- Dance Hall Days by Erik McCowan
Through first-person narration and a hybrid stylistic choice of direct cinema and expository modes of documentary filmmaking, director Erik McCowan takes the viewer on a virtual road trip across Central Texas. On the stops along the way, we enter majestic wooden structures, variously shaped, that are over a hundred years old, and we meet community members with stories about how these spaces have functioned for their ancestors and for them today. For some of the structures, time has been kind; for others, it has not. These historic multipurpose community centers bear such names as Freyburg, Anhalt, Kreutzberg, and Liedertafel, suggesting we are not in Texas anymore.
Various themes arise in the documentary, although the viewer is challenged to synthesize the information due to the film's narrative structure. Using primarily oral history, Mc-Cowan illustrates a connection between German and Eastern European settlers of the nineteenth century with vernacular architecture (although it is not clear whose vernacular), Texas music, Texas-German language, Texas history, and dance performance. Each of these folkloric subjects is discussed—some more frequently and more in-depth than others. Although a tighter thematic structure, complemented with a heavy editing hand, would make the documentary easier to absorb and more entertaining, the mere beauty of the structures, the buildings' significance to the communities, past and present, and the pleasure of meeting some of the charismatic characters keep the viewer engaged.
McCowan's choice in titling the film Dance Hall Days references how most people remember these structures. Architect Patrick Sparks, referred to in the film as a "dance hall historian," emphasizes that "most halls in Texas we call 'dance halls' are some sort of social, mutually beneficial, church-oriented building that had an overarching function besides dancing. It turns out that in Texas, social dancing is the main thing we remember them for because that's what we ended up doing with them." Ironically, as the film progresses, we find that even the dances are beginning to fade as wedding rentals, annual fundraisers, and antique markets begin to replace waltzes and two-steps to keep money coming in and to preserve the buildings. Although descriptions of the dance halls' current uses are a large part of the film, McCowan also provides historical context for their origins.
The historical context and uses of these buildings are told through oral history and a few archival photographs and videos. The hall names pique curiosity while other words like "rifle" and "bowling" offer a glimpse into how the community founders utilized the buildings: "Round Top Rifle Association and Schutzenfest Verein," "Swiss Alp Hall," and "Millheim Harmonie Verein Hall," for example.
The German word Verein appears on many hall signs. We learn through subtitles that the word refers to a club or association, indicating that member-based social clubs built these structures for serving community members. Jo Nell Haas, President of Twin Sisters Dance Hall (1879) near Blanco, Texas, explains: "The hall was originally set up in a German community. A group of men, who started this, with Max Krueger building the Hall, passed it down to their sons for the next generation to do it. That's how my husband got it. His grandfather was involved, his dad was involved, and he became a member." Howard Ludwig, a longtime hall [End Page 375] member, recalls: "All the meetings, and everything, were conducted in German." The German word schutzen translates to "protect," and Schutzenfest refers to marksmanship competitions ubiquitous in the German fatherland, suggesting that the better the marksmanship, the better the protector. Although the audience can assume that marksmanship competitions were a popular cultural practice in Germany, Mc-Cowan does not directly communicate this in the film. We do see sauerkraut and beer served at present-day festivals and fundraisers, and some participants don traditional lederhosen and dirndls. However, we are left curious about what German and Eastern European traditions spawned the structures and their functions. Dance hall historian Starks describes the structures:
The dominant type...