Dangers of Honky-Tonk Dancing

ONE CAN FIND many ways to have fun in west Texas. Some people sit on their front porches and count the number of cars with only one headlight that go by. Others see how far they can throw bottle caps. It is considered a lot of fun to go to a church bake sale to discover who bought a pie from the grocery store instead of baking one. Despite continual warnings from the area’s religious and moral leaders, a small minority of west Texans embrace darker pursuits. Of such pursuits, none is darker or more dangerous than dancing in honky-tonks.

Leon Dycus went to a honky-tonk in Plainview and danced with a woman who gave him the flu. She had not even told him she was sick.

David Wilkes visited a honky-tonk in Electra and polkaed with a woman who was unaccustomed to dancing. This woman, who was wearing very large shoes, broke his kneecap with one of them during a fast tune, even though he was wearing heavy chaps.

Delray Schmiedeskamp was in a honky-tonk in Impact, dancing with his wife, when the lights went out. When the lights came back on, he was dancing with a man.

Uncertainty about with whom one will finish a dance in a honky-tonk is only a small part of the wrong kind of fun in west Texas. The following discussion will show that for a wide variety of reasons dancing in honky-tonks is really not how anyone ought to have fun. The writer intends not to pass moral judgment on the behavior of persons who believe such things are fun but only to ask them if their behavior is worth the cost that might thereby be incurred.

Honky-tonks first developed in west Texas during the late 1800s. The shortage of women, however, kept people from dancing with anyone other than themselves. Cowboys had no women to teach them proper dance steps and would simply whirl around to guitar music until they fell down from exhaustion. Musicians soon learned to play shorter tunes, so that cowboys would have time to rest between dances. Although one may object to the drinking that occurred at such places, at least it was not combined with dancing in a way that reflected poorly upon the fair sex.

When women finally arrived in west Texas, they were so badly needed that many of them rushed to the honkytonks without unpacking their suitcases and began straightaway to offer dance lessons. Despite the cowboys’ demand for it, such instruction was not all to the good. Women, knowing that they were in short supply, would force lonely cowboys to sign long-term contracts for instruction in the simplest of dances. Indeed, not realizing how quickly one normally learns the dance, one man signed up for forty-seven years of weekly polka lessons. Even short-term contracts left much to be desired. One cowboy, obviously drunk, was duped into paying $65,000 for a year of twice-aweek schottische lessons. Once the “instructress” got this man into the class, she soaked him further by inducing him to buy “whiskies” for her; they were really only caramel-colored water.

This unethical trade abated when west Texas general stores began to import books on dancing and to sell them to cowboys. Cowboys would walk into a honky-tonk, fall to the floor, and spread out long sheets of paper on which had been printed outlines of human footprints, marked “L” for left and “R” for right. When the music started, the cowboys would walk around the footprints in time to the music. Profiteering dance instructresses soon became wallflowers in the face of this competitive onslaught. Many lost everything and moved to Oklahoma, where books on dance instruction were as yet unheard of.

In the 1930s, with the onset of the Great Depression, honky-tonks became breeding grounds for gangs of so-called “dance criminals,” who would use their honky-tonk-dancing skills to disguise the most dangerous sorts of lawbreaking. Some would dance into convenience stores and rob them. Others would dance while misadjusting electricmeters in order to make the power company undercharge them for electricity. In the cities whole groups of pickpockets would dance into rodeos, stock shows, and other places where large numbers of people congregated, pick everyone’s pocket, and then dance out again.

In response, a large number of anti-dancing laws were passed and vigorously enforced. In 1937 the notorious criminal Thurlow Weed was brought to heel when, in a single day, he was charged with dancing across state lines for immoral purposes, dancing to avoid prosecution, dancing in excess of sixty miles per hour, and reckless dancing. He is still in prison.

The rise of dance gangs forced many west Texas communities not simply to control dancing, through the types of laws that finished Thurlow Weed, but to outlaw it altogether. Clandestine dancing became common. Desperate men would dance in the locked back rooms of honky-tonks, or even in broom closets. Women would step into a restroom, on the pretext of answering a call of nature, and do the Cotton-Eyed Joe. Clubs were raided and sometimes a town’s leading citizens would find themselves looking through jail bars, still wearing the ballet or tap shoes that had aroused the initial suspicions of the police. In many communities to this day one may face prosecution for “possession of dancing equipment” or for “unlawful rhythmic movement.”

When law-abiding citizens realized that these laws were insufficient to stop dancing in west Texas outright, some people began to take the law into their own hands. “Dance vigilance” associations appeared in various parts of the region. Known dancers, after a night on the town, would often return home to find a pair of burning patent-leather pumps or a flaming top hat glowing in the front yard. Night riders burned honky-tonks and ran their owners out of the state. In some towns even moving your legs became dangerous. Whirling around more than once would guarantee a suit of tar and feathers.

Rising unemployment and attendant social confusion linked to farm and oilfield problems have led to a recent increase in honky-tonk dancing by west Texans, but people are still ashamed to do it. Now that good roads exist throughout the area, some hide their behavior by stealing away to distant honkytonks in Oklahoma or New Mexico, or by dancing in huge mobile units that move secretly from place to place, guided by CB radios that tell them when the police are near. Others try to disguise the honky-tonks themselves. One honky-tonk, outside of Lubbock, has been built as a perfect replica of Mount Rushmore, while another, near Abilene, looks exactly like the Statue of Liberty. Only their flashing neon beer signs give them away.

Religious and moral leaders in west Texas deplore honky-tonk dancing on grounds of simple decency. While I understand these objections, I note that they appeal only to persons who share the values of such leaders. The preceding discussion, however, shows the dangers of honky-tonk dancing on objective grounds. Honky-tonk dancing leads to high prices, armed robbery, pickpocketry, broken limbs, the flu, spouseswapping, and general sneakiness of a high order. If these facts do not serve as indictments of honky-tonk dancing, then facts do not serve as indictments of anything. One can find better ways to have fun in west Texas.