by Phil Houseal
Dec 30, 2013
Stephen Dean is not really sure how many dance halls there are in Texas. He has only been to 800 so far.
It was fitting that I caught up with the chronicler of dance halls at one of those iconic places–Pat’s Hall.
“I say ‘800’ loosely,” explained Dean, co-Founder of Texas Dance Hall Preservation Inc. “There are a lot of different kinds of halls. Some were Legion halls that have been taken over by dancers on Saturday night; some might be tin buildings. But as far as historic turn-of-the-century halls like Gruene Hall, I would venture to say not even 20% are like that.”
The dance hall is quintessentially Texan, with most concentrated around Central Texas. As waves of European settlers arrived in Texas, they tended to settle into their own distinct communities.
“It seemed that a German or Czech family would stop and establish a settlement,” Dean said. “About 20 miles up the trail–a day’s ride by horse–there would be another settlement. They built their communities around culture halls, like farmer halls, shooting clubs, gymnasiums, turnvereins, or insurance fraternities. The main emphasis was to keep their culture alive.”
As anyone who grew up in Fredericksburg or one of those Hill Country communities knows, there was always dancing on Saturday nights, with a spring and fall festival built around agriculture.
I caught the tail end of the age of the dance hall while playing music through the 1980s. At that time, it seemed attendance and attention were both beginning to taper off. We blamed it on the tightening of open container laws, and the growth in home entertainment options. Dean traces the rise and fall of the hall back even further.
He sees the peak period happening when GIs returned from World War II. Through the 50s and 60s, other forms of entertainment and the fall in popularity of western swing and traditional country began peeling off attendance.
“While it might have taken a dip in the 1980s, I don’t know if it ever really went away,” Dean explained. “What happened is that people moved to the cities for jobs. The older generation kept control over the halls, and we just didn’t hear about them.”
Now, those who went to the cities are returning to their hometowns, looking for a better place to live. “They are saying, ‘I love this life, I grew up this way,’ and are reclaiming it.”
Dean followed a similar journey. As a youngster, his father owned barbecue joints, and Dean grew up listing to all the Texas music coming over the jukebox. When he turned 17, his parents opened nightclubs.
“I started getting my friends’ bands playing, collecting records, and writing about music,” he said. “Everything was music for me.”
Now it is also the actual buildings that draw him.
“As a child of the 50s, I am nostalgic about the craftsmanship, the pride in the way things were built. We are kind of losing that now.”
Through the Texas Dance Hall Preservation, Inc., Dean’s goal is both to preserve the halls and to raise awareness among a younger generation. The group holds monthly fundraisers at halls around the state. Funds are used to assess old halls by structural engineers and preservationists. Members are available to present lectures and host local benefits.
“We don’t want to let the halls deteriorate, so we are trying to get people to fix them up. We want to get them answers so they do it right and don’t ruin the integrity of the hall. Then we help show them how to promote and how to bring in a younger crowd, and get people to come back and have pride in the community again. It’s a big task.”
“I think the new generation of musicians are appreciating the past, their history, culture, and these dance halls. Once you get people into these older dance halls with the windows open and the weather coming in and people dancing on those hardwood floors to live music, there’s nothing like it. It’s kind of like riding the Ferris wheel for the first time.”
Does he have a favorite?
“Everybody asks that,” he said. “It’s kind of like asking who is your favorite child. I have 500 photos on my web site. Some are great for the locale; some for the actual architecture; some for what they have done with it; some for their age; some because they are strictly doing nothing but polkas. Each one has a different reason to love it.”