Somewhere in Texas tonight, someone is two-stepping across the hardwood floor of one the state’s numerous Dance Halls. But for how much longer? As much a part of the Lone Star State’s identity as cattle drives and Friday night football, Dance Halls, built by German and Czech immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, are now threatened with extinction. Fighting for their preservation, Erik McCowan, director of the fascinating documentary Dance Hall Days, organises Dance Hall tours and road trips across Texas to help bring music back to these community icons which have too often fallen silent.
Thanks for taking the time Erik, could you start by telling us what are the origins of America’s famous two-stepping Dance Halls and why are they so intrinsically linked to Czech communities?
Here in Texas, we had a sizeable migration from Czech and German areas in the 1850s. Many were escaping political hostilities in their home countries and decided to try something new. They heard of Texas and how the climate was similar to that back home so they gave it a shot, landing in Galveston and spreading into central Texas. Once they settled communities, they built schools, churches, and community halls in which citizens could conduct business and hold events. Naturally, traditional Czech bands used these facilities for showcases of their music. That’s how these venues became the state’s first music halls allowing bands to tour from town to town, since every Texas city worth anything had a hall people could dance in. Since then, the legend has grown.
How important were they in the building of local Czech communities and how influential are they today?
You can think of the halls as an incubator for society. They could host elections, fraternal meetings, places to gather for discussions on farming practices. There were no telephones in the late 1800s, so people had to meet up somewhere to discuss important matters, and the halls were the natural spot. Some halls, like the SPJST lodges in Texas, were organized around insurance policies for members to take care of funeral expenses down the line. Today, many of those halls still stand as community icons. A lot are used for weddings, which is a big money maker for some, since public dances are rarer than they have been. But you can also find them as spots for birthday parties and reunions, similar to what they were used for over a century ago.
Why were they particularly prominent in Texas and the “Oompah Belt”, a musical region with roots in 19th-century Czech settlements?
It was easy to travel from town to town for a band to perform because every little community had a hall. Towns in Texas are about 15-20 miles apart, which is about a days horse ride away. Many were built along rail lines, each stop serving as a watering service for the locomotives, so there’s that, too. You have to understand that Texas is a musical state, built on immigrant tunes. People liked to have a good time and to hear the band from two towns over. When the automobile came along, it made it easier to get to far-away halls, but originally, every town had to have one if they intended to be a stop for touring family Czech or German bands.
How well is the tradition of dance halls, polka and two-step passed on to younger generations? How is it received by “millennials”?
Everywhere I go, people tell me stories of learning to dance by standing on the shoes of grandpa as he led them across the floor. Two-stepping is the more popular dance across the state, but rural kids brought up in those heritage areas do learn how to polka and waltz. I’ve seen it, and it doesn’t appear to be fading away as some fear. Less than before, sure, but youngsters like to dance and always will. I’ve seen dance halls packed wall-to-wall on summertime “teen nights,” with kids just ready to dance. Now, the country beat that they like might have changed up a bit from old-school country and definitely from polka beats, but they are still there to have fun. And if they meet the right people, they will learn to polka and all of the traditional dances so that they can be versatile. Dance halls will always be here, be it the old wooden variety that I’m appreciative of, or the modern metal-built structures that are easier to maintain and construct. But whatever the case, the younger generation has a respect for their elders, which these dance halls are. They are like grandpa and grandma.
In today’s world, economic, social and cultural factors tend to dissipate traditions. How has this been affecting the Czech Halls and communities across the States?
Here in Texas, I’ve seen outsiders welcomed into these cultures when they marry in. But, I fear that we are just a generation away from the memories of the elders becoming only that which is seen or heard of in museums or books. It’s easy to maintain tradition because of tradition’s sake, but what is the deeper meaning? You have to maintain that deep tradition to remain relevant, and some of these halls are with their annual Maifests and Oktoberfests. Some still maintain their yearly shooting competitions, well over a century old. And the SPJST halls are still there and they still function as fraternal insurance lodges, though on a reduced basis. But the halls have been getting a lot of attention in the media lately, bringing awareness to their struggles. That seems to be helping.
Could you tell us a bit more about these traditional shooting competitions which are so foreign to us here in Europe?
The shooting contests come from the old countries. It’s a tradition. Back in the day, members would gather to target practice in order to keep their guns working and themselves trained so that they could hunt for food. This turned into a social situation, and at the contests, a king, or schützenkonig, would be crowned each year, the man with the best aim. The events are called schützenfests, and the clubs schützen vereins. The Round Top Rifle Hall has doing this for over 140 years. On their target, a rooster pops up when a member hits a bullseye. A lot of these are still “men only,” but a few have started to allow women to shoot as well. It’s just a good old tradition and the members usually have a feast after the contest where they celebrate the new king on a job well done. It’s quite the scene.
You mentioned media attention, but what else can be done to save these Dance Halls?
Visiting them is the best way to save them. Last Sunday I attended an annual picnic at an old hall. Spending money directly with them through their fundraisers or occasional dances is the best way to support them, period. You have to make an effort to not only spend money there but to make an appearance and support the cause. This isn’t just a charity that you can just send money to, you have to attend and participate for them to stay relevant. The halls live by people continuing to live in them.
Can you tell us what motivated you to make Dance Hall Days and what was your experience directing it?
I was motivated by a fellow named Steve Dean, who was active in Texas cultural music and dance hall preservation. He asked how hard it was to make a documentary on these halls before they all disappeared, and I had a camera and enjoyed the dance hall scene, so I agreed to take on the project. In doing so, I was introduced to all kinds of culture – Czech and German – that I had no idea existed so deeply through these halls. I am a Texan, but did not have roots in those societies, so I didn’t know. But after diving in and being welcomed by every single one of them, I have a huge appreciation for their existence. It was a delight to direct and research for the film, and I am continuing to do so for future projects, and I am eternally grateful for their existence. They are as Texas as Texas gets.
You also organise Dance Hall tours. What would be, in your opinion, the one must-see Dance Hall for anyone visiting Texas?
You have to see Anhalt Hall, west of New Braunfels, because it is so big. It’s one of the oldest and the crew over there, German in origin, take pains to keep it going. And, they have monthly dances. It’s a beautiful space with curved arches supporting the roof and one of the smoothest dance floors you’ll find. But I have to throw in Sefcik Hall up near Temple. It’s a rare two-story hall, with a beer joint downstairs and the hall upstairs. When you walk in, it is that “step back in time” phrase that gets thrown around too freely. Except here, it’s true.
So where are you planning to go dancing this weekend?
This weekend I might actually be in one of those newer halls with the concrete dance floor. But a couple of weeks away I’ll be at Cat Spring in their agricultural hall, which will be hosting their 163rd annual June Fest. It’s a rare round or multi-sided hall over in Austin County that is just awesome to sit and look at. It’s an architectural marvel.
For more information about the Dance Halls of Texas, please check out Erik McCowan’s website and Facebook page and don’t forget to visit these cultural marvels when going through Texas before it’s too late!