Saving local dance halls

Effort being made to preserve historic halls, lively traditions

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In the days before television and the Internet took the attention of people away from traditional social interactions, dance halls used to flourish across Austin County and all of Texas.

The social media of the day was typically included a singer and a band.

“There are only about 400 dance halls left in the state out of about 1,000,” said Deb Fleming, executive director of Texas Dance Hall Preservation, a 13-year-old nonprofit organization. “About 25 percent of those are at risk.”

Fleming, along with dance hall enthusiast and retired Austin County Judge Carolyn Bilski, is gauging interest in holding a fundraising dance locally early next year to both help raise funds and awareness to preserve dance halls and also to promote interest in social dances.

“I don’t think anybody realizes what a treasure we have in these dance halls,” Bilski said.

The Austin County Historical Commission in 1993 published a book entitled “Dance Halls of Austin County.” It records that the county had 45 dance halls, of which only 26 remain.

Of those 26, some are well known, such as Liedertafel Hall in Sealy, the Turnverein in Bellville, and the Cat Spring Agricultural Society Hall. Others are popular gathering places that are not necessarily dance halls but are often associated with dances, such as the San Felipe Town Hall, the American Legion halls in Sealy and Wallis, the VFW Hall in Bellville, and the Knights of Columbus halls in Sealy and Wallis. Bilski counted eight remaining round halls, such as Liedertafel and Turnverein.

Some of the halls lost to history include The Frydek Pleasure Hall (Svinky Hall), Die Halle in Industry, the Sealy Opera House and Club Rendezvous in Sealy. The opera house was built in 1897 and was destroyed a few years later in a storm. Club Rendezvous was built in 1936 on the outskirts of town. It later became a restaurant and in 1993 was replaced by the building that is now Tony’s Family Restaurant.

Fleming and Bilski said there is a lot of work to be done to not only preserve and restore many of the dance halls, but also the tradition of dances.

“If we don’t get the younger people into these halls that’s going to be the death of them,” Fleming said. “We’ve got to go down to the elementary school age. When you get to high school it’s too late, you’ve lost them.”

Texas Dance Hall Preservation got its start in 2007. In 2015, Fleming, who had been a longtime volunteer, was elected president of the board of directors. One of the first things she did was expand the board to include more professionals in areas of law, public relations, real estate, architecture, and historic preservation.

Two years later the board hired Fleming as the executive director, the agency’s only paid staff member. TDHP co-founder Steph McDougal was brought back to the board and became president.

This year, TDHP has broadened its vision to include not only preserving dance halls but also emphasizing the role they continue to play in the life of rural and urban communities. To learn more, visit texasdancehall.org or find Texas Dance Hall Fans on Facebook.

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