Prelude to Texas…A Texas Dance Hall Primer…
If you are planning a trip to Texas, I suggest that you plan for two things in advance: First…plan on having a great time. I cannot stress this enough. There is so much to see and do. Second…as an integral part of your trip-planning, learn at least some of the basic moves of at least one country-western lead/follow partner-dance.
Working your way around a Texas dance floor with a partner, actually leading or following basic or complex patterns, while navigating all of the other dance-traffic on the floor, can be intimidating at first, but it’s also a blast. Plan to work on this second suggestion well in advance, at least a few months, because even the basics of learning one of these dances is challenging and takes time. As the saying goes…you only get out of something, what you put into it.
And if Texas was a desert island, and you could only bring one dance? I’d suggest some version of what I know as “Triple Two-Step”…aka Triple-Two…aka Double Two-Step or Double-Two…aka Country Polka, or just Polka, for short (particularly as it is called in Houston, and which differs from ballroom or folk Polka)…aka the Fort Worth Shuffle (exclusively in Fort Worth)…aka Alternative-Two (as it’s known in Dallas). Confused?
No worries. You are not alone. So was I…on my first Texas trip, three years ago, when I arrived fresh off six months of intensive lessons and practice in Two-Step…thinking I’d be ready to take on any Texas dance floor…only to gradually realize that, yes, every once in a while a Two-Step song would come on, but many of the other songs had a subtle triple-rhythm embedded in the standard 4/4 Two-Step meter…and the dancers were dancing something that looked similar to Two-Step, but was actually just different enough, that you couldn’t easily adapt Two-Step to it. This was something else, entirely.
So, I started asking some of the Texas dancers about what they were doing, and everyone was very nice, and attempted to explain. But, I still was just not getting it. It really wasn’t until long after I had returned home to Connecticut, and started asking my dance instructor, Reisa Alexander, who is a many-time country-western dance champion, and an amazing instructor (shown here performing a championship Two-Step routine with her former dance partner, Cody Melin), that she helped me figure out what dance I was seeing in Texas. That’s when I started taking a few months of Triple-Two lessons with Reisa. I’m sure I was one of only a handful of people in New England learning Triple-Two. Most folks up here don’t even know what it is. That’s how rare it is “in these parts”.
Anyway, in its social, non-competitive form, Triple-Two is a 6-count, “progressive” country-western dance…”progressive” meaning, that the dance progresses, or moves, in a continuous, counter-clockwise loop, around the outside of a dance floor. The basic count for Triple-Two is: tri-ple-step, tri-ple-step, walk-walk…each tri-ple-step being what’s known as a “shuffle”, where the ball of each foot scuffs lightly forward on the floor…and each walk-walk is simply that: two normal walking steps…heel-toe, heel-toe. Despite the regional-name and style variations, knowing at least a little of this one dance will carry you through any country-western dance hall experience in Texas.
All of the country-western lead/follow partner dances are challenging and are a lot of fun…Two-Step (my strongest), Triple-Two (workin’ on it), West-Coast Swing, East-Coast Swing, Nightclub Two-Step, Cha-Cha, Waltz, etc. But, from my experience, the most-danced lead/follow partner-dance style in country-western dance halls across Texas, is some version of Triple-Two. If you already happen to know West-Coast Swing, East-Coast Swing or Cha-Cha, then some of the songs that folks dance Triple-Two to, can double for these dances, as well. But understand, that when a Triple-Two song comes on…most Texans will be dancing their regional version of a Triple-Two, the floor will likely fill up fast, and you and your West Coast Swing partner will get mercilessly squeezed out, like a weed in a well-manicured lawn.
If there is any such thing as a “quintessential” Texas nightlife experience…which may only be in my mind…then, arguably, the most fun and safest of these is? You got it: heading out to a country-western dancehall or honky-tonk for a great night of dancing, people-watching, and sometimes great live country bands. These dance halls are in every major city and are scattered through the more rural areas. They are generally very friendly venues, and they typically have some sort of security presence, whether they make it visible, or not, because barroom brawls are no longer sexy. They are bad for business.
Many dance halls offer free group dance lessons on some evenings, so check their websites. These group dance lessons are a great way to begin meeting some of the regulars, who you could introduce yourself to and ask for a dance later on. Or, if you miss the lesson, you will find that there are quite a few people who you can simply ask up for a dance, and they will more than likely dance with you…at least once. Introducing yourself, and briefly explaining that you are there on vacation also helps to break the ice. Or you may find folks approaching you, because you are a new face, asking you up for a dance. Both ways are perfectly acceptable.
This is partly because, in general, Texans are very friendly. It is also partly because this is normal social-dance etiquette. At a purely social-dance venue, like a dance studio or a dance-weekend, it is understood that everybody dances with everybody else. A country-western dance hall or honky-tonk is a bit of a mixed crowd. Some folks are there on a date, or with their significant-other, or spouse. So, those folks might only dance with that person. So, you need to observe the crowd on the dance floor for a while, at first. See who is dancing with whom. If someone is dancing with a few different people, then it is most likely just fine to approach these people, introduce yourself, and politely ask for a dance. If your request is declined, then look for and ask someone else who is dancing with various people. This is how it is done. As long as you are polite, respectful…and a little brave…you should do fine. It also helps to be easy-going and fun.
Another point in your favor is that, most folks who partner-dance socially, usually remember that they were once where you are…a beginner with good intentions, who might be scared-to-death to take a turn around a “real” dance floor in front of “all these people”. So, they are likely to give you the benefit of the doubt, for at least one dance, if you let them know that you are visiting and have been taking a few lessons.
And yet another reason is that, in general, folks who take the time to learn some of these lead/follow dances, typically go out primarily to dance. They are looking for people to dance with. It is pretty easy to identify these folks at dance halls. They generally follow the “7 to 10” rule, which is…they are mostly on the floor from around 7:00pm to 10:00pm…all ages.
After about 10:00pm, the DJs start gradually turning up the volume, the songs become more-often club-like (think: pounding bass), the twenty-something line-dancers begin flowing in en masse (nothing against twenty-somethings or line-dancing!), and the dance hall can take on a bit more of a meat-market vibe. This rule applies mostly to the major-city, modern, large dance-floor dance halls.
The caveats are…you are much more likely to have a nice night of dancing, if you 1) come early, and 2) demonstrate that you already somewhat know at least one of these dances, at least enough to get around the floor with even the most basic moves.
Note: your dance-card stock-value rises relative to how well you dance, because everyone is watching everyone else, and they will want to dance with you…a new face…especially if they see that you know at least a little already.
So, as part of your trip-planning, some months in advance, do some online and local research to find a good dance instructor for group or private lessons, who can begin to teach you some version of Triple Two-Step. The more you put into learning this dance, the higher your likelihood of getting some good dancing in at a Texas dance hall or honky-tonk.
Don’t get me wrong…it’s a heck of a lot of fun to just hang out, enjoy a longneck and watch the action on the dance floor. But, it is exponentially more fun to actually be on the dance floor. Just ask anyone who has.
I’m including a solid, but by no means comprehensive, list of some Texas dance halls on this blog, to help get you started.