Music and movement get a twangy twist in hundreds of dance halls, honky-tonks and concert venues throughout Texas. We scoot boots in New Braunfels, two-step in Goliad, swing dance in Dallas and gape at country-western giants in the hot spots of a one-of-a-kind dance hall culture.
Want a true blast of Texas culture? Turn to that most essential art form: dance. The state has a rich heritage of dance halls, many of them built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which served as concert venues, social hubs, family hangouts and training grounds for the best boot-scootin' in the world. We learned the steps, one happening hall at a time.
If you want to see a star being born, pay a weekend visit to New Braunfels.
There, in the oldest continually run dance hall in Texas, you might just find the next Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams or Ryan Bingham. Those artists and countless others got early-career boosts playing Gruene Hall, a roots music stronghold that's equal parts quaint and quintessential.
We got a taste of that ineffable Texan-ness the moment we stepped inside the 6,000-square-foot space, which dates to 1878. The old hardwood floorboards creaked with every step, the roof's side flaps let in air to cool our sweat, the patio offered rest and the inside bar accepted only cash. Some places simply refuse to heed the march of time.
Yet Gruene Hall is refreshingly of the moment. Its brimming online concert calendar reads like a who's who of legends and rising stars in country, blues and Americana music. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard have graced the stage, young singer-songwriters like Bob Schneider check in often and superstars like Chris Isaak and the Dixie Chicks rack up prestige points by playing intimate sets.
Regional flavor makes it an even more attractive stop. The hall serves as a community hub and a great way to mingle with the locals. You might find yourself at a Sunday-morning cowboy gospel brunch or a nocturnal romp courtesy of rockabilly band Two Tons of Steel. We caught them on a Tuesday night, part of their summerlong series, and with the help of pre-show Texas swing dance lessons, we moved as the Texans do. Or at least nobody told us otherwise.
In the town of Goliad (population 1,976), two hours equidistant from San Antonio and Houston, you can join a frolic like no other.
Schroeder Hall, founded in 1890 and billed frankly as the “second-oldest dance hall in Texas” is a bright spot on the Texas country music circuit, where a more outspoken, irreverent, down-home style of music prevails. Think Lone Star beer, neon bar signs and winking songs about the ex.
Every week, Texas country stalwarts take the stage at the 5,000-square-foot hall and perform raucous sets. Young upstarts such as the Josh Abbott Band, Aaron Watson, Whiskey Myers, Cody Johnson and Stoney LaRue circulate through Schroeder, and the crowds hoot, holler, sing and stomp along.
That honky-tonk vibe is common, but other nights offer more traditional sounds better suited for two-stepping. Schroeder's reserved seating option ensures you have a spot to rest during dance breaks, the hardwood floors are easy on the feet and huge all-ages crowds delight in that quick-quick, slow, slow waltz. We caught Jake Hooker and the Outsiders, whose finger-plucked upright bass and lilting strings played us to a spent, satisfied post-midnight closer.
Changing the Steps
By no means are there only two dance halls in the state, nor are they all measured by their age.
In Helotes, just outside San Antonio, we found John T. Floore’s Country Store, a deceptively named hall opened in 1942 that hosted Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Willie Nelson in its early decades. It offers free family fun and dance nights on Sundays, regular concerts and a café with down-home country food and barbecue.
For something different, we stopped at Dallas' Sons of Hermann Hall, a historic venue that features an eclectic mix of country, indie rock, bluegrass and blues Friday through Sunday nights. But the biggest draw is Wednesday evening, when swing dancing takes over and the patrons flip, twirl and ankle-shake with the gusto of a bygone era. We took the beginner's dance lessons at 8 p.m. and frolicked till midnight.
Dozens of halls and honky-tonks are scattered across the state, featuring something different each time out. Whether you're a listener or a participant, music and dance are a special way to get to know anyplace on the globe. It's no different in Texas—just a whole lot more fun.
John T. Floore, founder and namesake of the beloved Helotes dance hall, helped Willie Nelson get his start. A looming man who stood six-foot, five inches, Floore partnered with the now-legend in the original Willie Nelson Music Company, and was even immortalized in one of Nelson's songs, 1973's “Shotgun Willie.”