A line of people decked in cowboy hats, cowboy boots, jeans and skirts spills out of the double doors of Fair Pavilion Hall, a 1925 white-clapboard community center in La Grange, Texas. Voices and polka music filter into the cool evening air, punctuated by the dull thunk of boots on wooden steps. On nights like tonight — a cool, cloud-cobbled Saturday — hundreds of dances used to take place in halls just like this across the hills, deserts and cities of Texas.
Inside the hall, the eight-piece Texas swing band Asleep at the Wheel walks onto the stage, led by frontman Ray Benson — a tall, deep-voiced guitarist with a white beard, a white blazer and a big hat, plus a personality to match. The band begins to play old classics, such as Don’t Fence Me In, (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66, and Waltz Across Texas. The keyboardist bobs his head, and his long hair waves to the rhythm as Benson’s voice bellows into the night.
Sitting at tables lining the perimeter of a scuffed dance floor with exposed rafters overhead, people tap their feet and bounce their knees. Couples sift out onto the floor as if heeding some migratory instinct. The shutters are opened up to let in the air, fans start whirring and a dancer takes a break to dab her forehead. To my surprise, a cowboy wearing a beige hat, a pink shirt, and a five o’clock shadow asks me to dance.
“I don’t know how to two-step,” I say.
“I’ll teach you,” he says, offering his hand. I take it, and we are off, swaying back and forth down the dance floor. I laugh as I scramble to match his shuffling feet. Around us, couples turn into a blur of sparkly tops, swishing skirts, Concho belts and cowboy hats. Some of the old folks dance cheek to cheek, barely moving to the rhythm. A mother and her hip-high son bounce across the room. I feel klutzy, but I love being surrounded by two-steppers, welcomed into this tradition by immersion. As the band wraps up the song, the knot of dancers loosens, and I thank my partner.
“We grew up playing dance halls, and so many of ’em are gone,” Benson says from the stage before starting up the next song. “And this one is so gorgeous … Y’all have a great time dancing tonight and spread the word around.”
Between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, Texans built as many as 1,000 dance halls…