Though dance halls were once a thriving part of Texas culture, the beloved spaces have dwindled in recent years. But as long as there's Texas music there will be folks fighting to preserve dance halls. Ray Benson, a legendary dance hall performer and Asleep at the Wheel frontman, is leading the charge to protect these century-old institutions and he's doing it with a waltz and a two-step.
Asleep at the Wheel is teaming up with Texas Dance Hall Preservation, Inc. for a Fall 2017 Texas Dance Hall Tour, which will take place Oct. 26 through Oct. 29. Dale Watson, Bruce Robison, Kelly Willis, Jamie Lin Wilson, the Derailers and Amber Digby will join the Texas swing band on the tour. The tour will help raise funds to provide assistance to dance halls in need of maintenance and repair.
"We have a saying in Asleep at the Wheel: 'If you dance you've got a chance, fellas'," Benson says. "If there's no more dance halls, where would people go to dance? You need two-stepping music -- waltzes, the two-step, the Jitterbug, Cotton Eye Joe, Schottische -- these are all traditional dances. If you don't have music you can't do the dance."
Benson says the first time he played a Texas dance hall it felt like coming home.
"People understood the music that we were playing and reacted by dancing," Benson says.
Over the course of Benson's career, he's seen the number of Texas dance halls fall from about a thousand to fewer than 400. That's due in part to populations shifting from rural areas to larger cities.
"They were in small towns," Benson says. "These are rural farming communities and the kids went out and went to school, got jobs and left the area."
Benson says dance halls helped make Texas music what it is today.
"These are the places where Asleep at the Wheel, George Strait, Willie Nelson, Ray Price and hundreds of other Texas acts started their careers and learned the ropes," Benson says. "The dance music is different than a concert. Folks had to play music that they can dance to and that creates really versatile musicians that played numerous styles."
The dance hall "land cruise" will travel to the Garten Verein in Galveston, Peters-Hacienda in Sealy, Cat Spring Agricultural Hall in Cat Spring and Bellville Turnverein in Bellville.
Many Texas dance halls were built by immigrant craftsmen from German and Czech communities who wanted to create a gathering spot for families.
"A bar or a honky tonk in Tennessee, you wouldn't take your kid," Benson says. "But in Texas dance halls, that's what it's all about."
Certain daytime packages for the Texas Dance Hall Tour include hotel accommodations and transportation to and from all dance hall concerts. Attendees may also purchase "Independent Traveler" packages that include general admission to all four concerts.