by Julie Catalano
Ready to kick up your heels? These historic Texas dance halls promise a nostalgic trip to the past and a real good time in the present.
The slogan for Texas Dance Hall Preservation, Inc. is darn near perfect: “Saving Texas dance halls one two-step at a time.” It’s a catchy phrase with a serious message. The state’s 400 dance halls (down from 1000) are not quite in danger of extinction, but they could be if steps aren’t taken to preserve these historic structures.
It’s not just about the buildings, says president Deb Fleming, although they are treasures in their own right. Dance halls represent significant living history, often telling the stories of entire generations that continue to this day. “European immigrants built dance halls as social and community centers. They really were the heart of the community.”
Many still are, and for thousands of Texans and others, dance halls remain a big part of their social lives. To those who’ve never set foot in one, Fleming says, “You’re missing the essence of what Texas really is, and what it was. If you like Texas history, architecture and music, dance halls are about all of this and more.” So saddle up, put on your dancin’ shoes and check these out!
2390 Anhalt Road
Interior photo by Patrick Sparks, exterior photo by Deb Fleming
James Schmidt is one of the directors of Germania Farmer Verein, a German Farmers Club that was established in 1875 as a social and benevolent organization. In 1887 they built a meeting hall and named it “anhalt,” which either means “stopping place” in German or refers to a region in Germany.
More than a century later, people are still stopping by for the public dances held every third Saturday of the month. Schmidt is a proud fifth generation member of the verein, with a great-great grandfather who was a charter member, a father who served as treasurer for almost three decades, and two sons who just signed up “so they are sixth generation members.” You can usually find Schmidt working the bar at the dances, when “a fairly good variety of people attend. We’ve got a good core group and every once in a while we’ll get some new people out. Most of them love the place.” The stunning architectural feature of the 60×30-foot hall is the bowed ceiling, with rafters that seem to go on forever. The hall received its historical marker from the Texas Historical Commission in September.
The fests — Oktoberfest and Maifest — are the big draws, says Schmidt, held every year on the third Sunday in October and May, a tradition that actually pre-dates the hall. “Those have been going on for 140 years,” he says. “Maybe longer. We serve a full German-style pot roast/sausage meal from noon to 7:00pm or when the food runs out.”
1281 Gruene Road
Photography courtesy of Gruene Hall
For Gruene (pronounced “green”) Hall, it’s all about location. “We’ve been lucky,” says proprietor Pat Molak. “We’re almost halfway between Austin and San Antonio, two minutes off I-35, and right on the edge of the Guadalupe River.” With Gruene now part of New Braunfels and much of it on the National Register of Historic Places, the area is a true Texas destination drawing folks from all over to eat, drink, and yes, dance. “We usually have five different acts a week,” adds Molak, “and on Saturday and Sunday we have bands during the daytime. There’s music every day.”
Molak bought the 6,000-square-foot dance hall forty years ago in 1975. Nothing much has changed, he says, since it was built in 1878. “The floor still creaks, the screen door still blows in the wind, it’s got that charismatic ambience. The first time Merle Haggard saw it he said, ‘Boy, I bet it sounds great in here.’ Just walking in, you know it’s the real deal.”
Other artists apparently agree, as the hall has delighted visitors with concerts by Emmylou Harris, Chris Isaak, Pat Benatar, Jerry Lee Lewis, Aaron Neville, Lisa Marie Presley, Lyle Lovett, James McMurtry and hundreds more.
“At first we didn’t know what we were doing,” says Molak, chuckling, “but it’s continued to prosper. There’s a lot of tourists in Gruene these days.”
1135 FM 3351
Photography by Jennie Trower
Built in 1903, Kendalia Halle is a perfect architectural example of the type of German halls built in Texas around the same time. The hall is constructed of metal and Oregon red fir lumber that made the journey to Boerne by train and then by covered wagon to Kendalia.
But it’s the floor that’s the real star, says Judi Temple, co-owner of the hall with husband Lee who bought the hall 20 years ago. “It’s really two floors, one built in 1903 and one in 1950, so it’s real cushy when you dance on it.” Dancers — often at the mercy of unforgiving concrete underneath the wood — seem to appreciate what some call one of the best dance floors in the state.
A major renovation involved straightening the hall using a pulley to move it 12 inches and reinforcing the foundation. Other modifications included interior wood paneling and an insulated roof to help beat the summer heat.
Dances are on the second Saturday of every month, and attract crowds of all ages — and their kids and grandkids, of course (no charge for children 11 and under except on New Year’s Eve). Admission includes their popular brisket, chicken or sausage tacos. “Many have been coming to dances here since they were young,” says Temple. “People get to see their friends, enjoy their families and dance.”
Luckenbach Dance Hall
412 Luckenbach Town Loop
Photography courtesy of Luckenbach Dance Hall
There’s no place like Luckenbach, and if you haven’t been, the dance hall is as good a reason to go as any. It was built sometime in the 1880s, and that’s all that manager of operations Bobbi McDaniel can say. “I honestly don’t know when, because nobody seems to know that.” No matter. People are too busy having fun hanging out, drinking a cold one and listening to music that seems to go on seven days a week.
“We have a Friday night dance usually every week,” says McDaniel, who adds that the hall has been in continuous use since it was built, including the impromptu “performances” when a pickers circle or an itinerant songwriter or a jam session finds its way into the hall. “When the weather gets nasty or raining we’ll move everything into the hall. It gets used all the time.” In 1973 the hall was used by country-rocker Jerry Jeff Walker who recorded his “Viva Terlingua” album surrounded by hay bales (for sound baffles) after writing songs all day in the small, cramped saloon.
The hall itself is “in beautiful condition,” says McDaniel. “The dance floor looks brand new but it’s 100 years old.” The year’s biggest draws, dancewise, are the Luckenbach Christmas Ball and the Luckenbach Hug-In and Valentine Ball. “I think our history is unique,” says McDaniel, adding goodnaturedly: “We argue with Gruene all the time about who really is the oldest in Texas.”
Sisterdale Dance Hall & Opera House
1210 Sisterdale Road
Photography by Allison Jeffers
“Gorgeous” is the first word that comes to mind when viewing the Sisterdale property that was once a public dance hall and is now exclusively a private special events venue. But there’s more to this mid-1800s dance hall than a pretty face. “We are on the National Historic Register,” says manager Rhonda Gillikin. “We just got our marker up in September and our monument is up, telling about the historical value of this property. That means if I have a board that needs replacing, I have to buy a board that is 150 to 180 years old.”
It also means that for “brides looking for something rustic with a true Texas feel, that’s what we provide. We are authentic.” And rustic doesn’t mean primitive, either. “When the owner bought this in 2007 he poured a ton of money into it for upgrades that would accommodate up to 300 people.” Part of that went into heating and air conditioning. “We’re one of the few dance halls that are completely climate controlled.” In addition to weddings, the hall is available for holiday parties, corporate events, and of course, private dances.
One future goal is to take the hall back to its early roots as an opera house, at least part time. “We have a beautiful stage,” says Gilliken, “with the original mural and original hand-painted advertisements from the 1800s. We hope to bring opera back to the hall soon.”
Twin Sisters Dance Hall
6720 US-281 South
Photography by Willard Gibbons
“Built by German immigrants in the 19th century” reads the Twin Sisters Dance Hall website. And that’s as close as they can get to the age of this historic hall. “We don’t know the exact date it was built and are trying to research it now,” says Jo Nell Haas, president of Twin Sisters Hall Club, Inc., the membership club that owns the hall. “It’s crucial because we are working on getting our historical marker.”
Dances are held on the first Saturday of every month, with a rotating roster of local bands and musicians from Dripping Springs, New Braunfels and Blanco. Alternating bands means drawing in a diverse crowd and hopefully some new visitors. Then there are the tried-and-true favorites. “We had Jake Penrod here in August and it was phenomenal. He’s your traditional two-step country artist and people loved him.” The usual crowd, she says, is everyone from “little bitty babies to six-year-olds learning to dance, the middle aged, to grandparents.”
Haas’ earliest memories growing up around Twin Sisters are happy ones. “It was fun because that’s where you learned to dance and to meet boys.” She hopes to dispel some myths about dance halls being all about bars and drinking. “These are family places that tell history. I love the personal stories of people, children growing up here. When we took our kids, if they fell asleep we’d put a blanket under the table and they were safe. It still happens all the time.”
For more information, Texas Dance Hall Preservation, Inc, www.texasdancehall.org.