Dance Hall Days
ONE MAN. ONE THOUSAND TEXAS DANCE HALLS TO SAVE.
Iconic, uncertain, irreplaceable. These three words can describe many objects that live only in our memories. Texas dance halls, unfortunately fall into these categories. We are talking about real, mostly wooden dance halls that our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents danced and played music in. Halls served as meeting places for those farm-bound singles to find a future husband or wife, or a place to reminisce about meeting that special person years before while dancing to the sounds of their favorite music.
The state of these halls has been captured in Dance Hall Days, a new documentary by Erik McCowan, an independent film maker specializing in Texian culture.
What began in 2014, as a collaboration with author Steve Dean to document the story of a few Texas dance halls, developed into an 85-minute film featuring 56 halls. The film makes its world premiere in Denton, on Sat., Apr. 21 at the Thin Line Film Fest, a festival showing documentaries only. Five days later, Thurs., Apr. 26, the film will be shown at the Hill Country Film Festival in Fredericksburg.
A film festival is the “cream of the crop” of films chosen from a crop of entries by a jury of professionals and are shown over a multi-day period. After the film is shown, the director or actors present hold a question-and-answer session with the audience.
HOW IT WAS
In the mid-1900s, there were hundreds of dance halls spread across the Lone Star State. Rural life was different then, there was no such things as “weekends.” Folks went dancing on any given night of the week, as farming and ranching was a seven-day-a-week job. Mondays were a favorite day to get married and go dancing. The small communities that served the halls were located close enough to keep travel time to a minimum. Transportation was still four-legged in some places, however people still needed a place to gather and collectively release the stress of daily life and dance halls served that purpose.
Some dance halls were built by the community and run by volunteers; some were privately owned, usually by a local saloon or general merchandise store owner, while others were built by fraternal groups either for religious, health, or ethnic reasons.
As the rural lifestyle and cultures diminished, so did the communities and dance halls that served them. Some halls were torn down and the lumber reused, some became hay barns, some just fell down or burned from neglect. "A small percentage of them remain in use and have become iconic of a past life of the surrounding area," Erik said. "There are halls whose future is uncertain, they just need some caring people to rejuvenate them. One thing that can be agreed upon: they are irreplaceable."
Steve Dean's book Historic Dance Halls of East Central Texas shares this theme. Steve has not only danced in the halls, but has sought them out to chronicle the missing and preserve the halls whether they are deserted or still active. Steve became a circuit-riding missionary bringing the word to the people that these remaining temples of Texian culture need to be saved.
Erik likes to chronicle that which makes Texas unique. His last feature film chronicled the town of Cuero and its mascot, Ruby Begonia, the World’s Fastest Turkey. Erik has also completed a short film on the annual Schützenfest in Round Top at the German Rifle Hall, the Schützen Verein. The fest is a target-rifle competition with the winner being crowned king (könig), and then a dance is held in the hall. This and other fraternal events (singing and exercise) were very common events held at verein (klub) halls in German communities throughout Texas with direct links back to the Old Country. Erik has captured on film a vanishing piece of Texian culture.
Erik stepped up to the plate and offered Steve a vehicle to help promote the saving and restoration of dance halls with a video showing the importance of them in Texian’s lives. Armed with a new camera, maps, and contact information, Steve and Erik set out visiting dance halls and their caretakers. What first started with a dozen or so halls, soon turned into several dozen, and eventually 56 dance halls are shown in the film.
"The devotion and love of these halls shone through as all the folks connected as either a musician, dancer, or caretaker. They spoke reverently of the halls still in operation or sadly of the memories of those gone, and the importance to the community they all served," Erik said.
For you polka fans, the film includes clips of the Ennis Czech Boys, Alex Meixner, The Round Top Brass Band, The Jodie Mikula Orchestra, Jerry Haisler & Melody 5 with Alice Sulak on sax performing in dance halls, and The Joe Patek Tribute Band performing live at the Sanford Schmid Amphitheater. For you Country & Western fans, Jody Nix, Mike & The Moonpies, and Kevin Fowler make appearances. Lavaca and surrounding counties 1970s favorite, Kross Kountry, has a fun part in the film.
"I'd like to thank Chuck Ramsey of Texas Dancehall Radio and the Texas Polka News for their continued support for this project," Erik said. "And I welcome anyone interested in helping support this worthy endeavor to contact me." Just like dancing the Cotton Eyed Joe on a wooden floor, the more the merrier. Also, contact Erik if you know of a venue with film capabilities that could show the documentary. For more information: Erik McCowan: 512-718-8677 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Denton’s Thin Line Film Festival website is http://www.thinline.us.The Hill Country Film Festival website is hillcountryff.com.