Stepping Out

By Jennifer Moses
Sunday, March 26, 2006

After settling into Louisiana's Bayou Country, her love of dance was rekindled by the Cajun and zydeco music all around her. But with a husband who likes to sit it out, what's a frustrated, toe-tapping woman to do?

It's a Saturday night, and I'm out past my bedtime. Way past my bedtime. Not only that, but I'm dancing in the arms of a killingly good-looking stranger. I'm pressed up against him among the gyrating, tapping, prancing, two-stepping, sweating bodies of couples all around us here in El Sid O's, a club with the appearance of a long-disused filling station. It's tucked away on a desolate street of modest, one-story and occasionally abandoned houses near the interstate, on the wrong side of the tracks in Lafayette, La. We've come to El Sid O's ($8 cover, $2 a beer) on this sticky Saturday night to get a taste of the real thing: the homegrown, Creole-infused meld known as zydeco, a brand of music that recently has begun to leak out past its origins in Southwest Louisiana with its irresistible, driving rhythm. And tonight's attraction, Keith Frank, is the real thing. A Creole by birth, he's a self-taught master of accordion, drums, bass, guitar, scrub board, keyboard, piano and even harmonica. His band includes his sister on bass and brothe on drums.

Like just about everyone else in the world of zydeco, Frank came up -- as we say in Louisiana -- surrounded by musicians: his daddy, his uncle, his paw-paw. It's in his blood.

My husband and I parked in a weedy lot and threaded our way self-consciously through pickup trucks and ancient Oldsmobiles to the club's entrance. I feel even more self-conscious now, but my dancing partner, no doubt sensing my nervousness, is going gentle with me. He is tall and muscular, and at least 10 years my junior, with skin the color of sun-soaked oak and the compact, lean build of a runner. In short, he is a god. But he doesn't seem to know that, and, holding me tight, he leads with utter confidence. It's as if he's willing my feet to move and my hips to sway in time with his.

Not five feet from us, Keith Frank and the Soileau Zydeco Band is shaking the roof off the rafters with the kind of music you can't not dance too -- characterized, like most zydeco, with a down rhythm as sexual as anything in music, punctuated by the frottoir (a metal washboard typically played with spoons) and the accordion. Only this isn't your old man's one-two/circus music/polka accordion. This is a squeezebox -- the accordion as aphrodisiac.

I'm turning in my partner's arms -- step, step, step-back -- and back again, and then again. It's ecstasy.

In truth, I'm dancing with a god not because of my good luck or wily charm. Rather, when his date -- a slim young woman with long hair down her back, a cowboy hat perched pertly on her head -- appeared next to me at the sink in the ladies' room, I told her point-blank that I'd pay money to dance with her boyfriend. She said that he wasn't her boyfriend, but her cousin, and that she'd ask him to dance with me. Which, this being Louisiana, where people are unbelievably friendly, he did. Meanwhile, my husband sat still as a rock, utterly unaware that if I didn't get pulled onto the dance floor, and soon, something profound and deep-seated and central in me was simply going to bust. (He later told me that he doesn't do zydeco -- that it's too sexual, too loud, too rhythmic. He was just as happy to let me get my ya-yas out with someone else.)

El Sid O's, which is known for, among other things, its custom of serving booze by the half-pint, is hopping. Zydeco, unlike Cajun, is mainly played by, and for, black folks, and the crowd tonight is primarily African American. The men wear cowboy hats and sharp suits or red straw boaters and matching red shoes; the women wear tall strappy sandals and sparkly slacks so tight they look poured on. Everyone is dancing: young with old, fat with skinny, ugly with gorgeous, and black with white. And why not? It was just last summer when Katrina and Rita wiped out a good swath of South Louisiana, but here in Lafayette, not only are most buildings still standing, but folks can't help themselves. Dancing is encoded in their French-African-Caribbean-Louisiana-Catholic-Native American-Baptist gene pool.

My dream dance partner's name, I learn, is Herman Stevens. He hails from Lake Charles, works as a contractor in the family business, has a wife and three kids, and learned to dance by watching his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. "You know, I came up that way," he says.

I wish my husband and I had come up that way, too: We're both about as East Coast as you can get, with a crushing self-consciousness about anything approaching laissez les bon temps rouler (let the good times roll). There's one major difference between us, however: I love to "hear" music in my body, and have known how to dance ever since my grandmother taught me when I was 7 years old. He hears music in his ears. Shaking his groove-thing is something that doesn't exactly come naturally to him. But having experienced this kind of exhilaration, I'm determined that my wallflower days are over. The only question is, can I keep finding willing partners, or am I ultimately going to have to dance solo?

Cajun Country -- or Acadiana -- is a stretch of Southwest Louisiana roughly defined by the Atchafalaya River to the east, the city of Lake Charles to the west, Highway 190 to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. It is home to hundreds of dance halls, bars, clubs, restaurants and even churches, where on any given day you can find people grooving down to a live band, enjoying a crawfish boil, or both. But, for me, it's all about the music and the dancing -- the ramshackle lounges in tiny towns such as Cecilia, Eunice, Mamou, Butte La Rose and Erath that don't always show up on maps. Lafayette, a small sprawl of a city with a pre-hurricane population of about 110,000, and a post-storm population of some several thousand more, is at the heart of the region. Viewed by New Orleans, some 135 miles east, as a kind of poor relation, a country bumpkin with rough manners, Lafayette has always struck me as the second-born sibling who dedicates his life to outshining the brother who came first: If big brother invented Dixie-land and modern jazz, then little brother would show him up with Cajun, zydeco and swamp-pop (a blend of New Orleans R&B, country and blues, performed with a Cajun accent). During the day, this dead-flat city of low-lying buildings, suburban neighborhoods, heavily trafficked boulevards, mom and pop shops, sprawling strip malls and crawfish stands seems like no more than an overgrown small town. Its historic downtown of two- and three-story, red- and yellow-brick buildings is still handsome and intact, but its outlying sections are somewhat dreary and have none of the charm of, for example, the famous French Quarter of New Orleans or the stately historic houses of Natchez, Miss. It's at night that the city comes alive, showcasing one of America's remaining folk cultures.

Cajun Country continues to be like no other place in the United States, with an ethos and culture unique to itself, primarily thanks to Mother Nature. The region is set apart from the rest of Louisiana geographically as well as culturally and linguistically (with Cajun French still widely spoken), with its landscape of bayou, swamp, rivers and coastal marshes. All this is courtesy of the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest freshwater swamp in the United States. For better or worse, the swamp is rich in natural resources, particularly oil, and, over the decades, more and more of the wetlands have been destroyed for profit. The wetlands are shrinking at the rate of two football fields every hour: Over the past 50 years, an area the size of Rhode Island has become part of the Gulf of Mexico. Until Interstate 10 was built across the basin in 1973, the region was almost entirely isolated, protecting its indigenous culture and allowing it to flourish without outside influences.

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