Despite their importance and longevity as cultural institutions in the history of the state, dance halls are a relatively overlooked and under-researched category of Texas vernacular architecture. These structures, which initially functioned as multipurpose community halls in the 19th century before they became primarily associated with dancing and popular music in the 20th century, have played a fundamental role in the development of both rural and urban Texas communities, identities, and cultures.
In the mid-to-late 1800s, as European settlers immigrated in large numbers to what is now central Texas, dance and multipurpose halls were often among the first structures raised in new settlements. Hundreds of these halls established spaces in which to develop the new communities’ cultural institutions and practices—spaces intended for the sharing and shaping of ideas, labor, sports, fellowship, cooperation, and celebration. The German, Czech, Polish, and other Central European immigrant groups that dominated this period of settlement had a powerful desire to reproduce and maintain their cultural heritages, from language and foodways to vernacular architectural styles, and this desire is reflected in the functions and styles of the halls they built.
In design terms, the larger free-standing dance halls of Texas are often impressive buildings, built in an indigenous style that developed in the 19th-century settlements. Their design is related to but distinct from—and often significantly larger than—the barns and churches that were likewise derived from related Central European vernacular traditions. As Stephanie White notes in “Dance Halls of Central Texas,” these halls are “built diagrams of an architecture determined by climate, by dancing, by local builders.” They appear in a variety of forms, from grand wooden square and rectangular structures that hold several hundred, and impressive multi-sided halls (having anywhere from six to twelve sides), to lodge halls, commercial ballrooms, and modest honkytonks situated along highways and built from the simplest of materials.
Common notable features of the larger traditional wooden structures include cooling devices such as wall shutters and ceiling or canopy vents (e.g. Gruene Hall, 1878; Kendalia Hall, 1903); elaborate latticed trusses supporting the large roofs (e.g. Bellville Turnverein, 1875; Gruenau Hall, 1900); and a general emphasis on the wide, flat space required for dancing and large community events. Often halls developed over time; a packed-earth dance floor in the open air was commonly succeeded by a raised wooden platform that was later covered to form the final dance hall structure in its complete form (e.g. La Villita Hall in San Benito, c.1920– 60s).
Culturally, dance halls have played a central role in the evolution of Texas music in all its variety. They served as incubators for the state’s rich culture of popular music styles beginning with 19th-century European-style brass bands and early string and polka bands. These European-derived styles blended with 20th-century styles spurred by radio and the recording industry, which emerged from the state’s Tejano, black, and Gulf Coast or Cajun ethnic cultures. Throughout their history, Texas dance halls have thus provided an essential context for the development of state, regional, and national musical genres from Western swing and country to jazz, blues, Conjunto-Tejano, Cajun-Zydeco, and rock 'n' roll.
Author Steve Dean is co-founder of Texas Dance Hall Preservation Inc.
Austin-based architect Krista Whitson, AIA, set out to document the Texas dance halls. Her beautiful black-and-white images were featured in “Dance Halls of Central Texas,” an exhibit at The University of Texas School of Architecture Membane Gallery in the Spring of 2004. The exhibit was funded by a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
This article is expanded content for Texas Architect magazine, September/October 2013.