BY WILLA GRANGER
Google Maps is both a blessing and a curse. The ease of ready-made directions, anywhere in the world, has been liberating—if not simply time-saving. But what are the drawbacks of GPS? Suffice it to say that our spatial and cognitive grasp of the physical world have been re-mapped according to a new digital logic. Has GPS, and the wider technological coterie of the Google-verse, made us dumber?
I’ll leave that one up to the neuroscientists. But it does beg the question: beyond analogue maps alone, how did rural Texans move through the landscape of farmlands and small-town—often on aptly-named “Farm to Market” roads—in a pre-computer era? What were the tools and visual cues? This line of inquiry is irresistible when examining the print culture of country dance halls throughout the early to mid-twentieth century. Despite many weekly and monthly newspaper ads touting a rotating crop of musical acts, dance halls rarely, if ever, listed an address. In lieu of street addresses, dance halls sometimes advertised themselves in terms of direction and mileage. The Oasis Inn, for example, was billed as being “Five miles south Milano on Highway 36.” Often, dance halls merely affiliated themselves with certain towns: Hubert’s Danceland was simply of Riviera, Texas, or Cobb’s Ballroom, of Corrigan, Texas. Dance hall ads did include some specifics: the price of a ticket, when the band began, who was performing. Promotional blurbs were even tailored to different audiences. In two physically adjacent advertisements, El Maton Dance Hall promoted a “country-western” dance in English, and beneath it, a “Gran Baile” in Spanish.
Why no addresses? An immediate answer is patent: dance halls were community venues, where neighbors convened each weekend to socialize, eat, and dance. That is to say that like church, dance halls served an internal community along a routine timeline: week in and week out. Directions, and certainly addresses, were unnecessary for locals with a mental map of the surrounding roads, buildings, and landmarks. This was particularly true for the early dance halls of the Hill Country, Czech or German facilities that often held to their ethnic or fraternal identity. Greater than dancing, these were community centers. As for newcomers, it is fair to speculate that guests operated through spoken directions, word of mouth, or even more simply–following the music. Navigation relied on a deeper attunement to one’s landscape, not to mention the social practice of asking for directions: a rare act these days indeed. It is important to remind ourselves that dance halls were once institutional anchors in an interwoven social and geographic landscape, and many remain so to this day.