Saving Texas Dance Halls, One Two-Step At A Time Texas was once home to an estimated 1,000 dance halls — a legacy of the European immigrants who poured into the state in the 19th century. Half of the halls are now gone, and many that remain are moldering away. Enthusiasts say the best way to save the halls is to dance in one.

Saving Texas Dance Halls, One Two-Step At A Time

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Now let's come back across the border now, to the dance halls of Texas. We're not talking about roadside honky tonks, but historic dance halls built by Europeans immigrants in the 19th century. Many were abandoned over the years. Others still exist. And now, there's a movement to get Texans dancing again. NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT: In the old days, it might've sounded like this. On some chilly Saturday night in a little, German farming town, you'd walk up to a barn-like wooden party house, open the door, and music would gush out like water from an artesian spring.

(Soundbite of music)

It's estimated there were as many as 1,000 traditional Texas dance halls in the 1920s and �30s. Today, there may be 500 left, mostly in rural areas, mostly decaying through lack of use.

Mr. PATRICK SPARKS (President, Texas Dance Hall Preservation Inc.): The best thing we can do is get people to dance. You can save a hall by dancing, you know. That's what will do it.

BURNETT: Patrick Sparks is a structural engineer and president of Texas Dance Hall Preservation Inc.

Mr. SPARKS: My view is that the dance halls are the most Texas thing there is. You get a look back at 19th century Texas, and the European immigrants who came and formed such a strong part of our character.

BURNETT: Sparks is sitting in the courtyard of the newest crown jewel of dance hall restoration, Sengelmann Hall in Schulenburg, between Houston and San Antonio. It features the original longleaf pine dance floor, cast-iron Corinthian columns, a mahogany bar, and 10-foot-tall front doors.

Sengelmann Hall was built by German settlers in 1894, then closed during World War II. And it had not been danced in for more than 60 years when Dana Harper bought it. He's a Houston artist and scion of a Texas oil fortune � which is how he could afford the million-dollar restoration.

Harper says most people in town remember the ornate, red-brick building as a Western Auto store.

Mr. DANA HARPER (Artist): And when I would meet locals down at Frank's Restaurant or different cafes, they would ask me what I was doing and I'd say, well, I'm restoring the old dance hall downtown. And they'd say, what dance hall downtown? I'd say, you know, the old Sengelmann Hall. They said, well, we don't know what you're talking about. And so I'd bring them down here, and they would just be amazed.

BURNETT: Texas dance hall builders were chiefly Czechs and Germans who migrated here from the 1830s through the end of the 19th century, looking for freedom and cheap farmland. Dana Harper's wife, Hana, happens to be from the Czech Republic, and when she came to Texas, she recognized her own dance hall tradition.

Ms. HANA HILLEROVA (Harper's wife): I mean, I grew up in Prague, but always we would go to the country. And there are dance halls both in the cities and in the country that were built by benevolent societies of citizens who wanted to get together and play music, drink beer. And it's still the same here.

(Soundbite of music, "Honky Tonk Blues")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Well, I left my home down on the rural route. I told my pa I'm going stepping out and get the honky tonk blues�

BURNETT: Moravians and Alsatians, Hessians and Wends stepped onto the wharves at Galveston, and spread out across the Blackland Prairie and into the juniper-covered hills to the west. They built tall-steepled churches and brought with them their love of polkas and dancing and beer.

Senior editor John Spong wrote about dance halls for a recent cover story in Texas Monthly magazine.

Mr. JOHN SPONG (Senior Editor, Texas Monthly magazine): You would have, in an area in the Hill Country, a German hall, an Alsatian hall, and then two or three Czech halls. And so that'll be five places in one little community of maybe 750 people.

BURNETT: Today, they're state treasures � the few that are still operating, like Gruene Hall, Anhalt Hall, Luckenbach Dance Hall, and the Quihi Gun Club and Dance Hall.

The reopening of Sengelmann Hall last summer has revitalized downtown Schulenburg, formerly known for its drive-through liquor store and gun shop under one roof.

Leo Kopecky is a former mayor and downtown bar owner.

Mr. LEO KOPECKY: (Former mayor, downtown bar owner) Our heritage here in the small towns, especially the Schulenburg area, is that we grew up in dance halls, you know. There was nothing else to do when we were kids back in the early '50s and '60s. It's a revival, really, of an era past. And I think it's a wonderful thing for Schulenburg.

(Soundbite of music, "Waltz Across Texas")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) As the stars in your eyes, I could waltz...

BURNETT: As the preservationist says, the best way to save a dance hall is to dance in it.

John Burnett, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music, "Waltz Across Texas")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Waltz across Texas with you in my arms. Waltz across Texas with you. Like a storybook ending...

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