Confession: When I first played in a Texas dance hall, I didn’t get it.
Everyone ignored the band. I was used to being on stage in clubs and bars where the band was the show; the dancing was incidental. This was the opposite.
Ray Benson, founder of Asleep At The Wheel, laughed when I shared that observation with him during a phone interview.
“I’ll tell you a story, too,” Benson said. “In 1992, we did a tour for the 66th anniversary of the song ‘Route 66.’ We went from Chicago to LA, playing all along the way. We were in Amarillo, and these friends of mine had started a new band called Brooks and Dunn. I went on their bus after the dance and the band went, man, what was wrong? Nobody clapped. I said, were they dancing? They said, yeah they were all dancing. I said, that is considered clapping in Texas dance halls.”
Benson experienced the same “revelation” when the Wheel first hit the dance hall circuit.
“We were living in the Bay area of California,” he said. “In California, when we were playing they would stare at us and appreciate what we were doing. Playing in Texas is a shock to musicians who are used to concert shows.”
Benson is now celebrating that dance hall zeitgeist, leading this year’s Texas Dance Hall Tour, a four-day event starting Nov. 1 with dance lessons at Gruene Hall, followed by dances at Quihi Dance Hall in Hondo and Twin Sisters in Blanco, and concluding at Albert. Asleep at the Wheel will perform at the opening and closing concerts.
Preserving Texas dance halls is a cause Benson believes in. I’ve written before of the status of iconic Texas institutions. As a drummer with the Bill Smallwood band, I saw the downturn in the 1980s, as drunk driving laws became stricter, as more home entertainment options such as satellite TV and video became available, and as people in rural areas began moving into cities.
Today fewer than 400 of the more than 1,000 original halls remain, but Benson is optimistic.
“At this moment they are on the radar of people as an endangered species,” he said. “Dance halls are so much a part of Texas, and I think people are understanding that. As we become more homogenized, as more people move to Texas, I think they want to become Texans. And the best way to become Texan is to go to a dance hall, and learn the Schottische and the Cotton-eyed Joe.”
Most of the funds raised at this event will help support The Texas Dance Hall Preservation, an organization dedicated to maintaining both the buildings and the culture of dance halls. Benson compares the effort to the one that helped save many one-of-a-kind movie theaters in small towns.
“I see all the old theaters that were shuttered, and all of a sudden people went, oh my gosh, look at these beautiful old theaters! Why are they turning them into retail department stores? These are parts of American and Texas history and we need to keep them. So hopefully that’s what will happen with our Texas dance halls.”
As for this show, it will appropriately reflect the original purpose of the buildings.
“It’s a dance,” he said. “It’s just a dance. We’ll play Johnny Bush, Ray Price, Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, George Strait, and Asleep at the Wheel. We’ll play the shuffle, the waltz, Cotton-eyed Joe, and the schottische.”
One thing they won’t play is the Paul Jones, that dance hall staple that involved exchanging partners every time someone blew a whistle.
“We used to do the Paul Jones, but that caused so many fights we had to stop doing it,” he said with a chuckle. “And I don’t have a whistle. And of course you have to do Put Your Little Foot and the Bunny Hop.”
If you come expecting an Asleep At The Wheel concert, you do so at your own risk.
“When we start playing, there are always a few that sit around the edges. But they know better than to stand in front of the stage and get in the way of the dancers.”
The Texas Dance Hall Tour runs Nov 1-4.
Thursday, Nov. 1 — Asleep at the Wheel at Gruene Hall in Gruene.
Friday, Nov. 2 — Johnny Bush and Heybale at Quihi Dance Hall in Hondo.
Saturday, Nov. 3 — Dale Watson and Brennen Leigh at Twin Sisters Dance Hall in Blanco.
Sunday, Nov. 4 — Asleep at the Wheel with Sophia Johnson at Albert Ice House in Stonewall.
Tickets and information for the tour at texasdancehalltour.com
Information on historic Texas dance halls at texasdancehall.org.
Phil Houseal is a writer and owner of Full House PR, www.FullHousePR.com.
Contact him at email@example.com.