Friday, May 30, 2008

Learning Zydeco and Cajun

In January I began dancing zydeco and cajun. The dances are street dances, like swing, and are earthy. Both have different stepping patterns but each incorporate variations of swing moves. While I don't like listening to the music much, I do like dancing to it.

The music's an 8 count beat and once you get the rhythm and the foot work down, it's fun to do. I'm still learning the two dances, though I'd like to think I understand the fundamentals.

Zydeco has a faster beat; cajun is slower. Both are partner dances although in Zydeco there's more room for individual improvisation. Cajun is, like waltz, conducted around the floor in a counter-clockwise pattern. There's also in cajun what's known as the jig step. For some reason I call it the j-peg; maybe it's because you sort of (but don't really) hop on one foot and, when I'm dong it I feel like I'm making a spectacle of myself.

It's hard for me to explain since I've only been dancing these two dances for about 5 months. I will say that having a background in swing and ballroom dancing has made learning them easier. I've been told by Judy's friends, who've invested time and energy teaching me the dances, that I'm not a beginner, rather an intermediate now and so can't cop a novice plea.

The other day I was thinking about these dances and reflected on how much my martial arts background has helped with my dancing. The transferrable skills of moving my body in space and time, weight shifting, eye-hand-foot coordination have all helped me learn to dance. I think also, that the sense of self-confidence I've developed thru karate allows me to be on the dance floor and not worry about people looking (read laughing) at me.

Dancing is a fun, social activity. Learning the different dances, going dancing, keeps me young, I think. I've read where dancing staves off mental deterioration because of the mind-body connection needed as either a leader or follower. Dancing is also a good cardiovascular exercise.

One thing I noticed at my first zyedco/cajun festival this past weekend was the age of the vast majority of dancers. Most everyone seemed to be in the >50 age range. There were some in their 40's but most all were older, for sure.

I guess, like me, people don't start dancing until they're older, marriages ending, facing social isolation, not wanting to do (or have been there, done that) the bar scene. On the other hand, I asked around a little bit at the festival and learned that a lot of the zydeco/cajun dancers had been dancing for around 20 years, which means they got into it when they were around 35-40.

What is needed, I think, is an infusion of younger people to carry on. I've seen in the swing dance community younger people, people in their 20's, coming to the dance. I know there are a number of colleges/universities who've added both ballroom and swing dances to their P.E. programs. Maybe, as these younger folks learn to dance they'll eventually branch out to other styles and embrace these other dances such as zydeco and cajun.

It could be that the two dances are still very much associated with Louisiana and, especially, New Orleans and so are considered regional. However, up here in the Boston and Rhode Island area, there's a sizable dance community. It would seem that a fair number of people came out of the contra-dance community, but that may not be entirely true. I have noticed that, like me, people have come from the swing community; however, I have been noticing zydeco/cajun dancers coming to swing dances. It's good there's a cross-over.

When I first started learning to dance I was told to learn swing, foxtrot and waltz. From these three, I learned, I could learn almost every other kind of dance. I found that to be generally true. Certain dances, like west coast swing, the hustle and Argenine tango, you have to learn them as they are peculiar to themselves and can't be picked up casually.

Interestingly, in zydeco/cajun dance there are strong elements of swing, waltz, foxtrot, and salsa (cha-cha). One technique, the window, I see, and can now do in cajun, I learned taking polka lessons.

What I've found is that once you feel the rhythm of the dance and learn the stepping pattern, the rest of it comes along fairly easily. "I've got rhythm, I've got music, I've got my girl, who could ask for anything more."


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