Folk Dance

By: Betty Casey

Type: General Entry

Published: September 1, 1995

Updated: September 27, 2019

The background of Texas folk dancing is rich and varied. All the steps and choreography were introduced into the state by settlers and visitors. The resulting dances have consistently reflected the potpourri of ethnic and social backgrounds of the people, the changing dance styles and clothing fashions, the setting, and the type of music available. Through the years a definite traditional Texas folk style of dancing has developed.

Society-minded colonists took lessons from dancing masters and stepped out in refined ballroom style. The immigrant pioneers copied them, and in some cases revived the traditional folk dances of their homeland. During the early 1800s aristocratic Spanish and Mexican officials held formal balls at the Spanish Governor's Palace in San Antonio. Other Mexican settlers danced on the public square or in adobe huts with dirt floors. While the upper class attended formal balls that included dance repertoire from Europe, the most popular entertainment to attract revelers from all parts of the Hispanic community was the fandango, a dance of Spanish derivation. Since the colonial period the term had come to refer to a kind of diversion, usually a festive gathering marked by music, dancing, gambling, drinking, and eating. Fandangos were held in the streets, in makeshift dance halls, or in fandango houses throughout the year. Violins and guitars at these functions played the equivalent of "Turkey in the Straw" while couples danced a polka or bolero. The fandangos were outlawed by the 1870s, though they still lingered inconspicuously until the end of the century (see FORT GRIFFIN FANDANGLE). Bailes (occasions for dances), which included the baile de regalo (regional dances) served as less rowdy get-togethers for families, friends, relatives, and lovers.

The colonists who came later held elegant public dances in the populated areas. For example, in 1832, Anglo citizens of Brazoria gave "a Public Dinner and Ball . . . honoring General Santa Ana" (Antonio López de Santa Anna), who later became the archenemy of Texas independence. The upper stratum issued satin-bound invitations and dance cards for posh balls. At formal affairs, after a ceremonial grand march, the dancers postured and bowed in imitation of the stately elegance of European court dances, choreographed for both group and couple participation. Many of the steps had been adapted from peasant folk dances such as Bohemian polkas and Irish reels, then set to classical music by dancing masters for the enjoyment of European royalty. Group dances included structured, many-figured cotillions (one called a "german"), four-couple French quadrilles (some called "lancers"), lively reels and longways dances, and measured minuets. Among the dances for couples were Viennese turning waltzes, polkas, schottisches, galops, gavottes, and redowas. Less sophisticated settlers not inclined toward formal dance training romped off to "all invited, none slighted" shindigs, where a manager kept a list of dance partners. The people exuberantly polkaed the splinters off of split-log floors and schottisched across wagon sheets spread on the ground. They copied the refined forms of the old-time folk dances, improvising when necessary to complete a half-remembered sequence or when the proper music was not available.

Due to the large number of single men on the Texas frontier, the state became known as the Bachelor Republic. Two men frequently danced as partners, the one taking the lady's part "heifer branded" by wearing an apron or a handkerchief tied around one arm. Finding suitable dance music was a problem. If no one had ox-carted a piano to the site or brought a fiddle or accordion, the dancers improvised. At times, to make rhythm, someone banged on a clevis with a piece of iron, scraped a file across a hoe blade, "blew a tune" on a peach leaf, or rhythmically slapped his legs in a maneuver called "patting juba." Both formal and informal dance socials were called balls, hops, cotillions, or germans. Clubs were named Cotillion or German after the type of dances they did, and the names continued to be used long after those dance forms had been replaced. The San Antonio German Club, for example, founded in 1880, was still active in the 1980s. At early-day informal dances, in Texas and elsewhere, the multifigured quadrilles were simplified. Reminders describing the simpler figures were shouted out to the dancers, usually by the musician. As time went on, the one shouting became known as a "caller." Callers added rhyming lines between the actual directions. Their patter reflected the setting and the occupation, and from it grew the unique, freewheeling Western square dance, the only folk dance wholly configured to extemporaneous calls.

The pioneers danced at forts and on ranches. One year, all-night dances were held throughout the Christmas holidays at the Mobeetie courthouse. Many large balls were held in Houston. In 1835, at the Brazoria boarding house formerly operated by Jane Long, 1,000 colonists attended a ball honoring Stephen F. Austin. In 1837 settlers gathered for a San Jacinto Victory Ball. General Sam Houston, president of the new Republic of Texas, led the grand march, thus setting a precedent for later inaugural balls. Opening balls traditionally started off the season (September to June) in Austin after the city became the capital in 1840. At the 1883 inaugural ball for Governor John Ireland, over 2,500 people thronged the hall. In 1887 Austin newspapers reported a number of German Club dances. The University of Texas, established in 1883, held frequent dances, including a 6:30 A.M. "morning German" held on the riverboat Ben Hur. Before 1900 the climax of commencement week was always a dance held at the Driskill Hotel. In December 1885 M. G. Rhodes held a ball at the Star Hotel in the little cowtown of Anson; the Cowboys' Christmas Ball later became an annual affair and was still going strong in 2008.

Some religious leaders denounced the practice of dancing. They objected to the close embrace in polkas and waltzes and believed the fiddle to be an instrument of the devil. As a result, some dancers turned to "play-party games." These were modified square, circle, and reel dances "played" (danced) to rhythm provided by clapping and singing (see FOLK MUSIC). Around the turn of the century modern developments—radios, telephones, automobiles, and electricity—expanded contact with the outside world, and people lost interest in the traditional dances. A 1913 Elks Club dance card showed a monotonous alternation of waltzes and two-steps. Some versions of pioneer dances were preserved in scattered pockets in the hills and on the prairies of the state by people dedicated to enjoying the dances that were authentic witnesses to the lives of early Texans. In the late 1920s Texas fiddle player James Robert (Bob) Wills introduced his infectious "hot Texas rhythms," designed specifically for dancing. Soon afterward the big-band era swept the dancers of Texas and the nation back to the dance floors. The Charleston, swing, jitterbug, and fox-trot became popular.

After World War II a revival of interest drew dancers back to the traditional squares, schottisches, and polkas. Public-address systems made it possible for one caller to be heard by a large groups of dancers, and an increase to some 4,000 newly choreographed calls led to standardization of terminology and choreography. Square dance and round (couple) dance enthusiasts organized into clubs, and in June 1987 some 4,000 dancers met in Dallas to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Texas State Federation of Square and Round Dancers. A spin-off from the revival of square dancing was an increased interest in foreign folk dances. In 1949 the Texas Folk Dance Camp (later named Texas International Folk Dancers) met and organized to promote performances of an assortment of international folk dances. The organization was still active in 1987. Other groups formed to present specific ethnic dances—Czech, Polish, Irish, and German—at the 1936 State Fair of Texas, HemisFair '68, and the Texas Folklife Festival sponsored by the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures. Some thirty-one different folk dance groups were on the 1987 roster.

While square dancers confined themselves to club dancing and proliferated, in the 1960s the general public took to the twist, the frug, the funky chicken, disco, and other nontouching couple dances. The 1970s saw national interest in country-and-western music and movies bring the traditional couple dances back to the dance floors under a new name—country dancing. Some dances had new Texas styling. The hippety-hop Bohemian couple-polka had evolved into the popular Cotton-eyed Joe performed by nonpartner lines of dancers. Selected versions of schottisches and waltzes also adopted the spoke-line form to accommodate the singles who flooded the dance floors. A fox-trot step for couples evolved into a dance known around the world as the Texas two-step. A 1981 article in Redbook magazine stated, "the whole damn country is going Texas."

Jan Harold Brunvand, The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction, 2d ed. (1978). Betty Casey, Dance Across Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985). Joann Wheeler Kealiinohomoku, "Folk Dance," in Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction, ed. Richard M. Dorson (University of Chicago Press, 1972). Gertrude P. Kurath, "Dance: Folk and Primitive," in Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend (New York: Harper and Row, 1972). José E. Limón, "Texas-Mexican Popular Music and Dancing: Some Notes on History and Symbolic Process," Latin American Music Review 4 (Fall–Winter 1983). William A. Owens, Swing and Turn: Texas Play-Party Games (Dallas: Tardy, 1936). Manuel H. Peña, "Ritual Structure in a Chicano Dance," Latin American Music Review, Spring 1980. Irma Saldívar Vela, Bailes a Colores, Dances to Colors (Austin: American Universal Art Forms, 1972).

  • Music
  • Genres (Folk)
  • Peoples
  • French
  • Germans

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Betty Casey, “Folk Dance,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 04, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 1, 1995
September 27, 2019

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: