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.

The original Acadians were French Catholic colonials who, having been kicked out of the Acadia province of Nova Scotia by the British in the 18th century, wound their way down to Louisiana, which in those days was still held by Catholic France. Most of the good land along the Mississippi and farther east in New Orleans was already claimed, so the settlers headed west, directly into the swampy lands of bayous, crawfish, muskrats and alligators. Today, the area is still largely Cajun (the word is a corruption of "Acadian") and, unlike North Louisiana, primarily Catholic. There is also a large Creole population of African Americans who were brought up in French-speaking families and are of Caribbean descent. Cajun French is still widely spoken, and if you tune into KRVS Lafayette or KEUN in Eunice, you'll get an earful of Cajun, zydeco and swamp-pop, with French-speaking deejays. One way or another, the culture of music is so pervasive that chances are good your hairdresser, dentist or air-conditioning repairman works nights as a musician. The music -- which goes hand in hand with the dancing -- is as much a part of the culture here as the heavily seasoned, flavorful food: hot and spicy, down-home and delish, nothing fancy, and everyone's welcome.

When I tell my friend Durwood in Baton Rouge about my plan to get more dancing in my life, he immediately says I have to meet Hadley Castille -- an old-time Cajun fiddler. Castille has been keeping people in Cajun Country dancing for most of his life, and maybe he can give me some insight into why this music is so irresistible. So one day I drive from Grand Coteau up Interstate 49 -- 18-wheelers, billboards, pickup trucks, wildflowers -- until I get to the town of Opelousas. There I hang a right on U.S. Route 190, another right near the sign advertising same-day surgery and a final right on a quiet road threading through woods and surrounded by the buzz of a million insects. I reach Castille's comfortable, neo-Acadian cottage, which is propped up on a rise. At the door, he greets me with the kind of smile you usually reserve for long-gone children. Castille, who has a wonderfully expressive face under a mop of thick white hair, brings me inside, where my eyes are immediately drawn to his collection of fiddles, one in the shape of the state of Louisiana.

Like just about every other musician in South Louisiana, the 73-year-old Castille never had any formal instruction; he learned to play the fiddle from his uncle. He walked to dances in his bare feet so as not to ruin his one good pair of shoes, grew up speaking French and one day, when he was young, experienced a revelation. "I must have been about 11 or 12 -- my father brought home a radio," he says. "I tuned in and heard something I'd never heard before, Texas swing. I couldn't believe what I heard. I stayed up all night listening to that radio and wore the batteries out." Castille took the mischievous sound of Texas swing, with its teasing fiddle, darting melodies and -- unlike traditional Cajun music -- swaggering hints of cowboy, and turned it into what's now Cajun swing. It's played on two strings with a back-and-forth, wave-like movement of the bow, and produces a fuller, richer, more complex sound. Today Castille -- who for years earned a living as a plumber -- performs with his son, Blake, and teenage granddaughter, Sarah Jayde Williams.

His bow glides up and back over the strings in a demonstration for me -- a black bowler on his head, his entire face alive with feeling. He keeps time by the slow tapping of his foot. "The melody? You see -- it's carried by just the one string." The room fills with a wild, playful music that's so alive, so vibrant that it's as if the small instrument in his hands can barely contain the big joy inside it.

My feet are tapping, too. I long to inhabit that music, to start dancing right there in his living room. But I'm too self-conscious to get up off the sofa.

Next I head to Louisiana State University's "leisure school," on LSU's leafy green campus, under live oaks and magnolias, past the university lake, fraternity row with its big, Southern-style brick buildings, the wide expanse of the parade grounds and the massive neo-Gothic law school. In the student union, up on the third floor, is the Atchafalaya ballroom, a large, unfurnished, characterless room surrounded by dirty windows. Roland Doucet is teaching Cajun dancing to yet another group of people who somehow missed out earlier in life, and I want to see if there is anything I can glean that might help me light a fire under my husband. What I find are about 30 couples, at least half of them with a willingness to learn but no natural ability. The class is a godsend because, as Doucet says when I explain my struggle to loosen up my husband, who is a professor at LSU, "The hardest people to teach are professors and engineers, because they want to learn how to dance with their heads, and half the time don't even know where their feet are." Whereas the majority of Cajun dancers learn not by memorizing the steps but rather by copying what everyone else is doing, which is how Doucet learned to dance. Only his story has a twist: Like just about everyone else in Doucet's hometown of Vinton, his father, Haywood Doucet, played the fiddle in a Cajun band, which meant that if his mother wanted a dance partner, she had to ask one of her four sons.

As befitting his second-job persona as a dance instructor (his day job is installing and designing custom rugs; he also hosts a Cajun radio show on WXCT here in Baton Rouge), the 55-year-old Doucet addresses his mainly middle-aged students as "ladies" and "gentlemen." As in: "Gentlemen, remember that the most important thing you can do when you're dancing with this lady is to look her in the eye and say, 'Honey, I'm sorry.'" Or: "Gentlemen, make sure you're stepping back with your left foot, because she's going to be stepping forward at the same time with her right, and if your big old foot is in the way, she'll rupture you."

The secret of his classes is that he breaks the dancing down into small, manageable steps, segregating men and women on either side of the room, and repeating each move over and over until his students feel confident enough to try with their partners. At first the method seems like overkill. I mean, how many times does it take to learn how to move your right foot two inches farther to the right and then bring your left foot in to join it? On a cue from their teacher -- the formerly separated couples are floating around the dance floor, the men guiding their partners in large, graceful circles, the women accommodating the husbands' and boyfriends' leads as if they've been doing it all their lives. As for me, when I see Doucet cutting in to dance with a pretty older woman with curly white hair, and the woman, in turn, relaxing into his embrace, as if she'd been waiting for him her entire life, I feel a bolt of pure envy.

Unlike zydeco, most Cajun music is sung in French -- and danceable even for oldsters and young fogies. So even my husband will dance to Cajun music. Or so I'm hoping. We've come to Randol's, a big barn of a place with red-and-white checked tablecloths and a commodious dance floor in Lafayette. There are numerous other good, family-style restaurants in Acadiana where you can dance, as well as enjoy excellent high-end dining -- Catahoula's in Grand Coteau and Cafe Des Amis in Breaux Bridge, with its zydeco brunch on weekends -- but we've come to Randol's because we heard that the band alone is worth the trip.

Cajun music, which tends to be played by and for white people, is typically slower-moving and sweet-tempered, having evolved around the turn of the 20th century from fiddle music played at house parties to an accordion-based sound big enough to fill up old-fashioned dance halls.

All around us diners are feasting on huge platters of fried fish and potatoes, jambalaya, gumbo and spicy-hot boudin to the sounds of Kevin Naquin and the Ossun Playboys. The food of South Louisiana has a French-Creole accent: crawfish bisque (prepared in a rich roux), sauce piquant, boulette (hush puppies seasoned with onions and crawfish tails), cracklins (fried pork skin), etouffee (various kinds of seafood simmered in a rich spicy stew), dirty rice, maque choux (highly seasoned corn).

These days the place is filled with FEMA and Red Cross workers, insurance adjusters and National Guard members. But the regulars are here, too: Long-married couples, little girls with their daddies, and women with their best girlfriends dance gracefully in the typically circular pattern of the Cajun waltz and two-step. "Maybe they'll order a beer, or a cold drink, but most of 'em come for the music and dancing," says Rusty Randol, the head chef. "We see the same couples over and over again."

As usual, no sooner are we seated than I'm filled with a kind of yearning. How could it have happened that I married a man who can't dance? Doesn't he notice that my feet are tapping on the floor and my fingers are drumming on the table? How can he just sit there, when all I can think of is finding one of the many elderly gentleman who might not mind ditching his wife for a minute or two in order to dance with me?

But then, just as I'm about to burst at the seams, my husband turns to me, takes my hand, asks me if I'd like to chance it and leads me forward. And a minute later, the two of us have joined the circle, dipping and swaying to the accordion and fiddle as best we can. The other couples glide like swans around us.

"That's it," I'm saying. "One, two, three, one, two, three." Actually, the Cajun waltz is about the easiest dance in the world to learn -- you just move your feet in a simple left-right-left, right-left-right pattern, pausing slightly on the third beat for emphasis.

The song comes to an end. It's time to quit. But then something happens. As the band launches into another tune, my husband takes my right hand in his left, puts his left at my waist and begins gliding me backward. Only this time there's no need for me to count out the beats, or jump away from his feet or even make sure we don't crash into another couple. Something about the tune -- its sweetness, or perhaps its pace -- seems to have embraced my husband, leading him out and away from himself and landing him right smack in the middle of Acadiana. When I glance up at him, I see that he's smiling. Around and around we go, in time with the other couples but lost in our own time, too, until I no longer know where I am, how I got here, or how I got by for so long without this.

Jennifer Moses is a frequent contributor to the Magazine.

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