There was a time when dance halls were a part of nearly every community in South Louisiana. But in recent years, nearly all of those places have disappeared. A researcher at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette is trying to capture those dance hall stories before even the memories disappear.
This decaying old building near Opelousas is one of countless dance halls that are disappearing from the Louisiana landscape.
"Leading up to, and then after World War II, pretty much every community had at least one dance hall," said John Sharp.
Sharp is a researcher at ULL's Center for Louisiana Studies who developed a curiosity about dance halls from the titles of some Cajun French songs.
"The names are almost all in French, but occasionally there would be one in English, and I would say, 'What is this, you know, what does this mean?' And would, you know, and sometimes those would be the name of a dance hall," Sharp said.
He found the names of more than 100 Louisiana dance halls in a newspaper article, and that was enough to launch him on a town-by-town search.
"Within six months of finding that list, I had 400 or 500 dance halls, because if I met someone in the, at the grocery store, or anywhere, I would ask them where they were from, where did they dance. And very quickly I built up a much larger list. But currently I think it’s almost 1,700 dance halls," Sharp said.
A few places, like the Jolly Inn in Houma and La Poussierre in Breaux Bridge still exist, but most are gone.
Just two years ago, this was the scene on a Saturday night at Miller's Zydeco Hall of Fame in Lawtell, as Chris Ardoin and his band kept the dance floor packed. One year later, the dance hall was destroyed by a fire.
"So I got to have the sad experience of watching what was left of the hall burn, uh, and with many people stopping to pay their respects and many of whom cried," Sharp said.
Today, only the parking lot remains. Miller's joins the growing list of places that have closed.
This is one of those closed dance halls, the Southern Club in Opelousas. It opened in 1949, and for nearly a half century it had folks dancing to the sounds of swamp pop.
"The Southern Club was, I like to think of it as like the clubhouse for swamp pop," Sharp said. "Every swamp pop icon played there from locals to Fats Domino played there several times.
Of the 1,700 dance halls that Sharp has counted across Louisiana, he says fewer than two dozen remain.
"It was just the center of the community," he said.
You can only imagine how many young couples danced for the first time at a place like this, got their first kiss, got married or just spent time with family and friends on a Saturday night.
The information John Sharp collects will go into a documentary he’s producing on Louisiana dance halls. Sharp has also created a website where you can read up on Louisiana dance halls or add your own story.
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