The Texas Two-Step, with its alliterative appellation, is as simple and authentically Southern as its tonal title suggests. Alternately dubbed the country-western two-step, the Texas Two-Step’s roots stretch deep, as far back as the waltzes popular in the nineteenth century. Despite its variations and changes over the decades, the dance remains as popular as pecan pie, both above and below the Mason-Dixon.
The Texas Two-Step is a country-western dance, but beyond that it escapes basic definition. Its steps and movements vary across the United States and across history. The dancers begin in a closed position, the leader (traditionally male), faces the line of dance, his body seamlessly connected by finger pads and invisible threads to his follower’s (traditionally female). Traditionally, the dance is executed in a smooth, gliding motion of quick step, quick step, slow step, its participants spinning in unhindered spirals in a counterclockwise motion across the dance floor like lopsided, denim-clad dreidels. The various positions of the Texas Two-Step bring to mind a heart-fluttering courting ritual filled with tender kisses and hushed escapades. The sweetheart, shadow, wrap or cuddle, skater, promenade, and reverse promenade all make romantically-inspired appearances in the dance. Dancers spin and glide across the floor, a chaotic yet gracefully fluid intertwinement of the family of movements known to the world as the Texas Two-Step.
The history of the dance is as varied and difficult to track as scent up a river. The “valse e deus temps,” or two-beat waltz, first gained popularity in Europe in the nineteenth century. The two-beat waltz eventually morphed into the two-step, which first appeared following John Philip Sousa’s “Washington Post March” in 1891. The fashionableness of Sousa’s melody, and its accompanying movements, influenced dance throughout the early twentieth century. Although many dance historians trace the Texan version’s lineage back to the two-step and, by connection, the two-beat waltz, others claim the modern dance has its roots in the Collegiate Foxtrot, which was popular slightly later in the twentieth century.
While some historians may quibble over the patriarchal lineage of the Texas Two-Step, there is no doubt as to the mother of the Southern samba: Country Western music. With John Carson’s recording of two “hillbilly” songs in 1923, the modern country-western music scene was born. The newborn musical style was passed lovingly between the hands of Southern states and found its true home in the bosom of Texas. Carl Sprague became the first “singing cowboy” in 1925 and from there country music—and its dances—became an immutable part of the Southern, especially Texan, soul. As dance halls began to play more and more of the popular country tunes, historical and new dances alike were adopted to suit the melodies. The two-step/two-beat waltz/Collegiate Foxtrot morphed into the rambunctious Texas Two-Step. Lloyd Shaw’s 1939 edition of Cowboy Dances states: “The real two-step should be smooth and beautiful to watch. But in a western dance it is quite in kind to make it joyous and bouncy.” Like most things Southern, the progenitors of the dance managed to take something stuffy and traditional and turn it into a uniquely informal and comfortable Southernism.
The Texas Two-Step remained in favor in Southern dance clubs throughout the twentieth century before gaining national exposure in the popular ’80s flick Urban Cowboy starring dance phenom John Travolta and filmed at Gilley’s Club in Pasadena, Texas. Soon the whole national was obsessed with the maturing dance. Dancers, clubs, and studios across the nation began reinterpreting the Texas Two-Step into their personal dance visions. Since the dance was never definitively regulated or labeled, it was, and continues to be, easy for people and communities to put their own twist into it—literally.
Over the past several decades, the Texas Two-Step has retained its popularity in the American dance scene, even as it’s changed. Where there once stood a live country-western band, there usually stands a DJ; where once country music drifted lazily through speakers and sound systems, anything from rap to pop pumps through the clouded air; and where scuffed cowboy boots used to glide across pock-marked dance floors, you can now find heels and sneakers tapping out those quick, quick, slow steps. But no matter what transformations the Texas Two-Step undergoes in the future, it will always remain a uniquely Southern tradition.