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About an hour before the red double doors open on Wednesday evenings, cars are pulling into the gravel parking lot, and people head up the front porch steps of the Martinez Social Club.
Inside this dance hall and 9-pin bowling alley east of San Antonio, Kenneth Albers has arrived from his home in Falls City to collect the $10 admission. His dance partner, the club treasurer Barbara Dean, is posted at her desk in the corner. A country-western bandleader and part-time bartender are grabbing a quick bite to eat before setting up for the evening.
There, amid the anticipation and mid-week routine is the original wooden dance floor, a 107-year-old polished beacon of the boot-scoot, an icon of the classic Texas dance hall.
In fact, the wooden dance floor, usually the largest architectural feature, the raised stage, and benches lining the wall are the primary defining characteristics of a good dance hall, according to the nonprofit group, Texas Dance Hall Preservation, which is working to save the 400 or so historic dance halls remaining in the state.
Though the numbers of these historic halls have dwindled from more than 1,000, a quarter of them at risk for deterioration or demolition – the effort to sustain them in the rural areas where they were established at the turn of the century can be harder than learning a 10-step polka.
As people moved away from small towns and toward other kinds of entertainment readily available after World War II, the dance hall as the center of social life began to fade away, said Deb Fleming, executive director of Texas Dance Hall Preservation. Then highways and other development came along that bypassed towns or forced the demolition of halls. Others, left abandoned and vacant, fell prey to vandalism, fires, and water damage, she said.
For those still standing, such as the Martinez Social Club, public dances featuring live music are only one of the ways owners manage to keep the doors open and cover the hefty cost of maintaining a sizable, historic structure. Many also operate as rental venues, houses of worship, or antique stores.
“If you’re trying to use [the dance hall] as a business, to generate a revenue stream, you have to be creative all the time, keep your ear to the ground for what’s happening, and keeping the community engaged and supportive of it,” Fleming said. “If not for the multigeneration of families taking care of them, they would be gone long ago.”
Even modern dance halls struggle to keep up with the times. Owners of Cowboys Dancehall filed for bankruptcy last year, and though the 22-year run of Midnight Rodeo in San Antonio is still on, in other cities, the business has closed down. Selma’s Bluebonnet Palace was shuttered and sold, then relocated by its owner to a brand-new facility nearby that can accommodate bigger crowds.
This year, state lawmakers considered legislation (SB 1832 and HB 2806) to help music venues and festivals offset operating costs with a Texas music incubator rebate program. However, neither bill passed.
In and around San Antonio, however, a number of dance halls are alive and well, from the popular John T. Floore’s Country Store in Helotes to many lesser-known but no less beloved by fans of the country-western dance tradition.
Braun Hall, built in 1893 on the far Northwest Side, is one of those. The family-friendly hall hosts public dances every first and third Saturday of the month and boasts “one of the best-kept dance floors in the city.” Fleming’s organization maintains a database of such halls in Bexar and surrounding counties. Another on their list is Hermann Sons Lodge on North St. Mary’s Street downtown.
At Martinez Social Club, Albers works the door these days, but he’s been coming to this dance hall located near China Grove for 30 years. It’s the members that keep the place rolling, he said, and the fact that the club “has the best floor in Texas.” It also doesn’t hurt that Martinez is climate-controlled – many Texas dance halls do not have air conditioning due to the age of the buildings.
The hall is open to the public for dances on Wednesday and Sunday, and on the other days is available for rent. This time of year, it’s booked solid for graduation parties. A nine-pin bowling alley attached to the dance hall also brings in revenue, but not as much as the dance hall itself.
There are about 200 individual members who all know one another, “like family,” said Dean. They pay annual dues of $17 and get to attend the annual Christmas party at no charge.
Bands are paid a percentage of the door admissions, but Martinez competes with other local halls for the public’s attention. For that reason, Dean is careful not to book a popular band the same night as another area venue, such as Anhalt Hall in Spring Branch. On a Sunday, the usual crowd is about 200 to 250 people, ages 9 to 95, she said, and about 80 people on Wednesday nights.
“It can be tough some months, depending on what kind of crowds we get, and sometimes the weather affects us,” Dean said. “We’re trying hard to keep it up and keep it going, we don’t want the old dance halls to die out. It’s hard but we’ve got some good members who pitch in and help, and that’s keeping us above water.”
Martinez also is hosting a fundraiser July 14 to celebrate its 107th anniversary.
The Quihi Gun Club is a dance hall located west of San Antonio in the town of Quihi, where the population hovers around 100 and the post office closed in 1872. The club was established in 1890 along the Quihi Creek as a schuetzen verein (German for shooting club) but has been rebuilt following several floods.
Today, Quihi has 600 active members – men only, per the bylaws, who live in Medina County and are considered “upstanding” citizens. The $20 annual membership fee keeps the club going and also goes toward a family assistance fund drawn upon when a member dies.
Also as stated in the bylaws written more than a century ago, the club hosts two public dances a month, on the second and fourth Saturdays. Though the non-air-conditioned hall also is available for rent, that only happens a few times a year, said Kathy Muennink, wife of Clyde Muennink, who is club treasurer and secretary.
Volunteers step up to help with some of the maintenance on the stilted wooden structure framed by old oaks, and over the years, electricity and water were installed and the bathrooms expanded. The 129-year-old roof recently was replaced.
The Muenninks were married there, as were both their parents and their two children, and together they have been managing the dance hall for 28 years. “You have to be consistent. You’ve got to like to be there and love to dance,” Kathy said. “It’s a really good dance floor. The one thing we do is protect is the dance floor. You can’t dance with drinks or cigarettes.”
People of all ages regularly attend the public dances, as do area teenagers even though their cell phones don’t work in the remote area, Kathy said.
“It’s a family place,” she said. “You gotta behave when you’re there, no excuses. We love to dance, so we keep it going. It’s a family tradition; it’s what we do.”