By Kelsi Peace, Features Editor
Just when you begin to think you’re lost, you’ve probably almost arrived. Past a small cemetery, the occasional country home and countless miles of Texas prairie, you will discover Oplin’s dance hall, community center and former school – The Grand Ole Oplin, as the locals call it.
Don’t allow the aging building to put you off; instead, notice the full parking lot and listen to a few notes from the live music that dances across the still, country air, much like the faithful two-steppers inside.
Evelyn and Fanas Tacker, long-time Oplin residents, will probably take the $4 admission fee from you, just as they have been doing for years. The Tackers have been coming to Oplin’s Friday night dance hall since it opened in the 1980s.
While The Grand Ole Oplin, (named by a Nashville film producer who once filmed the dance hall) may be the town’s pride, it also draws university students from Abilene and some from further distances to step into a cowboy culture reminiscent of an earlier time.
Shirley Ashbrook, from Austin, returns to Oplin occasionally to dance and sit with her parents, the Tackers, by the door. Shirley said she’s been dancing at Oplin for about 24 years, and as she expertly navigates the dance floor, always smiling, it’s obvious the practice has paid off.
“You know, the older people love the younger kids,” Shirley says. “Through the years, I’ve never seen so many kids from the universities.”
College students clump in corners with their friends, snapping pictures of each other in the dim lighting. A few dance with older men and women, learning the art of two-steppin’ from the experts. Some dance with children, stooping down to reach them and grinning back at their nearby friends. Most dance with each other, following more experienced dancers to mimic their steps or twirling across the floor with the best of them.
Rachel Ballotti, freshman biology major from Summerbridge, England, visited Oplin for the second time on Feb. 2.
And while two-stepping is foreign to her, Rachel said the basics are easy to master and the atmosphere fun.
“I was surprised by the amount of people – especially the older people in the cowboy hats and boots,” she said.
On the other hand, Tymon Bloomer, sophomore environmental science major from Houston, appears to belong at the Grand Ole Oplin. Dressed in a cowboy hat and boots, he jokes that he comes to Oplin’s dance hall for the girls.
“I’ve never picked up a girl here,” Tymon said, “but it’s just another chance.”
Mykal Green, broadcast journalism major from Houston, isn’t at Oplin to get a date, but he does appreciate the clean atmosphere, he said.
“It’s dancing that’s not everybody bumpin’ and grindin’,” Mykal said.
He’s right. The only bumpin’ at Oplin occurs when an unsure dancer leads his partner into another couple.
“These kids will dance to anything,” said Roland Smith, from Oplin, gesturing at the dance floor filled with students.
Roland played in the dance hall’s first band, the Road Runners, for 35 years and saw Friday nights at Oplin switch from a musical event to a dance in order to raise extra money. Roland said the band still plays under the name Country Classics, but he no longer performs with the group. The former guitar player couldn’t pick a favorite song from his days as a band member.
“Oh lord,” Roland said. “Too many [songs] to name. Anything rousing, a good dance tune.”
Feb. 2 happened to be Roland’s birthday, which didn’t escape the notice of the dance hall’s community. Just before the band’s break, they broke into an upbeat “Happy Birthday,” and Roland was presented with his very own cake, topped by a candle shaped like a question mark.
He laughs when he’s asked his age, but confesses he is 83 years old.
While the band takes its break, dancers spill into the kitchen to enjoy the treats they brought to share. Pat, who withheld her last name, glides into the room humming along with the radio music.
Pat has been an Oplin regular for a few months and says she has danced with her share of students. She laughs about a memory, and then shares aloud that on New Year’s Eve, during the Grand March, she was partnered with a boy she estimated to be about 9 years old.
“He turned to his friends and said, ‘Look what I got,'” Pat said, widening her eyes to mimic the boy’s excited expression.
He was a little lost on the dance floor, Pat said, “But we did move around on the floor a little bit.”
When the band starts up again, the room clears except for the week’s volunteer “snack ladies,” Pam Rumfield, the community’s secretary and treasurer and Paula Windham, an Oplin native. As she convinces a few university students to eat an extra piece of cake, Pam explains that Oplin’s weekly dance used to be for senior citizens only. Today, it has evolved into a family event, sometimes with about 300 people attending. In Oplin, the bottom line is community, Pam said.
“Most of the folks who’ve lived here have lived out here forever and ever,” Pam said.
And the town’s weekly two-stepping earns money that is donated to the fire department, local churches and the cemetery at the end of the year. Last year, the dance hall donated $1,000 to help with victims of the Cross Plains fire, Pam said.
Paula, who is retired from Hardin-Simmons University, agrees the culture is community centered, despite the population decline from her time growing up in Oplin.
“It’s still a very close knit community; we all hang together,” Paula said.
For Paula, Oplin’s dance hall holds a lot of memories – both as her school and her community center. She motions toward the pictures of the “Grand Ole Oplin” in its days as a school house and laughs about the day everyone played hooky, a day she snuck out the window and mounted a horse. She has seen the lunchroom disappear and the study hall room become a restroom. She has seen funeral lunches, wedding showers and anniversary parties in the dance hall. And she has seen plenty of inexperienced dancers.
“Just relax, listen to the music, and you’ll get it,” she said. “We’re just delighted that you college kids are coming out here.”
Now in its last hour, the dance is going full swing.
Dancers mingle during the Grand March, when men stand in one line and women in another, waiting to dance with the person across from them. Students flood the floor when the Chicken Dance begins, so they can participate in the elbowflapping, hip-twisting dance that leaves many giggling and breathless.
After the last song, the dancers mill around for a while, the students make plans for the rest of the evening, and the Oplin regulars catch up with one another.
On the way out the door, dancers grab a piece (or five) from the candy dish and step outside to the quiet air. The parking lot clears out, and the small town settles in quietly for the weekend.