, very hard to get where they were. Many of them died along the way. Then you get a day to relax, a day to celebrate, to cast off all their work, all the hard toils that they’d had. Generally they had Saturday night. They had a barbecue. Of course in Texas we’re very famous for our barbecue. That is something else that the dance halls part of the culture. As Patrick talked about, the architecture. Many of them were adapted to the harsh Texas landscapes.
They were changed. They brought a certain type or style of architecture over here and they had to adapt it to the heat, and to wherever they were to Texas, to make it work. A lot of times too, not only to keep banging on the older people, but all of a sudden when air conditioning came in the 50’s everybody wanted air conditioning. What they do is they clog up the windows and they put in these window units. All of a sudden they completely change the whole atmosphere of the dance hall. I at Swiss Alp which is a great example, nothing was ever built around it. Nothing was added on the side. You open up all the windows, July evenings in Texas which are probably the hottest in the country is still very nice most of the time.
Maybe one time a year is it hot in there. You go and get some big industrial fans, you can buy at Home Depot or something. Get that moving if the windows aren’t working or whatever. If you’re having a good time dancing, you’re going to sweat. What’s a little sweat you know? I’m very against adding this whole air conditioning, heating into which also becomes a very big expense and a maintenance situation. The other thing about adding kids or the youth to it, is that with the music, you need crowds. In order to keep these dance halls open, you need crowds. You really need to find out who’s popular. Who’s going to bring the crowds to your dance hall.
You really have to reach out to the youth to find that out. Again, you can’t be playing the same band 20 years, 30 years, all times. You really need to get the kids involved with the new. I’m not saying change the character of the halls. I’m not saying that. I’m saying just like a wedding, just like anything else, you add that to the mix. You adapt a little bit. I’m still a big fan of having, you know I’ve seen Clifton Chenier. I’ve seen Michael Doucet. I’ve seen Nathan Abshire. I’ve seen these guys. You want those guys in your hall too, because that’s the history, but they hand that history off to younger, other types of western swing artists and Cajun artists and stuff too.
Then they bring that up. You really need to just promote it. Make sure using social media you get it out there and you adapt. You bring in variety. You use all different kinds of ideas, but you really try to keep the history intact, the integrity intact in these halls. Don’t change them up. Don’t start knocking holes in it. Don’t start building stuff on the other side where the wind can’t come through or whatever. Try to make it family oriented. The last thing you want is if you become fight oriented, then people are going to run. People don’t want to go somewhere where it’s known to be troublesome all the time.
Everybody thinks well they’re drinking out there, so they’re going to fight. Well, you know what that’s not true. The Germans and the Czechs have been drinking for 5000 years. They drink probably more than most of us, but they take care. They don’t get in trouble. They don’t fight. Music I think is another thing that brings people together. I’ve seen it in Austin all my life. I’ve seen it at these dance halls where music is happening. People don’t fight. It’s fun. Everybody is having a good time. If you eat, you dance, you’re with your family and your friends, then you’re going to have a great time. Man you step on those floors, with those windows open, and that music going and the smell of barbecue.
There’s nothing like it. Nothing like it the world. More and more as it gets promoted with TV, social media and what not, more and more people will embrace it. I think we have a bright future with it, but you do need to plan ahead as Stephanie says. You have to be smart with your money. You have to adapt. You have to bring in other fresh ideas, involve the youth and just enjoy and preserve these very, because we’re special in Texas and Louisiana. We’re actually very similar to each other. You all have Cajun, Zydeco and Jazz. We have western swing, hillbilly, jazz. We have barbecue. You all have etouffee.
We have a good time, don’t we? Do you ever go to a dance and people aren’t having a good time? We’re very similar. It’s very similar ways to keep these halls alive and make sure that they are a part of our history and our culture. Maintain them and maintain the identity that are too. I think the two richest states in the Eastern United States culturally are right here in Louisiana and Texas. I think it’s impertinent and it’ll be almost damn criminal if we lose any more of these halls, it’s that important for our identity and our tourism. For us to continue to have a good time.
Dance halls in Texas, as in Louisiana, are iconic structures and institutions that have played important roles in their respective state histories and cultures. From the earliest stages of settlement, halls in Texas and Louisiana alike have made foundational contributions to their states’ remarkable musical legacies in a range of popular forms and genres, from western swing and zydeco to country, rhythm and blues, and jazz. As social institutions that have been crucial to the development and popularization of regional musical styles that have gone on to national and international importance, dance halls have been central to the creation and transmission of both Texas and Louisiana cultures.
For over fifteen years I have photographed, archived, and collected dance-hall related materials, and have worked to raise awareness about them, generally aiming to promote and preserve the halls themselves, as well as their history and culture. By giving talks, playing music, and displaying some of these images, I hope to educate listeners about the history and wider cultural importance of dance halls, explaining how dance halls connect us to our past and why we should work to preserve them into the future.