During the 19th century, Cajun danse rondes, bals de maison and Creole jurés and la-las were improvised in private homes, typically by invitation-only, and they involved a predictable crowd of relatives and neighbors. Musicians were also typically local and well known to those in attendance. In the early 20th century, the context for dancing evolved into public dance halls that attracted a paying audience from a wider area and featuring musicians who were increasingly becoming semi-professionals. Dance halls also served as community centers, providing an opportunity for socialization, courtship, news exchange and expressions of solidarity such as wedding and benefit dances. They could be found in almost any community that had a name for itself. After Prohibition, dance halls began to feature bars. In the 1970s, a few restaurants began programming Cajun and Creole music, clearing some of their floor space for dancing. Most of the traditional dance halls have faded from the scene as social realities have shifted, but Cajuns and Creoles continue to improvise new places to enjoy music and dancing, ranging from jam sessions to large-scale festivals, which have been described as “temporary dance halls.”
This year’s Festivals Acadiens et Créoles honors the dance hall with a photographic exhibition of “Cajun Dance Halls and Zydeco Clubs” at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum’s A. Hays Town Home, a symposium on dance hall traditions at Vermilionville, a CD of legendary dance hall master Walter Mouton and his Scott Playboys recorded live over the years — and of course three days of live Cajun and Creole music, where you can dance in our own improvised dance halls beneath the oaks at Girard Park.