The Broken Spoke is a boot-slidin’ paradise, haunted by the ghosts of true country music, but don’t call it a dancehall. For starters, the joint on South Lamar Boulevard is a relatively young ‘un, opening in 1964. The majority of classic Texas dancehalls were built by Czech and German immigrants in the years between the Civil War and World War I to help keep their cultural identity alive. You know the Spoke is a honky-tonk, not a dancehall, because there are no foreign words on the walls like “Wilkommen” and “Verein.” There are no children standing on the shoes of their waltzing grandfathers.
“The feel of playing in a great old Texas dancehall is probably like a Little Leaguer stepping up to the plate at Yankee Stadium,” says country singer Pat Green, who wrote a coffee table book about dancehalls in 2009. “There’s so much history, yet as a fan, there’s such an intimate feel.” The walls of a dancehall are the arms that guide you in and show you around. The sole-polished wooden floors of places like Fischer Hall, 20 miles west of San Marcos, and Sefcik Hall, eight miles east of Temple, gleam and creak like reminders of the past, linking the dancers of today with a time when Texas was a land of immigrants.
From the time 16 Czech families landed at Galveston in 1852 until 1900, more than 15,000 Czechs lived in Central Texas, where they brought polka music and built halls like those back home, ranging from simple four-sided structures to spectacular 12-sided shrines. Germans, meanwhile, built similar halls in Fredericksburg, Comal County and, with Saengerrunde Halle, in downtown Austin. Founded by the fraternal orders, singing societies, gun clubs and agricultural organizations that still run them today, these halls were meeting places where such topics as life insurance and livestock protection were discussed during the week. And on Saturday night, the community danced. The halls were at the intersection of family life and single life.
It’s still like that the first Saturday of the month at Twin Sisters Dance Hall, a German-founded hall on U.S. 281, an hour’s drive from Austin. Although Gruene Hall, which was built in 1878, is often recognized as the oldest dancehall in Texas, Twin Sisters owner Marvin Haas is out to prove that his hall is eight years older. He’s hired a translator to go over the old records, written in German, to find evidence that Twin Sisters was built in 1870.
But none of this matters to the hundred or so who came out to dance on a recent Saturday. When the band opened with “Waltz Across Texas” – an anthem of Texas dancehalls if there ever was one – there was none of that first-song apprehension; the dancefloor filled instantly. There were old married couples dancing as they have been for 50 years, teenage girls dancing with each other, a mother showing her awkward teenage son, who never took his eyes off his feet, how to two-step.
It’s a world that Texans often take for granted, one that newcomers are delighted to discover.
“When my husband and I moved to Texas (in 2006), I was completely thrilled to see so many old dancehalls still functioning,” says Steph McDougal, a native of Dayton, Ohio, and wife of a NASA engineer. Before moving here, McDougal did not know a thing about the Texas dancehall tradition. Today she heads Texas Dance Hall Preservation Inc., a nonprofit organization she co-founded with music historian Steve Dean (RIP) and structural engineer Patrick Sparks.
“We all came to our love of dancehalls from three different perspectives,” McDougal says. While McDougal studied the architecture for her master’s thesis, Dean was in tune to the indigenous Texas music born in these wooden melting pots and Sparks was a dancing enthusiast who discovered dancehalls during his years at Texas A&M University in the ’80s.
The very personality of Texas music is to serve the dancers, which is why Bob Wills added drums and Ernest Tubb’s band had an electric guitarist back when such instrumentation was considered sacrilegious to the Grand Ole Opry crowd.
“We have all kinds of people coming to Sefcik Hall,” says Alice Sulak, 74, who carries a trace of a Czech accent. “But the one thing they all have in common is that they love to dance.” Her father, Tom Sefcik, built the hall along with the downstairs saloon in 1923. It remains virtually unchanged today, aside from the solid oak dancefloor that was installed in 1953.
It was inevitable that dancehall enthusiasts McDougal, Dean and Sparks would meet, but they didn’t officially team together until January, when DeWitt County’s Gruenau Hall, with its glorious hardwood maple floor and hand-carved rafters, burned to the ground. Insurance on the building would cover only one tenth of the cost to restore it .
“That was really the spark for us to start the nonprofit,” says McDougal, who says one goal is to document all existing dancehalls in Texas, then organize driving tours. “We want to promote dancehalls as active venues,” she says. “Some have become antique malls or are used to store hay. We’d love to see them return to their past glory.”
There is no trait as admirable to a true Texan, even one from Ohio, than keeping tradition alive.
The classic Texas dancehalls are treasures, and they’re buried right in your back yard. We all know about Luckenbach and Gruene Hall , the most famous dancehalls in Texas. And though it’s not technically a dancehall, Floores Country Store in Helotes is a fave way-back venue for the college country crowd. But there are several lesser-known dancehalls in the area which will make you feel like you’re stepping into 1956, or even earlier than that if a polka band is playing. Here are 15 classic hardwood havens, all built before World War II (and many before World War I), where you can get in your car and, in less than a 90-minute drive, transport yourself to a simpler, more innocent time.
(Many are open to the public only occasionally, so call first.)
1. Sefcik Hall, Bell County. Sefcik Hall has a downstairs bar that’s open nightly, but the real attraction is the upstairs ballroom, where regulars dance every Sunday night from 6 to 10 p.m. (Tonight, sax-player Alice Sulak’s band Jerry Haisler and the Melody Five play.) Just off Texas 53 in Seaton, eight miles due east of Temple. (254) 985-2356.
2. Buckholts SPJST Lodge, Milam County. Rebuilt in 1934, after bank robbers set the original SPJST Hall on fire to create a diversion, this octagon-shaped structure hosted all the big Texas honky-tonkers and Western swing guys from Ernest Tubb and Webb Pierce to Bob Wills in the early ’50s, when Taylor station KTAE used to broadcast live shows. The biggest attraction these days is ‘Hee Haw Night,’ coming Jan. 25. Former Texas Ranger Milton Wright leads a country and polka band, which plays around rural-themed skits. 600 E. Texas 36. (254) 593-2222.
3. Taylor SPJST, Williamson County. Downstairs is a bar where the men watch sports and the women play dominoes. Upstairs is one of the grandest banquet halls in the area, where many a wedding and quinceañera (sweet 15) party have taken place. These days, the classic country bands play downstairs. On FM 619, near Texas 79. (512) 352-9139.
4. Coupland Dance Hall, Williamson County. The former La Casa Grande Ballroom (circa 1936), which was built in 1904, is just 25 minutes north of Austin off Texas 95, but it’s a whole other world away. Featured in the films ‘Lonesome Dove’ and ‘A Perfect World,’ Coupland Hall is a two-stepper’s paradise. 115 Hoxie St. in Coupland. (512) 856-2226.
5. Kendalia Dance Halle, Kendall County. A German singing society built this 1903 hall. Gone is the chain around the oak tree out front, where drunk customers used to be restrained until they sobered up, but everything else is just about the same as it was back in the 1930s when oom-pah bands played on the weekends. Located 8 miles south of Blanco at the junction of RM 473 and FM 3351. (830) 833-4902.
6. Anhalt Hall, Comal County. The best dancefloor in Texas? This wonderfully preserved 1908 hall boasts 6,300 square feet of boot-polished hardwood. The original hall was built in 1875 by the German Farmers Association, who met to discuss ways to stop the horse and cattle rustling that had become rampant after the Civil War. It’s mainly used today for private parties and weddings, though there are big public dances the third Sunday in May and during Octoberfest. 2390 Anhalt Road off Texas 46, 28 miles west of New Braunfels. (210) 414-1477.
7. Twin Sisters Hall, Blanco County. Opened as a ‘gentlemen’s club’ in 1870, this hall on U.S. 281 South (14 miles south of U.S. 290) hosts public dances on the first Saturday of every month. (830) 833-4808.
8. Fischer Hall, Comal County. Originally called Fischer Store, this quaint hall was used for some of the live music scenes from the movie ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ in 1980. More prominently, this is where Adolph Hofner, one of the all-time great German band leaders, got his start. Located in Fischer, the hall is near the intersection of RM 32 and RM 484, about 20 miles west of San Marcos. Currently open for private events only, though the nine-pin bowling alley next door is open for bowling on Saturdays. (210) 935-4800.
9. Watterson Hall, Bastrop County. This is the cavernous hall where Charlie Robison’s band played during the obligatory country dancing scene of ‘Hope Floats.’ Tucked away in the farming community of Red Rock, about 15 miles south of Bastrop, this place is hard to find, but well worth the U-turns on FM 535. The address is 1179 Watterson Road. (512) 321-2010.
10. Kovar SPJST. You drive eight miles south on Texas 95 out of Smithville, then take a right turn where the sign says ‘Kovar’ and about half a mile down the road you start to feel like you’re part of a film-opening pan shot of rural reflectivity. There’s a cemetery next to one of those great ‘painted churches’ of the area. And then down the road is the Kovar SPJST (a Czech fraternity that translates to Slovanic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas), built by Czech Catholics in 1926. Kovar is one ghost town where the spirits are mighty strong. No phone.
11. Swiss Alp Dance Hall, Fayette County. Built in 1900, this spacious hall at 6940 U.S. 77, 10 miles south of La Grange, was reopened last year after 20 years. Country dances every Saturday night. (979) 247-4536.
12. Fayetteville SPJST. Built in 1897, this was the very first SPJST lodge in the state, and it’s kept up like a treasure. Public dances are rare, but it’s worth seeing, along with the rest of this quaint Old West town, if you’re driving to or from Houston on Texas 71 and you’re not in a hurry. Turn off at FM 955 and go five miles.
13. Braun Hall, Bexar County. Built in 1893, this Hermann Sons Lodge still has dances every Saturday night and most Sunday afternoons. (210) 588-9241.
14. Martinez Social Club, Bexar County. Founded in 1912 and pronounced ‘Martinis’ by most regulars, this club is open every day, with country music dances on Wednesdays and weekends. Take the Converse exit off Interstate 10, go three miles to FM 1346 and take a right. (210) 344-4747.
If you feel like driving a little farther….
* Cat Spring Agricultural Society Hall (Austin County), on FM 1094, 10 miles northwest of Sealy.
* Schoeder Hall (Goliad County), 15 miles north of Goliad on FM 622. (361) 573-7002
* Nordheim Shooting Club Dance Hall (DeWitt County), seven miles west of Yorktown on Texas 72.
* Round Top Schutzen Verein (Fayette County), just off FM 159, 18 miles northeast of La Grange.
* Quihi Gun Club Hall (Medina County), nine miles north of Hondo on FM 2676.
The most famous,
the most popular
* Gruene Hall (Comal County). (830) 606-1281
* Luckenbach Dance Hall (Gillespie County). (830) 997-3224
* Floores Country Store (Helotes). (210) 695-8827
– Michael Corcoran, 2008