Texas-Mexican dance halls -- salones -- had their heyday after World War II. Conjunto music endures at some of them, and all are steeped in cultural history.
“Historic dance halls,” here in Texas anyway, typically conjure up images of sturdy German structures tucked through the Hill Country or stationed on the blackland prairies of Lavaca and Fayette Counties. Dating to the late 1800s, these halls ably represent the stout pioneers who settled the region and constructed facilities for weekend dance gatherings. Dozens such fabled buildings —including Gruene Hall near New Braunfels and Luchenbach Hall near Fredericksburg—still reverberate with the sounds of live music and scootin’ boots.
The Texas-German/Texas-Czech buildings have often overshadowed the “salones” of South Texas. These dance halls of Texas’ Mexican-Americans were strongholds of Tejano culture in the 20th century, and though they don’t receive the same attention (or crowds) as their German counterparts, many still dot rural landscapes throughout South Texas.
Unlike the Czech and German dance halls, salones were often built hastily with simple, affordable materials. Some began just as areas of broom-swept dirt, taking on wooden platforms before becoming walled-in facilities. Salones peaked in popularity during the 1940s and ‘50s, when Mexican-American soldiers returned from World War II with extra money and inspiration from the Big Bands of the era.
Club Westerner in Victoria, approximately 100 miles southeast of San Antonio, dates from even earlier. It was constructed in 1929 as part of an entertainment complex, though its real success came decades later, with regular performances of conjunto – the accordion-driven music of working-class Mexican-Americans.
The Villafranca family purchased Club Westerner in 1965, thanks to a $56,000 loan from a prominent businessman (at the time, Victoria banks were hesitant to lend that much money Hispanics).
“Our Dad wanted to open Club Westerner to everybody—it was a real important gathering place for all kinds of people around here,” says James Villafranca, who assists operating the hall with siblings Debbie and Tali.
Their father, James, had been leasing and booking the hall for nearly a decade drawing larger crowds for his Sunday trareadas (afternoon dances) than the Anglo-oriented evening events. Through the elder Villafranca’s efforts, many high-profile acts graced Club Westerner’s stage, including Bo Diddley, Sunny and the Sunliners, Little Joe y la Familia, and Willie Nelson.
Although other salones in South Texas fell into decline during the 1970s and ‘80s, Club Westerner continued to book popular conjunto acts and successfully phased to its primary current role as an event center, hosting class reunions, weddings, and community gatherings.
“Some people have gotten married here, and decades later, their grandkids got married here, too,” says Tali Villafranca.
His sister Debbie Escalante adds, “We’ve continued operating it with all this history in mind. There’s a lot of family history here and a lot of musical heritage from this region. It really is an important place in this community.”
Just up the road in the town of Floresville, native residents Fred Gonzales and Jesse Perez recall spending many memorable weekends listening to conjunto bands and attempting new dance styles at halls throughout the region. Gonzales has especially fond memories of the customs associated with the dances and salones.
“All of these places had wide-open dance floors with benches around the perimeter—that’s where the girls would sit, usually with their mothers,” he says. “The men would stand outside all huddled together and eventually move their way inside to try to catch the eye of a young woman. You can only imagine the fun in getting someone to dance with you or, on the other hand, the embarrassment of rejection.”
Perez nods in agreement, adding that although he did not share Gonzales’ reputable dancing skills, he was devoted to the music. Perez explains that the two primary styles of music at this time—conjunto and orquesta—impacted the dancing styles.
Conjunto, the main style at rural dance halls, reflected the region’s multicultural spectrum, with German and Czech influences in the accordion-based polkas and waltzes, Mexican-inspired bajo sextos (12-string guitars), European-based string instruments, and Spanish-influenced slow-tempo traditions. Orquestas were slightly more formal, notably including horns inspired by the big bands Mexican-American soldiers heard in Europe during World War II.
According to Gonzales and Perez, the area’s original gatherings, known as farm dances, were held outdoors on ranches near Floresville. The bands were usually comprised of local residents who enjoyed playing music, typically including a fiddle, stand-up bass, and guitar.
“Even those practices would draw a crowd—people would come out and burn piles of grass and straw to keep the mosquitoes away,” Perez says.
In the nearby community of Kenedy, the salon El Monterey hosted high-profile touring acts such as Little Joe y La Familia, Alfonso Ramos, and Isidro Lopez.
“This hall was pretty famous back in the day—it was the popular place for Mexican people to get together every Saturday night,” says Carlos Zuniga, who built the facility with his father and grandfather in 1949. “The music here was different than other places—it was a more high-class spot with orqestas, not conjunto. The bands had big horn sections, and the music would just blow you away.
“This place was a gold mine for me,” he adds. “It was the only place to be on Saturday nights.”
Salones like the Monterey and Benito Juarez Hall in nearby Karnes City also drew family-friendly crowds for cultural celebrations. Fiestas Patrias (annual patriotic holidays such as Cinco de Mayo and 16 de Septiembre) were major events at these facilities, drawing hundreds of people and featuring elaborate decorations.
“Everyone would get all gussied up for the Fiestas Patrias,” Perez recalls. “The dance halls here were not unlike the traditional Mexican plazas, which served as community gathering places back in the olden days.”
By the 1960s, however, the dance halls were losing popularity due to cultural shifts: the younger population became more mobile and families stayed at home with increased availability of television. As many residents moved to cities for jobs, some of the salones were transformed to bingo parlors and community event centers, and others were abandoned and razed.
“Things started changing pretty rapidly by the end of the ‘60s, but there was a lot of that going on—it’s just the nature of society and culture,” Gonzales says. “Even though many of these dance halls are gone or in disrepair, there are still some great stories out there. We’re hopeful that the younger generations will appreciate that part of their heritage and make the effort to keep these places alive.”
Ensuring the continued livelihood of Mexican-American salones is becoming a priority for Texas Dance Hall Preservation Inc., a Houston-based nonprofit organization dedicated to saving the state’s historic halls. According to group co-founder Steve Dean, the salones are often underappreciated by Texans and are considered highly endangered by preservationists.
“These venues tend to go with the flow of the music base, so the historic Mexican American dance halls are being left behind as younger people turn their backs on them and go to the bigger cities for newer, brighter, air-conditioned clubs,” Dean explains. “So many of the wonderful small places in rural areas across South Texas are being forgotten and neglected.”
Dean acknowledges that the Mexican American facilities tend to be eclipsed by the higher-profile German dance halls. He claims this inequity is often tied to economic issues, such as limited funding in Mexican American communities both for initial construction and for ongoing maintenance in subsequent decades.
“Architecturally, they’re not as grand as the German halls, but they have a strong cultural identity that’s very significant to our state’s history,” he says.
Dean is encouraged by several emerging trends that could help keep Mexican American dance halls in the public eye. For example, he notes that festivals in some Mexican American communities are increasingly appealing to wider audiences, thereby exposing the traditions associated with the salones to other cultural groups.
“We’ve heard about several historic halls hosting younger bands, which allows a new generation to enjoy dancing on the same floors their ancestors danced on 50 years ago,” Dean says.
Many of South Texas’ historic dance halls remain open for dances and community events. On Saturday nights, the halls come alive with the sounds of traditional country and conjunto music. Dancing is always an important accompaniment.
Several rural Texas halls, salones, and museums are accessible for travelers who want to experience this distinctive cultural tradition. In addition, Texas Dancehall Preservation, Inc. operates an active calendar of shows and events at dance halls throughout the state. To learn more about the organization and to see which historic halls are hosting upcoming acts, visit www.texasdancehall.org.
Although a number of the following locations are closed for regular business (but still worth visiting for an exterior tour), they represent a diverse sampling of significant historic dance venues still to be found in South Texas.
La Villita Dance Hall
3050 Old Kingsville Rd.
The Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Museum
213 N. Wright St.
West of Floresville on FM 526
Benito Juarez Hall
410 W. Buchel Ave.
La Villita Dance Hall
200 block of W. Robertson St.
Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame and Museum
210 E. Heywood St.
1005 W. Constitution St.
Based in Austin, Texas, Andy Rhodes writes about Texas culture and currently serves as managing editor of the Texas Historical Commission’s magazine, The Medallion.