Is Dancing Back in Touch?
|n 1950, all was well on the Dallas touch dancing scene. Elliott Lawrence, the self-acclaimed collegiate favorite of
the nation was holding forth at Louann’s. Downtown at the Colony Club, couples could dance between the tandem antics
of Zorine, Queen of the Nudists, and Ingagi, Hollywood’s "famous" film gorilla. The liquor was flowing, and Roland
Drayer was playing slow stuff at Pappy’s Showland.
And 1950 was the year that Bob Wills came home. Wills had been in exile in Oklahoma and later in California ever
since his bitter split with W. Lee O’Dan-iel and The Light Crust Doughboys in the mid-Thirties. His new home at
Corinth and Industrial in Dallas was perfect, plenty big enough to house his horse, Punkin, and a few stablemates.
In San Antonio Rose, Charles Town-send relates how, once each night, Wills would ride triumphantly onto the
stage astride old Punkin to play Western swing the way it ought to be played. But the glory days at the Ranchhouse
were to be short lived. According to Townsend, Wills was a heck of a lot better at fiddling than he was at running a
So in 1952 Bob Wills bailed out and the ballroom was taken over by another operator who was destined for a niche in
Dallas history, name of Jack Ruby. But neither Ruby nor other interim operators were able to make a go of the
gargantuan ballroom, until Dewey Groom.
Groom, a local picker and grinner since the end of World War II, was well known among the local country and western
set. He has operated Bob Wills’ failure, which Dewey renamed The Longhorn Ballroom, continuously and successfully
since 1958 through the depression years of ballroom dancing. In the late Fifties and Sixties, outside the country
and western world, touch dancing practically dried up. The rock and roll numbers that engulfed the charts were about
as danceable to the ballroom crowd as "The Star Spangled Banner." Chubby Checker’s success at New York’s Peppermint
Lounge in 1960 was another near fatal blow. And the simple economics of big band travel forced most of the dance
bands to take up homesteading. But all this time, Dewey kept a-playin’ and the kickers kept a-dancin’.
It’s a rainy Friday night at the Longhorn. The dim red lights are of little assistance in feeling your way through
the sea of small tables with red and white checkered cloths to a spot near one of the posts disguised as a saguaro
cactus. At the next table a middle-aged blonde who looks like she might have been a cutie a few pounds and a few
years ago sits alone except for a glass of ice, a Seven-Up and a half-filled pint of Gordon’s gin. But not for long.
Lonnie Dean’s six-piece band strikes up "It’s Not Love But It’s Not Bad," and the blonde is swirled onto the dance
floor by a prematurely balding suitor in a short-collared white shirt. Next follows "Among My Souvenirs" with
another partner, and "Old Faithful Ain’t Faithful Anymore" with still a third.
By now, the place is starting to fill up. A few youngsters who look like they might be infiltrators from North Texas
State are appearing on the dance floor. It’s time for the "Cotton Eyed Joe," a polka-like affair where partners
dance side by side around the dance floor, backward and forward, laughing and kicking. Four boys and two girls line
up and proceed around the perimeter of the floor in a modified version of the flying wedge. Everyone here touches.
They a-ways have, and as long as Dewey Groom is around, they always will.
About 10 miles from the Longhorn, deep in the heart of dry East Dallas, there’s another ballroom, the Winter-garden,
at 1616 John West Road. This is the brainchild of John and Ruth Wilson, and son Roy. "I guess people thought we were
crazy when we started building this place in 1968," says Roy Wilson. "Ballrooms were dying everywhere and everyone
told us that the big bands were gone forever.
"Daddy thought that Dallas could use a place like the old Guys and Dolls in Fort Worth. We put every dime we had
into it. I had to drive a taxicab while we were building it to make ends meet. But it was a success from the day it
opened in 1969. We’ve had Wayne King, Bob Crosby, Harry James, Freddy Martin, all of them I guess."
It’s Saturday night at the Wintergar-den and still raining. Sandy Sandifer and his ten-piece band are playing "I
Love You So." The 100’ by 200’ building is filled with clean white-clothed tables, except for 5,000 square feet in
front of the bandstand which is set aside for what this place is all about, dancing.
This is probably the only public place in Dallas where pantsuits are not allowed. For the men, coats and ties are a
must. Of the 500 some-odd women here this night, only a handful are not in long dresses. Now Sandy’s playing "String
of Pearls," and brown-bagged Jack Daniels is spilling over ice fur-nished by the house at $1.25 a bucket.
For many of the patrons here, this is the last roundup. Though the range in age tonight is from around 35 to upwards
of 70, the median is probably 50 to 55. "We filled a void for these people," says Roy Wilson. "They had no place to
go. Now they look at the Win-tergarden as their home." Roy is right. This crowd wouldn’t be comfortable at The #3
Lift. Many of the patrons are single - widows, widowers, divorcees. All come to dance but to many, the dancing is a
means to an end. They’re looking for companionship, maybe a little sex, and who knows, perhaps even a new full time
On the wall in the foyer is living evidence that hope in fact springeth eternal. Displayed like the horns of an elk
or an eight-pound bass is a huge plaque with separate gold emblems recording for posterity the names of the 57
couples who have found matrimonial bliss at the Wintergarden.
Just as John Wilson patterned the Wintergarden after Guys and Dolls, potential operators from all over the country
are looking at the highly successful Wintergarden, the latest visit being from an investor planning to open a
similar establishment in Indianapolis. Touch dancing is definitely back among the, uh, mature set.
There is no ballroom for the young business crowd. For the 30 to 40 year old touch dancer, unless he wants to lower
the average age at the Wintergar-den, or unless he’s a kicker, the action is in the small clubs and in the
restaurant bars. The Enclave usually has a good trio and an active dance floor. The problem here, as in most
restaurant bars is in management priorities. For some reason, the operators prefer to devote space to areas where
people pay to eat and drink rather than to dance floors where they can be merry. As a result, the average restaurant
bar dance floor is about as wide as a strip of heavy duty masking tape.
The Great Indoors has an adequate sized dance floor well located for intimate, unobtrusive slow dancing to the music
of Jerry Hitt and his trio. The medium-sized showrooms, like Barney Oldfield’s, also have dancing facilities. At
many of the spots around town, the quality of the dancing depends largely upon the entertainment featured. Harper’s
Corner, the Le Baron Hotel, the Airport Marina, and the Currency Club often offer danceable entertainment. "We’re
getting a lot of action from businessmen who want to learn how to dance," reports dance instructor Mary Ellen
McBride of Entertainment Plus. "Apparently they feel that a night out dancing with clients is conducive to good
business." Touch dancing, among the young business set, is holding its own.
Back on the road again, this time to the late night action at The #3 Lift, perhaps Dallas’ most popular discotheque,
in the European Crossroads at 2829 W. Northwest Highway. In traditional disco dancing, the partner, if any, is
purely coincidental, with the action stationary and individualistic. Some religious leaders contend that disco
dancing is the work of the devil, intended to lead directly into illicit sexual escapades. If this is so, the Evil
One’s scheme is doomed to failure. At The # 3 Lift, you’re doing good if you can get your partner to so much as look
But alas, there is virtually no touch dancing here. About a year ago, a new disco dance swept the country offering a
breath of hope to touch dancing advocates - the Hustle. The couples actually held hands and glided in and out of
each others’ arms, the first dance floor touch for many.
The disco craze hasn’t hit Fort Worth quite as thunderously as it has Dallas, but otherwise the dancing scene on the
western end of the Turnpike mirrors the action on the east. Like Louann’s, the onetime Dallas landmark, the Fort
Worth pillar of touch dancing is no more. The Casino Ballroom, which once stood majestically on the shores of Lake
Worth, is now merely a memory. Wayne King, Art Mooney, Tex Beneke, all the touring pros played there. Couples in the
Forties spent wintry Saturday nights huddled around the stove in furs and tweeds storing up heat for excursions onto
the icy dance floor.
Guys and Dolls, just off the South Freeway, isn’t the same as when it inspired the Wintergarden’s John Wilson to
embark upon his trend-bucking endeavor. Now, to a large extent, the accent here is on Mexican music with the
enterprise advertising "The Best Mexican and American Bands Direct from Mexico and Texas."
The country touchers have happy hunting grounds along East Lancaster and out on the Jacksboro Highway, but at many
of these establishments proficiency in the martial arts is essential to a successful evening. The Rustler’s Rest,
3620 E. Belknap, is still one of the biggest and most popular of the western dance halls.
Fort Worth has a fair smattering of pleasant small spots for the over-30’s bunch. Kahler’s Green Oaks, on the West
Freeway, alternates a piano bar with a small band or other entertainment. Casa Del Sol, formerly a private club
operated in conjunction with the Cross Keys Restaurant at 500 S. Summit, is now open to public dancers. And the
Waterworks, in the Hilton Inn, offers danceable music in a comfortable setting, though the dance floor is small. But
the Town Pump, long a stronghold of popular music and touch dancing, has now become The Burgundy Tree, a
Is anyone out there under 30 touch dancing? "Sure," says Mary Lou Hale, social director at SMU’s Tri Delta sorority.
"We touch dance to some slow songs. But it’s still mostly the disco type stuff." And bandleader Mal Fitch, the local
mainstay among the society set, says he still plays some contemporary pieces that they touch dance to.
Dance instructor Dick Chaplin can probably take credit for the touch dancing among the debutantes. For more than 20
years Dallas society has been sending its 7th graders to Dick’s dancing school to learn the fox trot and the waltz,
considered as essential to the upper class as English, math and the Republican Party.
But what about the youngsters who manage to evade Dick Chaplin? There are other flickers of encouragement. Last
January the Wintergarden conducted a free touch dancing course for teenagers and college students. They signed up
165 students and had to turn 70 away for lack of instructors. This year they’re repeating the course. And
Entertainment Plus reports increased interest among high school seniors who are afraid to go off into the fearful
world of college sororities and fraternities without knowing how to dance with someone.
Is there enough interest among the youngsters to perpetuate touch dancing into the future? It could go either way.
So teach a teenager to touch dance. Quick!
How to Learn How Without Being Had
In the eyes of the general public, dance studios rank right along with fortune tellers and football spies on the
esteem charts. Much of the reputation is well deserved, but not all studios fit the stereotype. There are competent,
ethical operations to be found along with the chaff. Here are a few rules to follow in your pursuit of style and
grace on the dance floor:
1. Decide whether you want to learn to dance or find companionship. If it’s learning to dance that you’re
after, you don’t need to pay extra for membership entitlement to socials.
2. Don’t sign a long term contract.This is wholly unnecessary and thesource of 90 percent of all dance
studiohorror stories, of widows and widowerswho have been bilked for thousands bycharming instructors.
3. Don’t permit yourself to become enamored with the instructor. Remember,your teacher is a salesperson. When
heor she gets you in his or her arms andwhispers in your ear that it would be aloss to mankind for someone with
yourability to stop short of a lifetime course,not to mention the instructor’s personalheartbreak, you’re at a hell
of a disadvantage. Pretend you’re dancing with aused car salesman.
4. Decide why you want to learn todance. If you’re looking for anothernotch in your belt of
accomplishmentsthat’s one thing. But if you intend touse what you learn, stick to learningwhat you will use. Some
studios willfoist dances off on you that haven’tbeen seen in public since Louis XIV’slast bash.
5. Check out the atmosphere. Don’tsign up for lessons until you have beengiven an opportunity to tour the
facilities. Some studios look like abandonedwarehouses with noisy air conditionersand cheap sound equipment.
6. Look over the clientele. You’ll likelybe more comfortable in your own ageand interest group. Also, take a
look atwhat kind of dancing they’re into. Thisis an indication of the specialties of thehouse.
7. Explore the market for free lessons.Yes, there are still a few things in lifewhich are free, like dance
lessons at theWintergarden Ballroom. Every Wednesday and Friday night, from 7:45 p.m. till8:45 p.m., free group
lessons are available. Actually, you have to pay $4 forthe free lessons. Inflation, you know.But this admission
charge entitles youto a whole evening’s dancing to a liveband.
8. Consider a non-profit dance club.These spring up from time to time asnew dance crazes come along.
There’sone now in Dallas which does nothingbut The Push and they’ll teach you free.Inquire at the Executive Inn.
9. Pattern your approach to suit yourprospective partner. If you’re on themake you’ll need a little
versatility, butif you’re just planning an occasionalSaturday night with a regular partner,all of this may be
10. Don’t worry about what other people think. There are no rules. If youdon’t believe this, go to any
nightcluband watch. To the same tune you willsee an endless variety of speeds, movements and embraces. No one cares
whatyou do as long as you don’t step onthem.