What is the Broken Spoke?
In the parking lot you already see the signs you may soon step back into the 60s: boots, cowboy hats and large metal belts are common accessories unlike anywhere else in Austin. And as soon as you open the door you realize you are in one of the last standing authentic dance halls in Texas. Welcome to the Broken Spoke!
We were received by the owner himself, Mr James White. I had already exchanged a couple of e-mails with him explaining we’d like to go shoot a video and knew he was open to the idea. But when we decided showing up at the last minute on a Saturday night with no previous arrangements, I didn’t know what to expect.
To my surprise, he immediately agreed to have our cameras around and not only introduced us to his whole family (who runs the place) but treated us to the highest honor in the house: roll the wheel (the broken spoke itself – the symbol of the establishment). So there we are – in the spotlight – while Mr White himself greets the crowd and sings. Yes, at 77 he maintains the same energy and friendliness he had in 1964, when he led the construction of this place.
At that time, the Broken Spoke was located 1 mile south of the Austin city limits. Today, the area became the up and coming neighborhood around South Lamar Blvd, with its trendy shops and new condos popping up just beside the low-slung building. And guess what? It’s just an 8-minute drive to downtown. Close enough an Austinite could even consider part of downtown.
Country Dancing at the Broken Spoke
We were in not only for the history. We wanted the fun. We could simply count on our Brazilian blood to get the body moving once the band starts playing at 9:30 pm, but wouldn’t it be much nicer to actually learn how to country dance? The instructor is Terri White, one of James White’s kids. She grew up here and today her classes are so popular that you should arrive 20-30 min in advance to make sure you’ll be able to sign-up.
The classes occur from Wednesdays through Saturdays between 8:30-9:30 pm and cost $20. You will learn the traditional two-step and some western swing, but unless you are naturally gifted don’t expect to become the next contestant at So You Think You Can Dance. You will definitely get energized to remain on the dance floor once the band takes over the stage.
In our group there was a mix of couples learning together and single individuals, mostly women. You don’t need a date to join, but ideally you should come in pairs. At least you’re guaranteed to have someone to practice with.
Once the dance floor opens, everybody dances with everybody. All you have to do is stand nearby and someone will invite you to get in the rhythm. Sometimes gentlemen even invite ladies sitting at the nearby tables. Of course you don’t need to know the steps. If someone is inviting you, they probably know better than you and most likely are willing to lead.
From what I learned, the rules of country dancing include maintaining your toes on the floor at all times, having one foot always touching the other, and keep moving counter-clock wise at the hall (meaning: you don’t stay at the same spot the whole time). If you’re a lady, let your partner guide you. He will dictate the rhythm and even the twirls become much easier.
There are also lots of regulars who dedicate a few evenings per month or per week to come relive the old fashioned country. From the way they move along the hall to their excitement in being among the few couples to attract all eye balls once a new song starts, you can easily tell who’s been doing this for more than a couple of hours.
True Texas fun
If locations like this once defined Texas, sorry to say they are not common anymore, especially in Austin. So while visiting the city this can be a very fun experience. If you are not familiar with country music be aware that that’s all they play and be open minded. Also, don’t expect to hear Carrie Underwood or Keith Urban. I’m talking about traditional American honky-tonk country. I’m not at all familiar with this style and knew no song while lots of people in the nearby tables were even singing. And I actually enjoyed it.
At the Broken Spoke there’s a room full of photos and memorabilia from the days the likes of Willie Nelson, Ernest Tubb & Bob Wills played at the main stage. There are lots of items belonging to celebrities and a die hard country fan could spend an hour looking into every detail.
Their food is also very famous, especially the chicken fried steak and the burgers. We were so busy taking the class and following-up with what we learned at the dance hall that we didn’t realize the late hours. The kitchen closes at 11pm, but exactly that evening an unexpected malfunction forced the ovens to shutdown 15 min earlier. Luckily after so much dancing all I could care about was a cold drink.
Overall we had a real good time. My friend Luciana (from the video) also wrote about the experience on her travel blog Colagem (in Portuguese).
James White doesn’t show-up everyday anymore, but when he does, he makes sure he greets the guests and talks to as many people as he can. He certainly has a celebrity status in the Texas honky-tonk scene.
Had this story happened in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, etc., I doubt we’d have even been received by the owner and allowed to shoot video without previously scheduling 2 weeks in advance. This goes to show the type of Texas friendliness you can still find in modern day Austin. Also, one of the reasons they out survived the competition for more than half a century.
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Cheers and all the best,
Want more about Austin?
Don’t take only my word. Here are some TripAdvisor reviews about other things to do in Austin!
P.S.: If you haven’t clicked on the Google Maps icon over the main picture of this article yet, do it now! Street view is showing inside the Broken Spoke, not the façade. So cool!
Note: This story is in no way sponsored by the Broken Spoke. To the contrary. We even paid the $20 for the dance class.
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Accommodation in Austin, Texas can be pricey, especially if you would like to stay downtown. As it’s where I live at the moment, I haven’t stayed in any hotel here yet, so can’t share any experience…
But if you are planning to come here in the next few months, check out this deal with TripAdvisor. They’re offering up to 30% savings on hotels in Austin specifically until November 30th 2016.