In early south Louisiana, one of their most popular forms of entertainment and most important social gatherings were les bals de maison (house dances).
Travelers such as French writer C.C. Robin, who traveled through Louisiana from 1803 to 1805, told us that the Acadians loved to dance more than anything else and more than anyone else in all of Lousiana.
"At one time during the year," Robin wrote, "they give balls for travelers and will go ten or fifteen leagues to attend one. Everyone dances, even grandmre and grandpre, no matter what the difficulties. There may be only four candles for light, nothing but long wooden benches to sit on and only a few bottles of tafia [a rum-like drink] diluted with water for refreshments; no matter, everyone dances."
In the 1800s, these dances typically were held each Saturday night. Out on the prairie, they were announced by a young man on horseback waving a flag, that he then tied to the house where the dance was to be held. Sometimes, the messenger fired a gun before each house and hollered out the name of the host.
Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee described a bal de maison to music historian John Broven. "Suppose I had a house," McGee said, "well they came and asked me to lend it for a hall. I gave my consent. They rode around to invite young girls and at night they got together. Women sat down on benches made with blocks of wood and planks. ... The boy who had borrowed the house was the boss until the ball was through. He decided which couple to put together. He stood at the door and when a guy asked him to dance, he placed him. Sometimes he let him dance, sometimes not. ... Sometimes it was a large house, sometimes it was a small house. When it was big ... eight, sometimes twelve could dance. Your turn came back quick. When it was a small one, there was room for only six maybe. Your turn never came, it took too long and you couldn't have fun. You danced a country dance and a waltz and that was all."
In an interview some years ago, musician and fiddle-maker Adner Ortego recalled, "[In the 1920s] we'd beg [people] to loan us a house one night a week so we could have a dance. We'd have to crawl under the house and put some blocks so the floors wouldn'\'t cave in. After the dance, we'd have to get the blocks out because the termites would get in there."
Even before Ortego's time, however, the dances were moving from people's houses to the fais-dodo, a term describing not only the dance itself, but sometimes the place where it was held.
Just as with the house dances, the fais-dodo was a family affair. Young children were put to bed at the dance, and told to fais dodo, which means "go to sleep." Young men, when they were not dancing, were sometimes restricted to une cage aux chiens, which was designed partly to keep the young men and women separated, partly to contain the fights that often broke out as young love and liquor became too much to handle.
Regional historian Lauren Post recounted, "In a few of the rougher sections during the thirties it was customary to set the musicians up in a little elevated cage protected by chicken wire from the bottles and other missiles, so that they could play any kind of music they chose to play. It seems that one of the main causes of trouble was the all-important choice of music to be played. Many a fight was started by a dispute over whether a waltz or a two-step should be played."
Not all of the dance halls were impressive. Sometimes they were no more than a barn or a warehouse with a reasonably good pine floor and wooden benches to sit on.
It didn't matter.
When the fiddles began to wail, there was no way to keep from dancing.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.