The Treasured History of Texas Dance Halls and the Fight to Save Them
There’s nothing like the sounds of a dance hall: the sound of a steel guitar, the soft notes of a violin, boots dragging on worn floorboards. The Texas dance hall the environment is pure nostalgia, wholesomeness and excitement rolled into one. Older couples who have been dance partners for decades showing they still have it to twirling children delighted to be up after bedtime by kicking sawdust and copying their parents’ dance moves , Texas dance halls are for everyone.
As a kid growing up in Texas, dance hall culture was a big part of my upbringing. Although Urban cowboy (released in 1980) may have changed our idea of what the Saturday night starter scooter should look like in Texas, my earliest memories of a Texas dance hall are from small towns, like John T. Floore’s Country Store in Helotes and Gruene room in New Braunfels. These family gathering places promise to advance dance hall culture for new generations to enjoy, but old buildings need to be maintained and preserved to endure.
Early Texans Needed a Place to Host a Party – So They Built One
Dance halls in Texas began as community gathering places, event spaces, and places to hold a party. Not all of these spaces have been continuously used as dance halls since their construction. Senglemann Hall in Schulenberg was a Western Auto and bakery and also sat vacant for a while. Albert Dance Hall in Albert opened in 1892 but spent 30 years as a grain warehouse before being revived for its original purpose.
The dance hall culture of Texas holds a prominent place in history because it is so intertwined with Texan-German heritage, especially in the Texas Hill Country which was settled by Germans in the 1800s. over time, German music evolved and blended with folk music, country music, and Tejano music. The merging of sounds from various cultures is a huge piece of Texas history.
Notable dance halls in Texas
There are approximately 400 dance halls currently standing in the state of Texas. Few are open every day. Some are open seasonally, on weekends, or for the occasional community dance. Some Texas dance halls can be rented for wedding receptions and other special events.
Dance halls are spread throughout the state, but the largest concentration of dance halls in Texas are in the Texas hill country, east of San Antonio and Austin. Popular dance halls include Gruene Hall, Albert Dance Hall, Kendalia Halle, John T. Floore’s Country Store, Twin Sisters Dance Hall, Neon Boots (formerly Esquire Ballroom), and Crider’s Rodeo and Dance Hall.
Want to find a Texas dance hall and enjoy it firsthand? Discover this interactive map on the Texas Dance Hall Preservation home page and find one (or more) to visit.
Century-old buildings need maintenance
Although Texas dance halls are a thing of the past, they are not a thing of the past. The preservation of dance halls becomes increasingly important as these buildings age. Many dance halls in Texas are over 100 years old. Without proper care, these historic places can fall into disrepair. Maintenance and upgrades cost money, often money that owners don’t have. According to dance hall general manager Michael Miller, the wooden floors of the Albert Dance Hall have not been renovated since 1922. The antique floors and antique plumbing and wiring may have a certain nostalgic charm, but none of these things is commercially practical, safe, or durable.
Texas dance halls are quite varied. Some are solid brick while others are more rustic wood and corrugated iron structures. A 100+ year old building in use in 2022 requires preservation and maintenance to continue. Some of the more rural dance halls that don’t bring in as much revenue are struggling. The recent pandemic has only contributed to these struggles. Business owners had to pay many months of utilities and insurance to keep their businesses going during a time when community gatherings were limited or even absent altogether.
“Preserving the Texas Dance Hall is a worthy undertaking to help ensure that Texas cultural traditions involving music and community continue to thrive,” said Daniel Rosen of John T. Floore’s Country Store in Helotes. “At Floore’s, we try to stay relevant in today’s musical landscape while respecting the history that has brought us to where we are now.”
The decline of the dance hall – why did it happen?
Most dance halls started out as Saturday night gathering places in rural Texas and small towns. When the highways were built in the mid-20th century, these small towns were often bypassed. As educational and employment opportunities changed, more and more people left these rural communities and gravitated towards the big cities.
Interest in dance halls resurfaced in the 1970s when Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings began singing about back to basics love in Luckenbach Texas, Put this size town in a blink of an eye and you’ll miss it on any country music lover’s map.
Preservation of Texas Dance Halls
There has been an ongoing interest in the preservation of Texas dance halls over the years. Part of the interest in preservation stems from the desire to protect historic buildings and have them listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Another interest in preservation stems from nostalgia and a desire to see places that we have loved over time and that new generations have enjoyed.
“Fredericksburg-area dance halls offer an authentic glimpse into the past when communities came together weekly for fun and fellowship,” Fredericksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau said communications director Amanda Koone. “The Albert, Texas and Luckenbach Texas dance halls offer great places to relax, listen to live music and connect with the community.”
There is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of Texas Dance Halls. Created in 2007, the Texas Dance Hall Preservation raises money for grants to distribute to dance hall owners for repairs and upgrades. They also received a grant from the Texas Historical Commission to create an online resource library for at-risk dance hall owners. Resources include information on how to qualify for a historic tax credit, criteria for designating a property as a state historic site, and information on various grants.
“Many of these (dance halls) were established over 100 years ago to be a community meeting place for the communities around them,” TDRP executive director Casey Jordan told Fox News 7 in Austin. “They are scattered throughout the state and many of them have remained a vital part of their local economy since their construction.”
According to TDRP, it costs up to $40,000 a year just to run a dance hall. Insurance, utilities, taxes and other operating expenses have to be paid just to keep the doors open and the lights on. This amount does not include renovations or upgrades to these old historic buildings.
One pandemic initiative was the Texas Dance Hall Relief Fund, which was a 40-day fundraising effort to help dance hall owners offset routine operational costs incurred when dance halls were closed during the pandemic.
A culture and a tradition to preserve
“I think going to dance halls will be a Texas tradition for a long time as long as these dance halls are cared for and preserved in a meaningful way,” says Michael Miller, General Manager of Albert Dance Hall. “Texan dance hall culture and music are extremely important to Texas history.”
“There is always a need for renovations, repairs and improvements,” adds Daniel Rosen of Floore’s. “We always strive to find modern solutions to improve facilities that have minimal, if any, impact on the unique historic atmosphere.”
Those who advocate the preservation of dance halls strive to preserve more than planks and beams. The people – their stories, their traditions and their music – have made Texas what it is today. Preserving the community culture that accompanies dance halls is more than just preserving a building.