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Neutrons Protons: Dancing jitterbug

Editor's Note: NolaVie presents this guest blog series from Neutrons Protons, a New Orleans-based literary publication that believes well-written stories, and a good dose of humor, have the power to change the world. The next issue comes out June 1 and is a special "Vacation Issue." Here. editor Willa Conway talks dance, and what New Orleans has brought to her relationship with this art form.

Willa and the crew

Willa and the crew credit: Josh Ente

Willa and the crew credit: Josh Ente

I haven’t always loved to dance. I remember when my mom first took me to ballet class when I was six. I remember how the tutu skirt scratched my legs and the tights felt like they were on backwards and I thought my shoes were dumb looking. I cried so much after my first class that my mom didn’t make me go back. I was relieved and decided if this was dance, then I was definitely not a dancer.

I didn’t start dancing again until fifteen years later when I moved to Denver after college; I was ready to embrace uncertainty. The teacher I found there, Koffi Toudji, organized a class like nothing I had experienced growing up. He opened the class not with a plié set, but by having everyone run around the room, jumping over obstacles or by having us stand in front of the floor-to-ceiling mirrors while instructing us to look closely at ourselves and speak aloud how beautiful we were. I was hooked instantly, not only because it was fun and I made great friends, but because I realized that I loved to dance. And I was good at it. I learned dance was much more about the freedom to move, to play, and to be in community than anything else.

In 2011, I moved away from Denver, a place that had felt like home, in large part because of the dance community I was a part of. But I was moving to New Orleans, the home of bounce, swing, second-line, hip-hop, jazz, Cajun dancing, and Zydeco. Dance, like music, has been an integral part of the identity of the city for centuries as a means of expression, survival and play.

This fall, my partner, Josh, surprised me with Cajun Jitterbug dance classes. Glenn Laigast and Lori Bertaut are the sort of teachers whose enthusiasm for their passion is hard not to be influenced by. Even if you never knew that dancing Cajun and Zydeco dance would be something you would see, let alone do, Glenn and Lori, who run Cajun and Zydeco dance lessons out of a small dance space in Rock and Bowl in Mid City, will make you love to dance and even consider taking road trips to the Hilton hotel in Lafayette just to have a beer with them.

Glenn and Lori begin class by demonstrating the moves with seemingly little effort in the middle of the dance floor before encouraging the students to focus less on watching and just dance. Josh and I stumbled, and then got it, and then stumbled more, and often Lori or Glenn would step in as one of our partners and show us how it was done. Each move always took more relaxation than I had anticipated, a flexibility and knowingness of body that we hadn’t quite earned yet.

It’s part of their skill, coupled with casual ease, that make Glenn and Lori so enticing. They are both in their sixties but look much younger. It turns out dancing everyday does keep you fit for the long haul. As teachers, they adapt to each couple or individual’s skill set, observing and guiding. For them, dance is a way to teach history and culture through movement. The movements and the music are a living manifestation of time passing, and as I got more comfortable spinning around in new configurations, I felt myself within that history, connected to my new Louisiana home. I was relaxed and I was dancing.

leader

Abita Springs: Where everyone dances credit: Josh Ente

Abita Springs: Where everyone dances credit: Josh Ente

Last weekend Josh and I finally made it out to Abita Springs for their monthly Cajun dance. Abita Springs is a small town on the North Shore of New Orleans, with a population hovering around 2,000. Tourists used to come to get fresh spring water from spigots in town, but now come mostly for the beer of Abita Springs Brewery, which has a pub right in the center of town. If you follow the road a bit past the pub on the night of the Cajun dance, Town Hall will be impossible to miss. By the time we arrived to the dance, the grass field across from the hall was filled with cars and we could see people taking a break outside the wood structure that was more reminiscent of rustic Western lodges than I anything I associate with rural Louisiana.

Glenn told me that these dances have been happening monthly for close to twenty years in Town Hall. As each song began, people found their partners and made their way to the dance floor. It was as though the dance floor was made of quicksand when the music wasn’t playing, yet as soon as the accordion struck its first note, the ground became solid once again, ready for dancing feet.

The most beautiful thing about it was that everyone was dancing. The old man with the hunched back and red suspenders danced with ladies young and old. The couple wearing all black, the lady in silver tipped suede boots, the man with his bejeweled  cowboy hat. The “Cajun Dancers” in their matching team shirts. The man in white linen pants who flirted with me by saying, “I looked up 'tall' in the dictionary and 'elegant' is a synonym.” The forty people over fifty who we were asked to be in a group photo with as Glenn and Lori crouched in the front smiling. The stocky musician playing a small red accordion that stood out again his yellow and black-stripped shirt. It was as if movement was inevitable, joy a natural outcome.

I couldn’t help smiling all night as Josh and I played with our Cajun Jitterbug moves -- the sweetheart, the windowpane, the windmill, the duck under -- as those around us moved in their own time. Technique and classes may help you gain confidence, but what I realized anew in Abita Springs is that for me, dance is about coming together as a community -- whether it’s with strangers or old friends -- to celebrate life for a moment. When I truly dance, thoughts give way to the sound of boots thumping and I feel my hair whipping around behind me and I am present; I know I will always be a dancer.

Glenn and Lori are beginning a new round of classes this coming Tuesday, June 3rd at Rock and Bowl.  be sure to check out the upcoming Cajun and Zydeco Festival at Louis Armstrong Park June 14-15th where they will be teaching with world rebound live music.

Laine Kaplan-Levenson is a producer at WWNO, The Moth and Listening Post and cofounder of Bring Your Own.