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Photo Essay

In appreciation of two-stepping, boot-stomping history in Central Texas

Photo by Charlie L. Harper III
Austin Photo Set: News_Karen Brooks_Dancehalls_two stepping_July 2011_spin

ALBERT, Texas - My toes fit snug inside the cowboy boots I’d inherited from my grandfather. I tapped them in time to the music, on a shiny wood dance floor, as I searched the rafters in vain for the air conditioner in this breezy, ninety-year-old building I found myself in one recent Saturday night.

It was easily in the 90s outside, a sweaty Saturday night after an oppressive day of heat. But inside historic Albert Hall, the temperature was cool and inviting, the air moving easily between the two-steppers and promenaders, lifting curls and hemlines and spirits.

In and out, round and round, slow, slow, quick-quick slow.

A young guy in a trucker hat pointed to the yawning front door the size of my living rom wall. A gust of wind blew past the silver-haired volunteer collecting admission and out the heavy wooden windows that stood wide open along every wall. “There’s your air-conditioner,” he said with a friendly chuckle.

And so it was. Right where it had been since this beloved, historic dance hall was built in 1922 outside Stonewall. That was long before central A/C, and the hall was built to draw in the clean, delicious air of the Hill Country to keep the dancers, their families, and the band cool on those steamy Texas nights.

It was no wonder that the kids, who have since grown up into reminiscing great-grandparents, had slept so well on these wooden tables, buffeted by the comforting breezes and the sounds of their Mamas and Daddies dancing the night away nearby.

Back when people traveled in horse-drawn wagon to two-step in a dance hall until dawn on Saturdays.

Back before the halls shuttered at midnight, before the late-night dance scene began to feature a lot of controlled substances but not a lot of real substance.

Before the historic dance halls of Texas became something to rescue and preserve, not simply enjoy.

And heck - before people judged you for taking your kids to the bar and letting them sleep on the table.

Hunter Magness and Susha Dore do some twirls on the dance floor at the Broken Spoke on a recent Thursday night. 

Photo by Charlie L. Harper III
Austin Photo Set: News_Karen Brooks_Dancehalls_two stepping_July 2011_leanback

Some 400 dance halls have been identified in Texas by the state’s historical commission, dating back to the late 1800s. Half of them aren’t dance halls anymore; many are abandoned and rotting at the end of rural roads. The vast majority of them are in Central Texas - some as famous as Luckenbach (est. 1887) and Gruene Hall (est. 1878), while others, like Sisterdale (c. 1884-90) and Anhalt (est. 1875) are mainly known to just the enthusiasts.
 

And they are known, of course, to the kids who grew up in them - sleeping behind the chicken wire at one end of the dance floor at the Kendalia Halle, built in 1903 near Blanco. Snoozing on the corner tables at Club 21 in Uhland, known as the longest continuously running dance hall in Texas before it burned down in a fire in October 2010 - 117 years after it was built.  Dreaming away in bliss while their parents kicked up their heels to the crooners on stage, the Hammonds and bent notes and fiddles and stand-up basses.

Kirk Buchner dips his friend Kim Moyer on the dance floor at the Broken Spoke in Austin, one of the city's premiere night spots.

Photo by Charlie L. Harper III
Austin Photo Set: News_Karen Brooks_Dancehalls_two stepping_July 2011_gruene

A group known as Texas Dance Hall Preservation is working to preserve what few would argue is a living, breathing part of Texas cultural history. At one point, Texas boasted at least 1,000 of these now-historic structures. In Central Texas, they were mainly built by the Germans, a lot of them farmers' co-ops. Go further South, closer to San Antonio, and the twangs turn into Tejano and conjunto - the dance halls around there have largely Latino roots.

The dance halls are colorful, unique, romantic and mysterious. With few exceptions, they're roomy structures with vaulted, exposed-beam ceilings, A-frame structures (usually, though not always). They have broad wood floors, seating around the edge of the floor, open wooden windows along the side, built for cross breezes. Some times they're on stilts; some have beer gardens or icehouses. The paint is peeling on a few; others are fairly buried in tourism and kitch. They are there purely for the purpose and celebration of Texas music and Texas dancing. And you know them when you see them.

Built in 1922, the historic Albert, Texas dance hall is a gem, tucked away outside Stonewall.

 

Photo by Charlie L. Harper III
Austin Photo Set: News_Karen Brooks_Dancehalls_two stepping_July 2011_floor

People still go to the Quihi Gun Club dance hall in Hondo a couple nights a month. Built on stilts by the Germans around 1890, it was initially constructed as a defense to attacks by Indians.

Some have names that are witty and mysterious, like the 12-sided Cat Spring Hall in Austin County. Others are more lyrical, like Harmonie Halle (est. 1880) in Shelby. Plenty have pasts that are still not completely unraveled. The Double Bayou Dance Hall in Chambers County was originally built in 1920, but then was destroyed by a storm and rebuilt somewhere else in 1946. Researchers at Texas Dance Hall Preservation still haven’t confirmed where that initial location was.

And some, like Albert, are alive and kicking -owned by a generation of young adults who are determined to keep the tradition alive. People like Dallas native Brad Easley, 30, who bought Albert with his father a couple years ago and restored it. Easley sold ranch real estate before getting involved with Albert Hall, which became a full-time job when it was supposed to be a hobby. That's fine with him. "But who wouldn't want to re-do a historic, traditional Texas dance hall?" the tattooed Easley, who lives in Austin, said with a jovial grin as he drank beer with the regulars at the nearby Albert icehouse. "It's a dream come true." When Texas recently named Western Swing the official music of Texas, lawmakers did so in a beautifully written resolution, SCR 35, that was a tribute to the Texas dance hall culture in which it thrived.

“A key to the appeal of this spirited music is its exceptional ability to get people dancing,” the resolution reads. “This quality, too, is evocative of Texas, a state in which dance halls have historically been central to the social life of its communities; today, the foot-tapping tempo of western swing continues to be heard all across our state, with countless Texans repeating the time-honored steps that have been kicking up sawdust on Texas dance floors for generations.”

On a recent Saturday night, Albert Hall was hopping to the sounds of the Sam Bentley Band.

 

Photo by Charlie L. Harper III
Austin Photo Set: News_Karen Brooks_Dancehalls_two stepping_July 2011_waiting

DIFFERENT WORLDS, SIMILAR PLACES

A member of Generation X who spent my early years on the West Coast, I can say my equivalent of the sleeping-on-the-table-while-parents-partied memory was putting up with a grumpy child care worker at the bowling alley my 20-something parents frequented on league nights.

In turn-of-the-century Texas, though, children like Ellen Maenius Felps - and many a generation before her - spent their childhoods at dance halls like Albert Hall, giggling into her Daddy’s neck as he swung her around into the wee hours before gently laying her down to sleep until the sun came up.

That’s why Felps grew up to have her wedding reception there in the 1960s. It’s why she now, at age 70, volunteers five nights a week at the dance hall - even though it’s been decades since the brief periods her family had owned it. It’s why she cuts short a conversation with us because “I think this is the last song, and if it’s the last song, I’m going to be dancin’.”

And one wouldn’t be blamed for believing that Albert Hall might be a reason this tiny, laughing little woman is still in the place where she was born and raised, just down the street in Stonewall.

Kyle Goertz takes a break in front of the Texas flag at Albert Hall.

 

Photo by Charlie L. Harper III
Austin Photo Set: News_Karen Brooks_Dancehalls_two stepping_July 2011_couple2

An hour or so in the other direction, you’re hard pressed to hear those stories at the Broken Spoke (est. 1964) in Austin on a Thursday night - one of the more popular nights for the hipsters to put on their boots and show off their moves.

I’ve never met anyone who slept on tables at the Spoke. At least not when they were children. In fact, on the nights when my crowd goes, I usually only meet people long enough to dance with them.

Contrast that with Ellen Maenius Felps, who gave us her life story in about 30 seconds. Before she knew we were writing about her.

The Spoke crowd averages about 25 years younger than it does in some of the rural halls, and the girls - with their short bangs and sparkly boots - are as fashion forward as they’d be if they were strutting through downtown Manhattan.

Royce Buesing and Lynn Dworsky kick up their heels at Albert Hall. The two are friends, and danced together with their spouses' blessing - following the dance hall tradition of switching dance partners throughout the evening. 

 

Photo by Charlie L. Harper III
Austin Photo Set: News_Karen Brooks_Dancehalls_two stepping_July 2011_band

There are some terrific dancers and some of the lowest ceilings south of the Mason-Dixon line. They sell shots, which is a rarity at rural dance halls (though you can often bring your own liquor) and the beer is more than the $3 you’ll pay out in Kendall County.

In many ways, it is a long way from the rural halls with their open windows and outstretched arms. In many ways, they are the same place. You get the impression that the Spoke is as trendy as it is historic, but the focus remains on the dancing. It has shades of meat market, and it has shades of see-and-be-seen. Mainly, though - and this is HUGE in a city known for its nightlife - it is all about the dancing. Really, really good dancing.

The wide-open windows let in the cool breeze at Albert Hall on a recent Saturday night.

 

Photo by Charlie L. Harper III
Austin Photo Set: News_Karen Brooks_Dancehalls_two stepping_July 2011_floor2

Just like the folks in Albert, and at Twin Sisters in Blanco (est. 1870), and at Schroeder Hall in Victoria (est. 1890), the young hipsters at the Spoke really did come here to dance.

The Broken Spoke, in this way, reminds me of my footwear, which have more than a few two-steppin' miles on them. Young people and old dance hall are just like my grandfather's boots on my Generation X feet. For such an unlikely pairing, they are a perfect match.

Just ask Ellen Felps. Are dance halls dying out? She'll shake her head emphatically, give you a big loud "No" and a huge smile, and then off she'll go across the narrow wooden planks, heading to her next promenade.

After all, this could be the last dance. And if it is, she's going to be dancin'.

Gruene Hall, with its open-air dance floor and huge windows, is a great place to drink some beer, listen to some music and take a spin on the dance floor on a hot summer afternoon.