Written by: Simonette Berry
I’ll never forget learning to Cajun dance on the worn wooden dance floor of Mulate’s Restaurant in New Orleans, my little feet poised on the toes of my mom’s high-heeled shoes as she walked me through a slow waltz. I was utterly mesmerized as my legs magically moved in time with the giant pairs of legs gliding past me. Fast forward 23 years and I’m still enchanted by Louisiana music, learning new steps every chance I get, and attending dance classes to learn new styles. I’ve grooved to Rockin’ Doopsie, two-stepped to Rosie Ledet, second-lined to the Dirty Dozen, undulated to Tab Benoit’s sultry swamp blues, swung to the Cottonmouth Kings, salsa danced to Los Poboycitos, and shaken it to TBC Brass Band on the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres. Twirling through countless festivals, backyard ballrooms, and fais-do-dos each year, I’ve noticed that a dance renaissance has risen from the ashes of Katrina-struck Louisiana, creating a whole new generation of dancing schools. There are lessons throughout the state for such a variety of dance styles that you could spend your whole life taking them and never learn it all. What a better way to spend August, when the festival junkies go into withdrawal, college kids flee to cooler climates, and restaurants and clubs often close for reno(vaca)tions. The best way to follow the music in this heat is to act a little bit like a vampireâ€”wait until the sun is laying low in the sky before you emerge from your air-conditioned cave to hit the streets and heat up the dance floor.
In New Orleans, the hottest steppers on Frenchmen Street are the swing dancers. It only takes a few weeks of practice to get the hang of the basic moves, and before you know it, you’re jumping, jiving, and wailing to the best traditional jazz, big band, and swing music on the block. There are three free beginner classes weekly: 5 pm on Sundays at d.b.a. on Frenchmen, 9:30 pm on Mondays at Mimi’s in the Marigny, and 5 pm Wednesdays at the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen. Nola Jitterbugs, the company that puts on these free lessons, is stationed above Maison on Frenchmen Street, where they teach workshops and classes every Monday in August. Classes are cheap, fun, and packed with people. You don’t need to bring a partner, and it’s a great way to make friends and meet potential dancing partners on your level.
The NOLA Jitterbugs are one of the sponsors for the annual Satchmo Summerfest, a three-day-long celebration of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and his musical legacy held August 4-7 at the old U.S. Mint in the French Quarter. Nola Jitterbugs will be hosting an indoor dance floor and free dance lessons between bands at the Back O’ Town Stage. Also, check out the free event “Satchmo Swing Dance” in the Stage Door Canteen at the D-Day Museum. The D-Day Museum is another hot spot for swing dancing, weekly swing dance shows, jazz concerts, and lessons.
Traditional Louisiana dances are easy to follow and great to learn for festivals and fais-do-dos, when someone will inevitably walk up and ask you to dance. One of the best ways to pick up a few Zydeco steps is to go to Zydeco night at Rock-n-Bowl in New Orleans every Thursday. You’ll go from partner to partner, dancing the night away and learning basic steps from each one. To get schooled in a fusion of Cajun Jitterbug, Whiskey River Jitterbug, Zydeco, and Cajun Two-Step, register for a class with the Cajun-Zydeco Dance Association. They teach at Tooloulas in Slidell on Mondays and at Rock-n-Bowl on Tuesdays.
The Cajun French Music Association in Baton Rouge offers free dance lessons starting at 7 pm before each CFMA dance (admission $10). Located at UTC hall on Florida Blvd, this month’s dances feature Blake Miller and the Vermilion Playboys on August 12 and Wallace Trahan and Rice and Gravy on August 26. The CFMA also has a chapter in Lake Charles, where free dance lessons are held on the third Thursday of each month at the CFMA headquarters on East Prien Lake Road. Practice your steps at Boutin’s restaurant in Baton Rouge, where there is a live band every night of the week. Once you’ve got the hang of it, go to Acadiana for the litmus test. In Lafayette, the two most popular dance spots are Randol’s Restaurant and Prejean’s Restaurant, both famous eateries and lively dancehalls.
If you’re in north Louisiana, the new craze is belly dancing. The Port Belly Project is the dance company responsible for Shreveport and Bossier City’s blossoming belly dance scene. This beautiful form of dance is slowly starting to change from something unapproachable and risque to a fun way for women to exercise and learn graceful dance sequences. The Port Belly Project’s dance troupe performs regularly and offers a variety of dance classes out of their home base, the Lotus Studio. For a wider array of more traditional styles in Shreveport, Sandy’s Dance Studio offers private and group lessons in Ballroom, Swing, Country Western, Line Dance, Tango, and Salsa.
To keep up with the latest music events, I start by browsing the web. In New Orleans, the best music calendar is the WWOZ Livewire, which you can view online at wwoz.com or listen to, along with a fantastic array of Louisiana music, at the top of each odd hour on 90.7 FM. Clarence’s List of Cajun and Zydeco music is a great resource not only for music but also for Cajun French lessons and dance lessons in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Houma, New Orleans, and surrounding areas. You can find this at cajunradio.org. In north Louisiana, go to shreveportbossierfunguide.com to find out about dance, music, and cultural events. Though this is only a small part of what Louisiana has to offer, it should get you jitterbugging in no time.