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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Louisiana French Dancing
By Diana Polizo-Schlesinger, 1991

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Louisiana French Dancing

BACKGROUND

Information: Dancing is an integral part of the culture of the Louisiana French people. Among the Cajuns and Creoles, where there is music, there is dancing. The changes in the dancing of the Louisiana French people have paralleled the changes in the culture and society as a whole. And, there are differing degrees of change between the Cajuns and Creoles. These changes may be in the dances themselves, the setting where the dancing is done, or in the etiquette surrounding the dance. No ethnography of the Cajuns and Creoles is complete without discussing the dancing.

Louisiana French Dancing map

Some brief explanations of terms used and notes on the history of the dance is needed before discussing the specifics of Cajun and Creole dancing. The vast majority of Cajuns and Creoles don't give names to the dances they do; they just call them "French dancing." The "outsiders" have labeled the dances to distinguished between different steps and styles. The terms used in this article, however, are the most commonly used, and would be understood by local dancers.


COUNTRY

Cajun country, or Acadiana, is a triangular area of Louisiana containing twenty-two parishes. It is bordered on the south by the Gulf of Mexico, on the east by the Mississippi River and Atchafalaya River Basin, and on the north by the Marksville area. The western border is an angle down from Marksville to the Texas line just west of Lake Charles. Lafayette is the heart and unofficial capital of Acadiana.


PEOPLE

As the terms are generally used today, Cajuns are the White French speaking people of Acadiana, and the Creoles are the Black French speaking people of Acadiana (not to be confused with the early New Orleans French and Spanish aristocratic Creoles). Although there are many people who have adopted the term "Cajun," the majority of Cajuns are descended from the Acadians that were expelled from French Canada and eventually migrated to Louisiana in the late 1700s. The Creoles, on the other hand, are ethnically diverse. Because most are descendants of freed slaves, African and French are the dominant cultures, but many also share German, Sicilian, Spanish, and Native American heritage. Two things are often said of the French people of Louisiana: "the creoles are true Louisiana gumbo," and "you can become a Cajun three ways: by blood, by the ring, and by the back door."


MUSIC

French music of Louisiana falls into three categories: Cajun, Creole, and Zydeco. The traditional instruments in today's Cajun music are the button accordion, fiddle, and triangle. Some bands have only these instruments while larger bands have added guitar, bass guitar, and drums. Today, almost all bands are amplified in order to carry the sound over large distances. Cajun dance tunes are mostly Two-steps, Reels, and Waltzes sung in French.

The instruments and tunes of Creole music are essentially the same as Cajun. Difference exist in the singing style (the Creoles sing with more of a "hollering" style) and the more syncopated Creole beat.

Zydeco music is relatively new – only a few decades old. This is the music of the majority of Creoles today. The instruments are different from Cajun and Creole. Zydeco is played on the piano accordion as well as button accordion, electric guitar and bass, washboard, drums, and (non-traditionally) sometimes on brass instruments. There is no fiddle in most Zydeco bands. The tunes are mostly two-steps with a bluesy flavor, one-steps or "belly-rubbing" music, and a sprinkling of Waltzes. Zydeco is sung in English as well as French.


BANDS

Traditional Cajun bands play the "old standards," and new songs with the style of the old, original music. Progressive Cajun bands may play some traditional music, but they have extended their sound to include rock-n-roll, Caribbean, and/or jazz flavors. Some country Cajun bands have added steel guitars to their instruments, and some country songs to their basically traditional repertoire.

Though there are probably fewer than five Creole bands left today, Creole bands are probably as traditional as Louisiana French music can be. Some bands are less "raw" than others, though.

Then there are traditional "house dance" and progressive Zydeco bands. The progressive bands have the more familiar jazzy and rock-n-roll sounds. The progressive Cajun and Zydeco bands have opened the doors to bring Louisiana French music to a public that might not otherwise have had exposure to it.

As a rule, Cajuns do not listen to Zydeco music, and Creoles do not listen to Cajun music. Some of the younger generation French, and many "outsiders" listen to both types of music.


DANCE

The French dancing tradition in Louisiana began with family house dances or "bals de maison." The family would move the furniture out of one of the front rooms for dancing. The other front room was for the gumbo. In one of the two back rooms, the men would gamble or play Bourée, and the other would be used to put the babies to sleep, hence the name "fais do-do" ("go to sleep").

As the family became more and more "extended," a dance hall would be built, perhaps on grandpa's farm, and the hat would be passed to pay a hired band instead of family members playing.

Eventually, the dances became community not-for-profit events. Refreshments sold inside, combined with the few cents admission, would cover the upkeep of the building and provide an honorarium for the band.

All ages attended these dances. The young ladies had to be chaperoned, so they were always accompanied by older family members. Often the dancing would begin Saturday evening, stop for Sunday early mass and a few hours of sleep, and then begin again, lasting until the wee hours of the morning.

Today, there are four main types of Louisiana French dances: the traditional Two-step, the Creole/Zydeco Two-Step, the New Orleans Jitterbug (sometimes called Breaux Bridge Shuffle), and the Waltz. Styles vary among regions and individuals. The Contradanse is no longer danced socially.

The traditional Two-step (step together, step, hold), Creole Two-step (step, hold, step, step), and Waltz are all traditional; that is, they are generations old. The traditional Two-step is done mainly in Acadiana. It is only occasionally observed in the tourist-frequented or modern establishments. It is the dance of the "old timers." The Creole Two-step is done by the Creoles. Very few Whites know it. The Cajun Waltz, as it is danced by the majority of Cajuns, is most similar to the country western Waltz. The Jitterbug (a "limping" step with many intricate turns) is very modern, probably originating in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The Jitterbug is mostly done in the New Orleans area and in a few places in the Breaux Bridge-Lafayette area. It is often frowned upon in traditional dance halls, sneeringly called "broken chicken-leg dance." This is the dance, however, that is being spread around the country.

In Acadian traditional dance establishments, the dancers move counterclockwise around the dance floor as in country western dance halls. In the Creole dance places and more modern and New Orleans dance establishments, dancers don't travel in a set pattern.

Cajun and Creole drawingsCajun and Creole drawings

DANCE AMONG THE CREOLES

The dancing of the Creoles has remained much the same over the generations, with only a couple of changes that have come about and a few that are currently evolving.

Based on information from several octogenarians, a once common dance, the Bes Bas ("dip low"), has all but died out. This very European-looking dance was done less and less often as the Americans moved in with the oil fields, railroads, and highways. Until very recently, this was the only major change in the dance repertoire itself, probably because the Creoles are such a tight-knit, isolated culture. Creoles still hold many folk beliefs (treating, superstitions, etc.), many young Creoles still speak Creole French and dance the French dances. Few tourists or "outsiders" attended Creole dances, so Creole dances had little or no outside influence. This may not be true for many more years, however, with growing media coverage of Zydeco music and events from the "Cajun fad" that is rapidly spreading across the country. The changes now happening are probably because of this and to the increasing exposure of the Creoles to American culture.

Until the late 1980s, the annual Zydeco festival in Plaisance had no Whites and only one or two members of the local media. Then, in 1989, very, very few Creoles danced. Was it the heat or the large number of tourists crowding in front of the stage? During the weekend of the Acadian Music Festival in 1990, tourists flooded the Zydeco clubs, all doing the Jitterbug-style dance, not the Creole Two-step. If this influx of tourists continues, the Creole dancing will undoubtedly be affected.

The Creoles themselves have brought in what they call the Zydeco Shuffle, danced to the song "Harlem Shuffle" by the Rolling Stones. This shuffle is a group dance reminiscent of Saturday Night Fever disco dances. Over the past two years, this dance has been played at every dance, much like Cotton-Eyed Joe at Texas country western dances. According to musicians, however, as of the summer of 1991, the popularity of this dance is waning.

Until the 1980s, Creoles held most of their dances at home, in church, at clubs or lodge halls, or at trail rides. Creoles are now dancing more in clubs. The clubs aren't the typical clubs open every night to make a profit from liquor sales; the Creole dance clubs are open weekends only, or rented for special occasions, and they make their money from people paying to hear a band and dance. The club owners know exactly what bands to hire when more money needs to be made.

Another change has taken place over the past five years, resulting in the loss of traditional etiquette on the dance floor. Creole men used to ask a woman to dance if she was alone, or ask the man she was with for permission to dance with his woman. He would then walk her to the dance floor and return her to her seat and thank her. He commonly would ask a lone woman if she had a man or where he was. (Was this a lead-in to a proposition or just polite conversation?) At one club outside of Opelousas, where there is an older crowd, this custom is still observed. Here, the younger men, in their 20s and 30s, that compromise the majority of the clientele don't ask the women to dance. They just stick out their hands, and rarely do they escort the women back to their seats. There also are more attempts to "pick up women" at these clubs. This doesn't happen at the church or house dances. At the clubs, the women seem to be guarded against certain men and also protective of each other. There are some men that almost every woman refuses. And the women will "rescue" another woman that is being harassed by a persistent man.

An interesting fact about Creole dancing is that no one teaches it. It is always learned by watching as a child and dancing with adults.


DANCE AMONG THE CAJUNS

The dancing of the Cajuns has undergone many changes over the years.

The Cajun Mazurka and Handkerchief Polka, like the Creole Bes Bas, have disappeared. The Contradanse that is done at performances today has been choreographed by someone who never actually saw it done but had heard of it from an older relative. It may or may not be authentic. The disappearance of these European-looking dances may be seen as an indication of the degree of influence and/or assimilation into the American culture.

The dances that are still being done were heavily influenced by the American Swing brought in by soldiers after World War II, as well as by country western dance. This was a time of strong American pride and shame of things Cajun. People weren't allowed to speak Cajun French in public, and the music became "country-Cajun." This heavy country influence is still seen in the styles of some Two-steps and Waltzes.

The newer Cajun Jitterbug came about through increased exposure (through movies, music, immigrants into Acadiana with the oil boom) and assimilation into American culture. Even today, the popularity of this style has not spread to the smaller, more rural towns that are still unaffected by the coming and going of the oil businesses and their employees. In fact, many traditional dancers are very emphatic about "this is not Cajun dancing!" There are dance troupes that will not do the Jitterbug style, and make it a point to explain that the Jitterbug style is not real Cajun dance.

The limping, Jitterbug style began to show up at the same time as Disco couple dances were sweeping the country. Many of the moves are the same. This style has "caught on like wildfire" and has been misrepresented as Cajun dancing. Will this fade away as did Disco, or will this become "traditional?" Only time will tell.

There are many stories about how and where this style was born. One story says that a Cajun dance teacher could not do the traditional step so just limped to the beat. This very simple footwork fit perfectly with Disco moves. Another story tells about the Baton Rouge folk dancers who had a Scandinavian workship/performance in the middle of 1970s. Supposedly, the local people were very impressed with the intricate arm movements, so they incorporated them into their Cajun dancing. (It is true that almost all of the movements in the Jitterbug are found in traditional German and Scandinavian dances.) And then, there is this humorous version of the style's origin. A soldier back from Vietnam had a broken leg and couldn't dance. But it's impossible to "sit" to Cajun music, so he held his partner's hands and balanced on his cast while swaying back and forth. The other locals thought this looked like fun, and proceeded to imitate the soldier's movements. Ever since then, this style has been done in the Lafayette area. The true origins of the Jitterbug style remain a mystery, though there are several people that claim to be the originator.

The settings for Cajun dances are different from those for Creole dances. Cajuns dance mostly at restaurants, clubs, and festivals. They don't have weekly trail rides and rarely hold church or club dances. The Cajun French Music Association does periodically sponsor dances in various towns. Also, there are many festivals that either highlight Cajun music or have it as the entertainment. Ever since Cajun has become such a fad, the festivals draw hundreds, sometimes thousands of tourists.

Unlike at Creole dances, there are always tourists at Cajun dance establishments. One restaurant books over 500 tour buses a year! In most places (except for tiny isolated towns), there are almost always more "outsiders" dancing than there are true Cajuns. Many of the Cajuns feel that the influence of tourists and other "outsiders" is "watering down" their culture. There is great fear of over-commercialization of things Cajun. Other people (some of whom are Cajuns) are cashing in on the fad. There are even some Cajun dance teachers who have gone so far as to sue other teachers or formeer students for teaching Cajun dance!

Teaching Cajun dance pays well and there are teachers all over the country. An interesting fact about the teachers: only a few, those not from Louisiana, teach the Creole/Zydeco style of dance. Cajun dance teachers in Louisiana don't do the style and dont attend the dances, just as the Cajuns don't attend Creole dances and vise versa. Another fact about the "outside" teachers in general is that they, not the local teachers, are those most interested in preserving the traditional styles. Many dance and nothing more.


DANCING IN ACADIANA VERSUS ELSEWHERE

In Acadiana

There is more Louisiana French dancing done in Acadiana than anywhere else. Acadiana is "praire Cajun" country. The bayou Cajuns south of New Orleans do not dance regularly. They dance mainly on special occasions or at festivals. Some bayou Cajuns do not travel to New Orleans or New Iberia to dance, though.

As mentioned earlier, traditional dancing is done in the more rural, less tourist-oriented areas. Lafayette and other tourist-frequented areas have many places to dance, and the dancing done is mostly the Jitterbug style. At one place in Lafayette, the jitterbuggers are very experienced and try to be courteous to other dancers. At most other places, however, there are often people who are just learning or just "playing" and they are not as aware of other dancers on the floor. This causes a lot of frustration among the regular dancers.

The styles of dance in Acadiana vary.

In the Eunice-Mamou area, a Waltz is danced that is a country western Two-step done to a Waltz rhythm. In Western Acadiana, likewise in the Henderson/Cecilia area, the Two-step frequently looks like a country western Swing. Baton Rouge is like an "island of style," different from anywhere else. This may be because of the dominance of one of the Baton Rouge dance teachers.

Creole dance styles differ, too. In Louisiana, Creole dancing is only done from the Atchafalaya Basin west. In the rural farming areas, the style is squatty, like riding a horse, with the hands held down at hip level. In the city of Lake Charles, the style is upright and more subtle. In the Port Arthur, Texas area, there is a Charleston-like heel twist. There is only one man in the New Orleans who does traditional Creole/Zydeco style.

In New Orleans, the traditional Cajun style is rarely seen. The crowd at clubs in New Orleans is younger and "wild." There are many, many students of dance teachers that go to these clubs. They are oblivious of other dancers, knocking heads with their elbows, kicking ankles with their heels, and tripping other people. Dancing in the New Orleans clubs has become "dangerous." This wild, careless dancing is recent. In the last two years, the number of teachers turning out students has quadrupled; add to this the "outsiders" curious about this Cajun fad and the crowd becomes inexperienced and crazed! Dancing at the restaurants is somewhat more tame.


ELSEWHERE

There are Cajun and Creole communities in many parts of the United States. The only areas where Cajun dancing is done regularly, though, is in the Acadian area of Maine and in the Creole communities of California.

The Creoles in California, many transplanted from Louisiana, dance weekly at church dances with a style that is much flashier than that of their Louisiana relatives. In Louisiana, when men break into fancy footwork, the women stay very subtle. In California, the women do the fancy steps along with their partners. Also, the California dancing style is bouncier than that in Louisiana. There is a mixture of Blacks and Whites at the dances and festivals in California.


SUMMARY

Louisiana French dancing has evolved from its traditional roots in French Canada. Dances have disappeared among both the Cajuns and Creoles. The dance that the Creoles still do has not changed much over the last several generations. The dances done by the Cajuns have changed greatly, influenced by the American culture.

A new style of dance has emerged among the Cajuns that has attracted the attention of thousands of "outsiders" who regularly dance to Cajun music. Zydeco music has been gaining popularity recently. It remains to be seen if the dance "catches on" as well.

Many dancers believe that if a dance doesn't evolve, it dies, but one has to wonder . . . there are traditional dances all over the world that have survived intact for more than a few generations

Are the changes in the French dancing of Louisiana leading to new traditions, or will they be passing fads?


DOCUMENT


Printed in Folk Dance Scene, December 1991.


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