Good times roll at Atlanta Zydeco dances

It’s another Saturday night at the Knights of Columbus Hall on Buford Highway.

Lines of men and women face each other on the dance floor. Some effortlessly slide into the basic southwest Louisiana zydeco step while others move in an awkward shuffle. But everyone is smiling, even if a few women are giggling nervously.

“Everybody OK?” Christy Taylor asks. “Everybody having fun?”

Taylor leads the free zydeco dance lessons at the monthly dances put on by the nonprofit Atlanta Cajun Zydeco Association with the deft, reassuring demeanor of a mother hen encouraging her chicks to leave the nest.

The recorded music, run by a DJ with a laptop, starts slowly, then gradually speeds up, becoming a propulsive groove. The dancers learn to shift their weight from foot to foot with the rhythm. Later, they pair up with a partner to practice the “closed position” and move on to the “trailer hitch.”

Songs by the likes of the late zydeco king, Boozoo Chavis, and the reigning zydeco princess, Rosie Ledet, fill the room with the sounds of wheezing accordion, scraping rub board and funky bass.

Taylor counts out the beats with a wireless microphone curled around her chin. “One, two, three, tap. Five six, seven, tap.”

Soon more Saturday night regulars and ACZA members file in, gathering at tables around the dance floor. Some women kick off dress shoes and pull on cowboy boots. Sparkly tops for women, western shirts for men, and cowboy boots for everyone are de rigueur. Adding to the festive atmosphere are a cash bar and Cajun food for sale.

The entertainment for the night, Zydeco T, a five-piece accordion-driven ensemble advertised as “Atlanta’s own hometown zydeco band,” takes the stage and starts tuning up. As the night goes on, they mix traditional zydeco classics sung in Creole French with originals and covers by Buckwheat Zydeco and Los Lobos.

During band breaks, when the DJ takes over again, Zydeco T members, who proudly count two dance teachers with Louisiana roots among their number, leave the stage to join the promenade. Taylor is out there, too, switching roles from teacher to happy dancer, gliding into a blur of changing partners.

Later, Taylor, who grew up in Atlanta and works as a technical writer and instructional designer, talked about her love affair with zydeco music and dance.

“I’ve done Cajun, contra, swing, even some ballroom,” she said. “But zydeco I enjoy the most. It’s hard to sit down when you hear that beat and that music. I have a sitting down at your cubicle all day kind of job, so dancing really gets you on your feet and out of your shell, and just makes you feel good.”

Taylor said the ACZA dances have spawned a close community and a social scene with its own rules of etiquette.

“It’s different than going to a bar,” she said. “People are friendly and polite and you feel safe. That appeals to me as a single woman. When you tell people you’re new, they kind of look out for you.

“When the music stops, most people will change partners. The etiquette is that if somebody asks you to dance, most people will say yes. If you’re a new person, you’re encouraged to dance with as many different people as you can so you can learn. And both men and women can ask others to dance.”

ACZA President Don Baggett, an IT professional originally from Florida, has been on the association’s board since its beginnings in 2006, and often teaches dance lessons with Taylor.

“I just like to dance,” Baggett said. “I’ve taken a lot of lessons. I’ve been to festivals all over the country. I love zydeco music. It’s really happy music. It celebrates life. I also enjoy Cajun music. It’s very melodic. It has an upbeat of its own.”

But beyond all the good times, Baggett said the serious goal of ACZA is to promote southwest Louisiana culture and music, presenting live bands that play authentic Louisiana music at least once a month.

“It’s exciting to me that there’s this little bit of culture from Louisiana that originated there and doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Taylor said. “There are a lot people in other cities that do this kind of dancing now, and usually they go to Lafayette or other places in southwest Louisiana to learn how to dance.

“At the beginning of each lesson, here, I ask how many people have never done it before, and usually at least 10 people raise their hands. It’s exciting that new people are coming every time we have a dance. To me, personally, it’s exciting because I get to share what I love with them.”

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