Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Come Dancing


My sister should have come in at midnight,
And my mum would always sit up and wait.
It always ended up in a big row
When my sister used to get home late.

Now I'm grown up and playing in a band,
And there's a car park where the Palais used to stand.
My sister's married and she lives on an estate.
Her daughters go out, now it's her turn to wait.
She lets them get away with things she never could,
But if I asked her I wonder if she would,

Come dancing!
Come on sister,
Have yourself a ball.
Don't be afraid to come dancing,
It's only natural.

- the Kinks

It was Friday night when I stood there in BMC on Frenchman Street in New Orleans with two friends, gawking, all of us at once disgusted and intrigued at the site before me our eyes as if we were staring at a car accident. Two Australian tourists, young males in their early twenties, are wooing two young ladies by gyrating wildly to the music, incorporating moves reminiscent of the late '70's, involving wide-leg stances and shoulder popping movements. The young men were talking--no--screaming at the women in painfully thick Australian accents as they tanked up with more drink. My friends and I are forced to step outside, laughing so hard tears well up in our eyes.

Though I was admittedly entertained in a macabre sort of way, I would have been disappointed if that had been a premonition of my weekend.

Luckily, Frenchman Street and surrounding blocks are stuffed to the gills with at least a dozen music clubs, playing a multitude of genres for the musically hungry. We amble down the street only to discover Frenchman's newest venue Mojitos, which has replaced a reggae-metal club I used to revile on a regular basis. Upon passing through the gates I step into another world, or at least another country. My friends and are are part of the handful of non-Latinos present, and not a hipster is to be found on the premises, on a street that is frequently choked with horn-rimmed glasses and plaid button-up shirts.

At Mojitos, the music is sung in Spanish with Cuban rhythms. Tonight there is a band with youngish members, about 10 of them; men on the horns, drums, guitars, and vocals, and a steamy bass player woman with mermaid like hair wearing leopard print. They are playing fast-moving salsa music, and the crowd has the moves. I dare not entangle myself in this new language, but rather enjoy a tecate beer with lime as my friends and I stand under the misters dangling above in the open-air courtyard which is doubling as a dance floor. This band and these dancers are muy cool.

On Saturday, a unanimous decision is made to go dancing at Mimi's in the Marigny. Not much of a clubber myself, I agree to go because it is old-school funk night, and because I've not yet been. This, and every night is hipster night, but the funk brings all sorts in, providing a refreshing range of race and scenes. Serious hip-hop dancers are abound, as are sorority girl types in addition to the status quo Marigny matrons of hip. The DJ is a woman in her forties, mixed-race donning an impressive set of dreadlocks. And, after sufficient social lubricant is imbibed at the reasonably-priced bar, my friends and I are dancing. Tonight is the first night in years I have danced to anything being played by a DJ.

Well-rested but still tired on Sunday, I have the urge to end my dancing days weekend Cajun style. Since having learned to play the old-time fiddle almost a decade ago, most of my dancing days are few and far between and involve a partner and American roots music derived from folkways. Cajun two-step dancing is my favorite because for a clutz like me, all one needs is simply to be able to count to two. That, and the fact that one is not alone; with a half-decent dance partner, two left feet can be transformed in Ginger Rogers.

A historic and world-famous music venue, Tipitina's hosts a Cajun dance every Sunday, the fais do-do. So named for the French phrase of endearment gently urging children to go to bed, it is said that such was the name for the Cajun dance parties that followed suite after the children were tucked away under the covers in Cajun days of old.

I have been to Tipitina's fais do-do on prior occasion, and recall a dimly-lit dance floor with men and women of all ages, women in dresses and heels with flowers in their hair, aptly led to dance gracefully to the lilting accordion and fiddle music being played live on stage. It is old-fashioned, but a very musical and very charming way to end the weekend.

Arriving at Tipitina's door with my friend and favorite New Orleans Cajun dance partner Clancy, we are chagrined to learn that this is the one weekend it is canceled. Scratching our heads and our smartphones for an alternative, we make our way to Mulate's Cajun Restaurant.

Nestled next to the convention center and the tourist-laden Riverwalk, we find exactly what one finds next to a convention center and a tourist-laden Riverwalk; boatloads of overweight tourists sitting around tables eating overpriced food, listening to live Cajun music played at a remarkably slow tempo suitable for a tourist-dinner scene. We belly up to the bar and order what end up being possibly the most expensive drinks I have ever purchased in New Orleans.

Perched with our beverages, we watch the dance floor, which is surprisingly studded with a handful of knowledgeable dancers. We conjecture as to whether they came with the band from some small bayou town outside of the city. I recognize the fiddler, in his twenties, as a man I exchange old time fiddle tunes for Cajun ones on previous occasions here in town. Other than him, the remainder of the band are seasoned middle-aged men, who resemble the dance floor denizens.

"That cute couple reminds me so much of my parents," shares Clancy. I look over at the dance floor.
"Yeah, except that your dad has both his arms," I state, observing that the sleeve of the man is tied in a knot.

After 20 minutes we finish sipping our overpriced cocktails. Clancy and I are spoiled, having been to Lafayette and Eunice to barns and outdoor patio saloons with dynamic, for-dancers-only rhythm. Musicians there play music that would leave these diners covered in sawdust.

"Come on, Clancy," I plea. "I know this is really dinner music, but let's just have one dance for the road."

As neophytes to the Cajun-dancing cause, Clancy and I are having a difficult time matching the traditional two-step to the dinner-tempo and fumble a bit. At the break, he yells "Play faster!" in French. Clancy, a bi-lingual first-grade teacher learned his French living in Paris for a year, and it shows.

"Clancy! Can you not sound like such a Parisian, man? Cajuns might not dig that!" I plea as he laughs. Immediately, one-arm beelines towards us with his partner.

"Where are you from?" he asks.

I immediately prepare to apologize when he explains that his dance partner is a French native, teaching at another of the public bi-lingual grade schools in New Orleans. She and Clancy exchange questions and banter when another tune picks up.

We trade partners for a waltz. My partner is surprisingly graceful and leads me through a series of well-timed steps with his remaining arm. We must have been a strange pair; a thirty-something year old Asian-American in a dress and a heavy-set middle-aged white Louisianan native with one arm, wearing a blue denim button-up shirt with one sleeve tied, cowboy boots, and suspenders. We are sauntering in the traditional circular conformation around the dance floor when I notice that we are being recorded by a multitude of iphones.

Clancy and I continue on for half a dozen more songs. At the break I introduce him to the fiddler and meet the rest of the band hailing from the tiny little town of Bayou Lafourche in the heart of Cajun country a few hours westward. We talk about old-time music, and Cajun music, and Cajun dance. The bandleader is embarrassed to confess that he plays on Bourbon Street but invites us to watch their gigs in Cajun country proper some day.

Eventually Clancy and I leave. Though not the fais do-do I was expecting, I feel complete having made some funny Cajun connections and sneaking in a couple Cajun two-steps before putting the weekend to rest.

I once had a Vietnamese language teacher in Vietnam share with me her observation: "It's funny. Asians seem to love to sing karaoke. Westerners seem to love to dance."
What is it that makes one feel the need to move in a rhythm? And why is it so ubiquitous in some places and not in others?

I think dancing is beautiful, even just to watch. When I had an oldtime band in Alaska, what I loved most was playing square and contradance gigs. I never really connected with the dance itself complicated with its multitude of moves; nor did I connect with most of the typical Alaskan attendees of middle-aged folks wearing socks and birkenstocks, both men and women donning long, pony-tailed hair. But I found magical the phenomenon of seeing a community of people moving in time to the notes and rhythms emanating from my instrument. They were so synchronized to the music, and we musicians were so synchronized to their dancing. When done gracefully, it always struck me as a beautiful way to engage with other people.

I love that a girl can go to a dance in this town on any given night of the week. Swing at the Spotted Cat, Maison, the WWII Museum. Zydeco and Cajun two-step at Tipitina's, Mulates, Rock N Bowl. Funk it out at Mimi's. You name it, you can dance it in New Orleans. I've never lived in a place where I had the option of making this part of my normal routine until I moved to Louisiana.

This weekend I will be training for a bike trip through the Florida Keys I will be taking in August. I will attempt to ride 20 miles this Saturday, and 44 miles on Sunday.

And then, I think I will reward myself Sunday evening with a fais do-do at Tipitina's.

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