Hot Dancing From Southwest Louisiana

By Peter Parrish

Cajun DancingCajun/Zydeco music and dance from the prairies and bayous of Southwest Louisiana and East Texas is one of the most exciting and enduring folk/roots dance scenes in California. Largely supported by expatriates from the Southwest Louisiana and East Texas regions, this music and dance can be found at regular monthly dances, “church dances,”, and clubs like the House of Blues.

The Cajun/Zydeco scene in California owes its roots to a considerable number of Louisiana and East Texas natives that immigrated to California during and after WWII. Today the Bay Area, the Sacramento/San Joaquin Valley and Southern California are home to large numbers of these Louisiana expatriates now into their third generation. For this reason, Cajun/Zydeco is strongly linked to Southwest Louisiana and their cultural identity includes the French language, the Catholic Church, and a world famous cuisine—as well as the music and dancing.

For over 150 years—up until the late 1920s and early 1930s—this music was able to thrive in relative isolation in Southwest Louisiana because, in part, of its unique geographic location. The Atchafalaya River/Swamp to the East, the Sabine River to the West and Gulf of Mexico to the South formed natural barriers to the forces of homogenization. Today French can be heard on local radio and TV, in supermarkets, barber shops, and, of course, the dance halls. For some of the older generations, French is their language of choice.

Unfortunately, as the years go by, the original immigrants have passed on and it has been difficult to keep the tradition in Southern California going as strong as it once was. In Los Angeles we have lost Joe Simien, our mainstay accordion player and Murphy Mathews, our most ardent promoter. However, another Louisiana transplant, Joe Fontenot, is still playing for us and there are a few native Angelinos –T-Lou & His Zydeco Band, Lisa Haley & The Zydecats and David Sousa & the Zydeco Mudbugs, for example -- who play occasionally in the area. San Diego has the Theo Bellow (Theo and the Zydeco Patrol), Jon Grant (San Diego Cajun Playboys) and Bill Corwin (Billy Lee and the Swamp Critters).

It is difficult to compartmentalize Cajun and Zydeco music and dance styles: they really form a continuum. At one end of the spectrum is classic Cajun music—played with acoustic instruments such as the diatonic, single-row button accordion, fiddle, guitar, bass, triangle ("'tit fer") and drums—featuring one-steps, two-steps and waltzes. At the other end is Zydeco—played with the chromatic piano accordion, electric guitars, rubboard ("frottoir"), a full drum set and the occasional saxophone—featuring rhythmically more complex tunes with R&B and Caribbean influences. Not only is there no neat dividing line, but both of these musical idioms have at times freely absorbed influences from Western Swing, delta blues and even Appalachian fiddle styles.

One of my favorite styles is what I call Creole music, which actually owes its lineage to an older black precursor to Zydeco music, Zydeco having been “created” and popularized by Clifton Chenier in the fifties and sixties.

As for the dance styles, folk dancers will easily pick up the more popular Cajun dance styles: two-steps, jitterbugs and waltzes—even though the waltzes are played at a faster tempo than they might be familiar with. Two very popular Zydeco dance steps are “freestyle” which is basically a two-step danced in place with your partner involving a great deal of improvisation, and line dancing such as the “Electric Slide.” One very important thing to remember: all Cajun and Zydeco dances are open to newcomers. The warmth and friendliness shown to beginners is quite disarming!

Since Cajun/Zydeco dances are fundamentally social events, people of all ages come to dance, visit with each other and eat good food. You will find small children running around and playing games, youngsters learning the dance steps from their parents, teenagers trying out the latest styles and acting cool, and married couples—from their twenties well into their seventies—dancing in effortless harmony. Expect food at most every dance: gumbo, red beans and rice, and boudin sausage are popular fare.

Where to go and Dance in Los Angeles

Karen Redding has been putting on dances and dance lessons at the Golden Sails Hotel in Long Beach for many years and she is having a Mardi Gras celebration on February 8, 2015 headlined by Joe Fontenot.

"Zydeco" Brad Sjoblom has a very comprehensive and up-to-date website that covers Cajun and Zydeco music in California and Louisiana.

Although not in the Los Angeles area, the San Diego Bon Temps Social Club (BTSC) has been a mainstay of Cajun and Zydeco music in California for close to 25 years. They present dances every Tuesday at Tio Leo's in the Fashion Valley area of San Diego and second Saturday's at the War Memorial Building in Balboa Park. The BTSC is one of the best organized and most fun groups promoting Cajun and Zydeco music in all of California. If you can attend one of their dances, "You will pass a good time, chére, I guarantee." See their calendar  or call their hotline 858-496-6655 .

Check out the FolkWorks Ongoing Dance page for listings.

The Summer Festival and Concert Scene

A great way to experience Cajun and Zydeco music is at one of the many Summer and Fall music concerts and festivals. These venues are able to draw the best Cajun and Zydeco talent from Louisiana. Here is the schedule for this summer:

Simi Valley Cajun and Blues Music Festival: May 23 and 24, 2015.

The San Diego Gator By The Bay Zydeco, Blues & Crawfish Festival: May 7, 8 and 9, 2015.

Long Beach Bayou Festival: June 20 and 21, 2015.

Check out the FolkWorks Festival page and the FolkWorks Calendar for more information.

Joe FontenotThe Joe Fontenot Cajun Creole Band will be performing at the 2015 FolkWorks Annual Benefit Concert on Sunday April 26th at the Santa Monica Women's Club (1210 Fourth St., Santa Monica). 

Click here to purchase tickets today.

Peter Parrish was first bit by the folk dance bug while teaching at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Contradancing and clogging consumed most of his interest until he discovered Cajun and Zydeco music at the August Heritage Arts Festival in Elkins, West Virginia in the late seventies. He and his wife Priscilla go to the local dances and festivals and also visit Louisiana and East Texas once a year to sample the "real thing."