I accidentally step on my partner Myra’s toes for what feels like the hundredth time. “Sorry,” I mutter, trying to concentrate on everything I have to remember: head straight, left arm up, right hand cupped around Myra’s shoulder blade. The dance is the rumba and the pattern is slow, quick, quick, repeated in counts of four as we make a tight square on the floor. Simple enough, but it might as well be rocket science. Why? Because though I pride myself on being left-handed, I’m mortified to find that I also have two left feet. I can’t dance. “Don’t worry,” Myra says with a reassuring twang. “That’s why I wore my boots today.”
We’re at the Stagecoach Ballroom in Fort Worth, one of a dwindling number of historic dance halls in Texas. Whereas there used to be over a thousand of these old buildings at the beginning of the 20th century, there are now fewer than 400 in operation. Built as gathering points for small communities, dance halls fell into decline as their patrons grew old and the young began to gather elsewhere. Some of these spots are still standing, however, and still play music for those who love to dance. I’ve come to the Dallas–Fort Worth area (a.k.a. the DFW) to see who’s still cutting a rug. And though I thought I’d be catching last call at these establishments, instead I’m finding a cotillion’s worth of dance partners ready to take visitors like me for a twirl.
Take Myra Parrish, for instance. At 60, she has been dancing at the Stagecoach for more than 12 years. “I really love the music,” she tells me, as our instructor Betty Anderson puts on a 1977 recording of “Return to Me” by Marty Robbins and guides two dozen of us over the track’s lazy trumpets and baritone vocals. The bar is dark, lit only by the soft neon glow of beer brand advertisements that reflect off the tables in pools of red, green, blue and purple. At 42, I am by far the youngest in the class, but also far from the fastest when it comes to picking up the steps. I ask Myra if we can stop for a second so I can focus on the precision of our teacher’s instructions (it’s like being taught how to play a proper game of chess). After a few clumsy attempts, Myra and I complete an eight-part movement. “There,” she says with cheer. “You tapered your bouncing and didn’t look at my feet. You did good.”
The Stockyards Hotel in Fort Worth’s National Historic District is so rustic, I almost expect to see tumbleweeds blow down the brick-lined road outside the entrance. (After all, the neighbourhood once housed a thriving livestock market.) Today, it’s pickup trucks and SUVs. Oh, and cattle. From the sidewalk, I watch as 16 of the city’s Texas longhorns lumber down Exchange Avenue, a half a dozen cowboy-clad men and women on horseback dancing with the steers. The beasts are majestic, with horn spans wider than the parked cars on the road. “They’ve got a good life,” a passing cowboy tells me. Each of these celebrated city mascots marks a decade of Fort Worth’s storied past and, fortunately for them, this means they’ll end their days in pasture.
Later that evening, I walk a few quiet blocks to Billy Bob’s Texas to take in a line dance or two. The place, which bills itself as the largest honky-tonk in the world, is almost the size of two football fields and is a smorgasbord of light and activities (think live country music, arcades and an indoor rodeo). As it slowly fills with visitors and young locals in cowboy hats and denim, only three people are dancing under the saddle decked out as a mirror ball that spins above. An older man in a dark shirt and a grey ponytail joins them. He leads by example, stepping left and right, moving forward then back, pointing to where he’s going next, and the three younger people follow. A song later, a dozen twentysomethings join; then, one fortysomething (that would be me). I feel so uncoordinated, but at least I’m not alone.
I mosey up to the bar and order a drink; large neon signatures of country legends Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard decorate the wall behind the cash register. Next to me, the ponytailed man is also taking a breather. I find out his name is Ricky Patton; he’s 57 years old and has been coming to Billy Bob’s for 15 years. I ask him if he’ll show me the basics. Ricky says that it’s all based on a move called the grapevine. “Step side, behind, side and then stop or scruff,” he says, kicking the floor with the leather sole of his boot. Can it be that simple? I wonder, and rush back to try it myself to mixed results. Not too bad for a city slicker.
An hour away, in Dallas, the biggest dance party is at Sons of Hermann Hall. This 105-year-old building stands apart from the graffiti-covered venues in the neighbourhood of Deep Ellum. It’s spacious and bright and covered in wood, from its pock-marked walls to its 3,000-square-foot dance floor. Dance instructor Jerry Warwick tells me he’s never seen any ghosts in this former fraternal lodge, but I swear I can hear their whispers among the brown folding chairs and musty curtains. Those whispers are given faces thanks to the black and white photos that line the walls, men and women from another era smiling out from them. And, every Wednesday night, the photos come to life, when close to 300 regulars show up to swing-dance.
I thought I’d be doing the two-step in Dallas, but apparently here in Deep Ellum, it’s East Coast swing that’s got the kids going crazy. Jerry tells me that, after its pop-culture peak in the 1990s, the dance style stayed in Dallas, swinging from bars and clubs to old reception halls; the Sons of Hermann Hall has been throwing this weekly party for 20 years now, open to all skill levels. The first hour is a lesson so people like me can learn the basics and make acquaintances before the night begins.
“You can learn a lot about someone just by watching them dance,” says Tina Malone. At the Free Man, a tiny nearby Cajun restaurant, she and her husband Zack tell me a story that’s just as sweet as the cheesecake we’re sharing – how they met, dancing at Sons of Hermann Hall (where they also held their wedding reception). Although neither was looking for love, both found it just by watching the way each treated their partners on the dance floor. As they get up to dance in the crowded restaurant, they woo the rest of us, too. The band plays the energetic 1956 classic “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” and Zack spins Tina out like a top in the small space in front of the stage. It’s cramped and the pair is moving fast. I look on in awe from my seat as, somehow, the twirling couple manage to avoid the waitress coming by with a plate full of crawfish pasta.
Another surprise awaits me in Denton, a suburb north of Dallas, in the form of Sprockets, an odd bicycle shop that’s home to a twice-monthly dance party put on by Denton Swing. Before the pre-party class, I walk around the downtown square, which is filled with students from two nearby universities on this Saturday afternoon. I browse an old-school record shop and a vintage candy store where I pick up some Big League Chew bubble gum – I feel like I’ve stepped back in time.
Back at Sprockets, after the bikes are wheeled to the store’s corners and music from the 1930s begins to play, that feeling is magnified. A few dozen people are here for the class, but many more will arrive later, and tonight, it’s my turn to be the old-timer. Instructor Amanda Yeargan is young and brassy, delivering instructions with the dry wit of a drill sergeant. “Ladies,” she shouts out, among the bike frames affixed to the walls behind her, “use your right foot to go behind you – because ladies are always right! If you are a gentleman, then use your left foot to go behind you. Because you guys get what’s left...”
I make my move, but stumble on my partner’s feet. A bunch of us do. That’s when Yeargan reminds us to track the beat. It’s called a pulse, she explains, and gets us all bouncing up and down from our knees. “This is how you communicate with your partner,” she says. “If you don’t have a pulse, you’re dead.” My pulse might be a little unsteady, but here, tangled in Texas, I feel very much alive.