Dancing is one of the most joyful things I know. I don’t remember not knowing how to dance. In fact, when I was a toddler, my grandmother Ella taught me how to dance by having me stand on her feet so that I simply got danced — and eventually I knew the steps by myself.
She grew up in South Louisiana in Cajun country. Though she often denied any Cajun heritage (only claiming the Irish), our family genealogy clearly indicates her own grandmother was a LeJeune. Sorry, Ella — that’s Cajun.
Besides, the music and food she shared with me — and with all of us grandchildren? Cajun.
She loved to dance. She’d dance around the house while she cleaned, or dance in the kitchen as she cooked. Sometimes she’d simply break into dance and sing along. It was as natural to her as breathing. Music was just part of her.
And so it is with me, in part because of her. Recently, my cousin Carolyn and I were talking about this. She too learned to dance — though she says our grandmother placed her on the vacuum cleaner and danced her around with that. Carolyn and I share similar memories, but we also share the result: we both dance around our houses while we sing or clean house.
For me, that music was Cajun music, requiring a two-step dance or a waltz. Even now I feel my feet moving on their own if I hear particularly evocative music. Last night, for example, while I was watching the Louisiana Public Broadcasting channel, I caught a program about the song “You Are My Sunshine.” The state song, it is credited to the late Governor Jimmy Davis, who used it as his campaign song. The entire program was this one song — as sung by a wide variety of Louisiana artists. Every style from gospel to blues to jazz to Cajun and zydeco, from singers like Marcia Ball, Allen Toussaint, Buckwheat Zydeco, the Rebirth Jazz Band, Buddy Guy, Zachary Richard, and the Marsalis family band — all narrated by Harry Connick, Jr., who also performed the song.
And I found myself getting up and two-stepping around the room. Couldn’t resist it. The music just pulled me up, set my feet to steps so familiar. The dogs and cats weren’t quite sure what was going on. They never quite know what to do when I start dancing.
Cajun music is part of our heritage from the French-speaking Acadians who left Nova Scotia — and there are also obviously ties to older French music. Dancing to Cajun music might be with a quick two-step or a smooth, lilting waltz. Closely related is zydeco music, the music of black Creoles. Cajun music involves fiddles, accordions, triangles, as well as drums and guitars (linked to country music). Zydeco music shares the same instruments, plus the washboard.
When I was growing up, we called Cajun music “chanky-chank” music. But in the late 1950s, 60s, and 70s, younger musicians began to play and record traditional Cajun music, writing original music in the style, and revealing the influences of not only country-western music but also rock and roll. So we had “swamp pop” (usually in English) with lots of local bands. And a group from the Lafayette area, Beausoleil, became one of the best-known and most popular of the younger musicians keeping the old music alive — and making it new again. I saw them only a couple of years ago, and it’s impossible to stay still when they’re playing.
Thanks to YouTube, it’s easy to link you to some videos of Beausoleil performing live. the following link also includes dancing, so if you’re not sure what Cajun music sounds like and what Cajun dance looks like, follow this link:
And if you go to any number of local restaurants in Acadiana (the parishes in South Louisiana that are the Cajun prairie area), there will be Cajun bands playing on Friday and Saturday nights, and there will be a big dance floor — filled with couples, but also with parents or grandparents and children. It’s very much a family affair.
The love of music and dance is deeply embedded in the Cajun culture of Louisiana (especially South Louisiana). Add the love of good food. Add some beer. And you have a festival. There are more festivals than I can count — there’s even at least one calendar simply for festivals in the state. You name the product or animal/seafood or music, and you’ll find a festival. In Acadia Parish, where I grew up, the festival is The International Rice Festival, in October. Here in Lake Charles, we have Contraband Days in May (celebrating Jean Lafitte). In Rayne, you’ll find the Frog Festival. Go a little more east and you’ll find the Crawfish Festival. In Cameron Parish, south of Calcasieu Parish where I live, you’ll find the Fur and Wildlife Festival. There’s a Swine Festival. a Shrimp Festival, an Arts and Crabs Festival, an International Zydeco Festival, several Cajun music festivals. Lafayette is home to Festival International, celebrating the Francophone countries and their music and foods. I think you get the picture.
I love to dance — and to watch really good dancers. Some older couples who’ve danced together for decades make the Cajun waltz or two-step an art form, a thing of amazing beauty.
A child of the 60s, I also loved to dance to rock and roll. Still do, though not at clubs anymore. Just around the house.
My grandmother was still going out to dance well into her late 60s and early 70s. She had a brother who actually had a heart attack and died on the dance floor — when he was dancing with his second wife.
Today I was driving around, listening to a new CD by Hugh Laurie — pure New Orleans Dixieland music. And I’m sure anyone watching me would see me and think I was having some problem. Yes, I move to music even while driving. My head and shoulders move in time to the music, though I’m seated. It’s the car version of seat-dancing, which I do at concerts even if I can’t get up and stand while moving.
When I was in high school, I’d go to Saturday night dances at the Knights of Columbus hall in Iota — and for what we called “fast dances,” girls danced together most of the time because guys wouldn’t. Slow dances? That’s when they most often got out on the dance floor with us. But at school dances they were more likely to dance to all the tunes.
In college, I’d go dancing whenever I could. it wasn’t unusual to head to the Keg on Wednesday nights. And Friday nights. Maybe Saturday nights too. Another local hangout was the Lighthouse, complete with black light and a mirror ball.
When I moved to Texas to teach at Lamar University, in 1975, it was possible to find disco music, but it was also possible to find a place like Momma’s Worry, where you could dance to all kinds of music, including progressive country. Once when a group of us were out there dancing, Sam Gwynn and I were jitterbugging and our hands slipped apart — and I went sailing through some doors. No damage, luckily.
Of course, we danced in parks when we went to some festival or to hear a band. We danced at our own parties. When I lived in College Station, after I went to grad school for my Ph.D., we’ d spent some weekend nights at Grins, a bar owned by parents of one of my fellow students — and dance. We’d also occasionally end up at the Hall of Fame (aka the Hall of Shame), where we’d dance to country-western music. This was the height of the Cotton-eyed Joe craze, complete with the dance floor jam-packed with us line-dancing and yelling “Bullshit” while we kicked and laughed. The dance, by the way, was an adaptation of a German schottische.
Only in Texas can you find a blending of German and Mexican music — with Mexican polkas. And you can also find the Cajun influence as well, since Cajuns moved westward along with oil-field work, bringing their music and food.
So in Texas I can find gumbo and kolaches, enchiladas and barbecue.
Even my dad danced, though he grew up in a church that did not approve of dancing. He and Mother would occasionally dance at friends’ houses and small parties, and also around the house. They also sang, separately and together. We sang together.
Music was part of my DNA. Singing was just what we did. And I was destined to dance.
So if you pass me in a car tomorrow, don’t be surprised by the crazy lady seat-dancing in the driver’s seat. Just turn your own music up and appreciate it.