Louisiana Dance Halls Past and Present
By Jacob Morrow-Spitzer
In a region heavily steeped in folklore and traditions, modernization can obscure cultural customs and challenge the institutions that once bound a community together. In southern and western Louisiana, these institutions are local Cajun dance halls. Documented in Philip Gould’s and Herman Fuselier’s Ghosts of Good Times: Louisiana Dance Halls Past and Present (2016), these buildings, once central in nearly every rural town, acted not just as a place to swing dance with a partner but as spots to gossip, reconnect, eat, drink (and occasionally find yourself in a 40-minute brawl with guys from neighboring towns). As the region began to change, however, many these cultural establishments were abandoned and their structures slowly disfigured, standing only as reminders of their bygone importance to the communities they served.
Gould, an award-winning cultural photographer who has been shooting in southern Louisiana since 1974, and Fuselier, a writer on Louisiana’s vibrant music scene, teamed up nearly six years ago to begin working on Ghosts of Good Times, where the two chronicled dozens of dance halls in Louisiana’s rural Acadiana region through photography and coupled them with anecdotes and recounts of local dance hall owners, attendees, musicians, and families. The book is divided into two parts: ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Good Times.’ ‘Ghosts’ portrays the dance halls and nightclubs that are still (barely) standing yet no longer running. What ultimately mystifies the reader is the juxtaposition between the extravagant memories of the liveliness of the clubs and the photographs of complete abandonment. Gould’s exquisite images of crumbling barn-like structures suffocated by crawling ivy and littered with fallen debris, chairs and tables that seem untouched since the doors shuttered are coupled with local storytellers recounting the memories of the now desolate institutions.
Ghosts Of Good Time: Louisiana Dance Halls Past and Present
by Herman Fuselier and Philip Gould
232 pp. University of Louisiana at Lafayette,
Lafayette, 2016. $29
In nearly every case, the Cajun dance halls in ‘Ghosts’ did not shutter their doors on a high note. In the making of the book, Gould notes that “most owners were sad about the situation” yet were ultimately “realistic about the current scene.” The “scene” – portrayed incredibly through the photographs – illustrates people simply fading away, leaving the once-revered establishments to succumb to the harsh climates of rural Louisiana. The reader can easily resurrect the Cajun parties that occurred from photos of dated beer promotions to seemingly decades-old cans strewn across dusty floors. Time and time again, former building owners and club-goers describe the exuberant aura of the clubs at the peak of their existence. Much of this is centralized around the musicians and bands that performed. Zydeco, jazz and R&B acts would lure large crowds each week, drawing in locals who, according to one former club regular in Cankton, “danced like true fanatics no matter the conditions.” Wonderfully described through the write-ups of both Fuselier and Gould and the local club attendees, crowds would socialize, dance and eat every weekend until, as Gould writes in regards to the Rainbow Inn in Pierre Part, “the burden of operating the old club simply became too great.”
Not all of the clubs had to shutter their doors, however. ‘Good Times’ shines sunlight on the unfortunate demise of many of the crumbing dance halls in the book’s earlier section. Part two details the buildings that pushed through the hard times and remained open until this day, many of which are in the urban center of Lafayette. It displays lighter pictures, many of them with amused and energetic crowds dancing to the clubs’ live performance for the night. Gould and Fuselier make note that many dance halls still hold dances and concerts, such as Whiskey River, La Poussiere and El Sidos. Yet they also emphasize that these clubs did not survive the epidemic of closing Louisiana dance halls without an intentional restructuring. Many of the halls had to adjust their approaches to compete with the modern attractions luring away its old customers. In particular, casinos took a major toll on the popularity of dance halls, with many people opting to travel to larger spaces with bigger names. Nowadays, many halls cannot rely on consistent weekend crowds to stay open without a unique and distinguishable theme or event or a famous act playing that evening, with one owner noting that “if a star’s name is not the club’s billboard…there’s no need to open.”
The book concludes by discussing the renaissance of Cajun music, particularly among younger crowds in Lafayette. In a memorable account told by an alumnus of the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, he and five friends would frequent the Blue Moon Saloon to experience the Cajun music and culture. The appeal, he writes, is that the club is “like an old-fashioned ‘speakeasy’ where people such as myself who don’t fit in at ‘frat’ bars around Lafayette, can always find people of similar interests who love Cajun music and dance, creating a second family of like-minded individuals.”
Ghosts of Good Times tells the unique backstory behind dozens of dance halls, some of which lay abandoned while others still open their doors for club enthusiasts. Although thematic in memory, each dance hall contained unique attributes and stories, from a race-related lawsuit to local sheriffs serving club-goers beverages. While many people have moved away from the culture of the rural Louisiana dance halls, some remain attracted to their simple sense of culture and community, preserving the culture of the region while letting lose for a night of live music and dancing. Gould’s and Fuselier’s extensive research and photography has uncovered the stories of the ‘Ghosts’ of the past and the ‘Good Times’ of the present.