The Czech origins of America’s dwindling Dance Halls

Somewhere in Texas tonight, someone is two-stepping across the hardwood floor of one the state’s numerous Dance Halls. But for how much longer? As much a part of the Lone Star State’s identity as cattle drives and Friday night football, Dance Halls, built by German and Czech immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, are now threatened with extinction. dance halls origins

Fighting for their preservation, Erik McCowan, director of the fascinating documentary Dance Hall Days, organises Dance Hall tours and road trips across Texas to help bring music back to these community icons which have too often fallen silent.

Thanks for taking the time Erik, could you start by telling us what are the origins of America’s famous two-stepping Dance Halls and why are they so intrinsically linked to Czech communities?

Here in Texas, we had a sizeable migration from Czech and German areas in the 1850s. Many were escaping political hostilities in their home countries and decided to try something new. They heard of Texas and how the climate was similar to that back home so they gave it a shot, landing in Galveston and spreading into central Texas.

Once they settled communities, they built schools, churches, and community halls in which citizens could conduct business and hold events. Naturally, traditional Czech bands used these facilities for showcases of their music. That’s how these venues became the state’s first music halls allowing bands to tour from town to town, since every Texas city worth anything had a hall people could dance in. Since then, the legend has grown.

How important were they in the building of local Czech communities and how influential are they today?

You can think of the halls as an incubator for society. They could host elections, fraternal meetings, places to gather for discussions on farming practices. There were no telephones in the late 1800s, so people had to meet up somewhere to discuss important matters, and the halls were the natural spot. Some halls, like the SPJST lodges in Texas, were organized around insurance policies for members to take care of funeral expenses down the line.

Today, many of those halls still stand as community icons. A lot are used for weddings, which is a big money maker for some, since public dances are rarer than they have been. But you can also find them as spots for birthday parties and reunions, similar to what they were used for over a century ago.

Why were they particularly prominent in Texas and the “Oompah Belt”, a musical region with roots in 19th-century Czech settlements?

 

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