In the wake of a booming population and increasingly cosmopolitan downtown district, the city of Austin faces an identity crisis. The polished oak dance floors, neon beer signs and the idiosyncratic twang of country music that once filled countless bars on Sixth Street and beyond have given way to a sleeker generation of pubs and dance venues.
Surrounded on both sides by razed properties and chain-link fences, The Broken Spoke sits in stark isolation from the upscale malls that now populate South Lamar Boulevard. After entering through the rickety red front door, a small sign reads, “The Last of the True Texas Dance Halls,” suggesting condolences for deceased comrades.
A relic of Austin’s once more bucolic past, this mom and pop country bar has been through its fair share of turbulence since it first opened in 1964. Higher prices for drinking, dining and dancing are a clear indication that neighboring competitors haven’t gone easy on the family-owned operation. Simply pushing past the restaurant to the low-ceilinged dance floor will cost customers $20. But proprietors James and Anetta White have no ulterior motives or ill intentions of sucking wallets dry.
On this particular Saturday night, Terri White, a daughter of the owners, makes her way across the room with staggered, sliding steps. In an attempt to break the ice, White intersperses raunchy jokes with confident instructions to the dancers.
“For the ladies, respond to his movements. Men like to think they’re in control, so for the time being, let them have it!” she explains. The microphone manages to pick up her subtle exhales as she glides across the dance floor. “Lead off with the left, guys! Quick quick. Slow, heel click. Slow, heel click!”
Terri wraps up her instructions with one last piece of wisdom: “Imagine that your toes are permanently glued to the floor!”
As the band takes the stage, an older couple exchanges a knowing look, joining together at the center of the floor to wait for the music. Before long, gleeful guitar riffs and laughter fill the smoky room. Boots sojourn to the counter and back, thudding and clicking. Bystanders converse and sip their beers while nodding to the rhythm of the music.
After a few songs, the band pauses and gentle applause ripples through the crowd as an elderly man makes his way onto the floor. In a black, sequin studded shirt and white hat, he mouths several thank you’s to the nearest guests and waves. At age 73, James White carries himself extremely well. His brow creases upward and he sighs with noticeable relief. Although he says nothing, Mr. White’s expression betrays the sincerity of his emotions.
He is grateful not just for the frequenters and the celebrities that visit each week, but also for the students, the foreigners, the hipsters and all the other types of patrons that take a fateful leap into the world of two-stepping for the first time.
Efforts to mitigate the onslaught of commercial development and preserve the strumming of Honky Tonk have also come from bars such as White Horse, Midnight Rodeo and Hole in the Wall. For reasonable prices, these local spots offer dance instruction and an authentic Austin atmosphere.
Stingy tourists and fickle students might turn up their noses at the prospect of throwing down money to don boots and channel their inner country, but the reality is that Austin is selling out the capricious, good-natured tradition that sets it apart from anywhere else in the world.
The Texas two-step only knows one home.
Wearing burnt orange and staring at paintings of cattle are aspects of being a student here at UT, but the final step to becoming a true Texas Longhorn means experiencing and upholding this traditional dance.
James White always says, “We ain’t fancy, but we’re damn sure country.” With places as welcoming and homely as the Broken Spoke, who needs fancy anyway?
Printed on Monday, October 1, 2012 as: Two-Steppin' with Texans: The Broken Spoke brings back Texas spirit with Southern dance