Throughout South Louisiana on Friday and Saturday night, buildings that are dormant all week come roaring to life. Flashing arrow signs advertise the evening’s entertainment and empty gravel or grass parking lots fill up with cars and trucks just after sundown. Couples and singles arrive, mill about outside, greeting old friends and making new ones.
The first strains of the accordion fill the air, followed quickly by the sharp snap of the snare drum. In an instant, the entire building becomes a speaker box-pulsing with the sound of the entire band, propelled (ever forward) by the syncopation of the bass player and drummer. Even in the parking lot, the urge to move is almost irresistible, encouraging those just arriving to move a little quicker to get inside for their first dance of the night.
Dancehall attendees are usually dressed one of two ways–to the nines in their finest new clothes, or in older, comfortable worn in gear that falls somewhere between workout and work clothes. The crowd sports equal parts modern urban and rural country styles–as many baseball caps as cowboy hats, oversized t-shirts as tucked-in Western snap shirts, baggy pants as starched Wranglers with huge belt buckles, and as many sneakers as cowboy boots. No matter their skin color or what they are wearing, everyone is here for the same thing–to dance. Regardless of the outside temperature, most dancers will be drenched in sweat before the night is over.
South Louisiana was once dotted with dancehalls like these—many communities were outfitted with at least one. Equal parts bar, performance hall, and community center, the traditional dancehall provided a space for much needed recreation. The majority of these legendary institutions have closed their doors, but the few that remain open are now a frequent stop for tourists from all over the world.
Day-to-day life in Louisiana has traditionally meant hard physical labor. Working the land, a machine, oil derrick, washing clothes or cooking and cleaning, enduring the seasonal highs and lows from before sun-up until after sundown six days a week didn’t leave one with much energy or money for a party. Saturday night was special: time to leave behind all your troubles, dress up in your second best clothes (you need the best for church in the morning!) and head out to the dancehall.
The whole extended family loaded up in a wagon (or in later years a car) and drove to the outskirts of town. After traveling down the dark and dirty country roads, a lighted building appeared in the distance. As the vehicle grew nearer, faint music cut the humid night air. The area around the building abuzz with activity: children running and playing a game of tag, women greeting each other, and men shaking hands and slapping each other on the back. A man with a cigar box collected a small fee at the entrance. Inside, the band, made up of local community members, set up on one end of a room, and the floor in front of the band is filled with dancers, the floorboards alive under their feet, pulsing with the dancers and slightly bowing under the weight. Around the edge of the room women, both young and old, sit and wait to be asked to dance. Young women ask their mothers if they can have a dance with their new beau–hoping he will ask. The men mill about, searching the sea of faces, knowing each one. Everyone talks about the latest community news. In one small room, infants are rocked amid the noise and bustle, their mothers bidding them to sleep so that they can enjoy a dance themselves. Men step out into the cool night air, reaching into their back pockets for a flask to pass around, providing their friends with a taste of liquor, perhaps pouring a shot into a mixer they bought at the bar inside. The moon shines down on the dancehall, a lone building surrounded by a dirt field–kept bare by the weekly influx of wagons and horses. Voices inside and outside the hall raise up–loud and boisterous, soaring carefree on Saturday night.
The history of the organized dancing locations in South Louisiana begins with the bal de maison, or house dance, which date back to the 1700s, before the arrival of the Acadians. These were intensely local affairs that were held at both grand plantation homes and small farmhouses. Since these events were primarily invitation only, a courier on foot or horse spread the word that a dance would be held that weekend. Bal de maison hosts cleared part of the house so that couples could dance and onlookers could supervise and gossip. The windows were opened for air to flow freely and so that the music could be heard outside. The band was usually a local duo playing fiddles and later accordion. These events were hugely popular, both with affluent landowners and farming families.
Dancehalls, or les salles de danse, became popular in South Louisiana around the time of the Civil War. In many ways, they resembled house dances: paid admission, food and drinks for sale, entire families welcome, largely insular community affairs. Unlike house dances, dancehalls were separate structures open on a regular basis for entertainment. They were open to anyone who could pay to enter, which allowed the evening’s entertainment to be frequently disrupted by arguments and fights about standing personal and family issues.
Some early dancehalls were similar to shopping centers in that they were multi-use facilities. Dauphine’s Dancehall in Parks featured a baseball diamond, a bar, a grocery store, and an ice cream parlor. Richard’s Casino (also known as Tee Maurice) in Vatican featured a dirt track behind the hall that was used for both horse and car races. Lee Brothers Dancehall in Cutoff featured a barbershop and small general store. Also, many halls began as grocery stores or saloons and over time became exclusively dancing and drinking establishments.
The majority of classic-era dancehalls share several common characteristics. The windows could be propped open to allow for unrestricted airflow. In the days after electricity reached these halls, giant fans were installed into the walls to keep air moving. Some of these fans featured a reservoir that allowed a trickle of water to drip onto a curtain of moss for maximum cooling effect. Many people have commented that even without signs, dancehalls were easily identified in the day by the large gravel parking lots and windows braced open to allow cooling and airing out before an event. Typically, women could enter and dance for free, while men paid a charge to dance–a ticket was stapled to their collar upon entering the dance floor. Many early dancehalls featured a “bull pen” for the men–a holding area where they congregated when they weren’t dancing. Later, this area would be replaced by a barroom that served as a shared area for both sexes. Another common feature of halls was a bleacher-style seating area for women. This seating area allowed an unobstructed view of the dance floor for mothers and grandmothers to watch every move of the younger female family members as they danced and talked with young men. Many of these establishments featured a parc aux petits, a room where babies were allowed to sleep, away from the noise and bustle of the hall. Another common feature was a room set aside for playing cards, bingo, and later slot machines.
Although the majority of local dancehalls of recent memory feature Cajun and zydeco music, historically establishments that represented many more genres of music were popular all over the state. Blues, big band, string band, jazz, country and western, rhythm and blues, swamp pop, and rock and roll music all had a home in Louisiana dancehalls. Forty-six of Louisiana’s sixty-four parishes featured dancehalls at one time or another. These halls were established in a variety of settings as well–city centers, rural locations, at water’s edge (and sometimes on the water!), the outskirts of town, and neighborhoods.
The modern dancehall has few persisting characteristics from the old style. The “bull pen” area where single men waited between dances and the bleachers where mothers and grandmothers sat to closely watch the courting couples talk and dance are long gone–replaced by a large bar area and tables to be used by all. Courting is still a major function of the dancehall, even though the discerning eye of the once ever-present chaperones are no longer there to help monitor the behavior of the young single dancers. The gaming rooms are also a thing of the past, replaced by pool tables or one electronic slot machine in a corner, maybe a video poker machine at the end of the bar in place of the card tables that once held endless streams of bourée and euchre games. The things that have persisted are universal: music, dancing, and fellowship.
Although the majority of these famous institutions have closed for good, a few dancehalls remain open today. The changing tides of popular music, the rising popularity of casinos, the raising of the drinking age from eighteen to twenty-one, and the aging population of dancehall enthusiasts all played a part in the decline in dancehall numbers. Sadly, no Louisiana organization exists to preserve, support, and celebrate these cultural icons.