Good news: It's a stunningly diverse and vibrant scene, with ample parking, free Chips Ahoy! cookies, and scores of nubile, single ladies to woo, particularly if you can dance.
Bad news: Some of us prefer Pepperidge Farm Butter Chessmen, and dance like Steve Martin in The Jerk. And this scene involves accordions.
"A lot of people knock accordions," laments Dana DeSimone, promoter, dance instructor, and Cajun/zydeco enthusiast. "This is just my own pet peeve." He then launches into a lengthy defense of his musical genre of choice, in which he actually utters the words "hard-core accordion."
"I just like the music," he says. "You got hardcore drivin' music, and you can actually two-step and dance with somebody. If you really like hardcore accordion-type music, mixed in with fiddles ... there's a lot of drive and power to it, but there's a sweetness and a melodic sense to it, too."
The hardcore accordions, the sweetness, the cookies, the "singles" atmosphere without threat of dance floor sexual assault: Something compels 150 to 300 people to roll into Alameda every Friday night for zydeco dancin' at the Eagles Hall. Along with his business partner, a well-connected concert promoter named Louisiana Sue, DeSimone has turned a nondescript building eerily reminiscent of a high school gymnasium into the literal stomping grounds for an accordion-wielding empire.
Down in Front infiltrated this empire a couple weeks ago. Step one: dance lessons. Couples dancing's the only game in town, folks. And it's terrifying. "There's no shy people here," DeSimone explains. "Just people who ain't dancin' yet." Stalking the floor in tight clothes and a microphone headset, he grabs a female assistant and demonstrates to a rapt audience exactly what everyone will be doing in about an hour. "You do this [spin, whoosh], and this [dip, twirl], and this [stomp, flip]."
The crowd looks on, incredulous. "If the music's faster, you just take smaller steps," he insists.
Soon he's got men and women divided into two parallel lines facing each other, and bashing out the base unit of zydeco dance -- a one-two-three-step rhythm as counterintuitive as speaking Latin or juggling live chickens. But it's a great opportunity to observe the most joyously random group of people you'll ever meet, like an explosion at the Norman Rockwell factory. All races, all ages, all demeanors. Some gussied up in suits, some brandishing headbands and T-shirts reading "Zydeco Anonymous: A Two-Step Program." Several dudes have dishtowels tucked into their belts to battle the perspiration inspired by robust lady-twirlin'.
It's a fascinating scene, a wedding every Friday. You can bump into your grandma, your thirteen-year-old cousin, and your next ill-advised love affair simultaneously, and perhaps literally, depending on how crowded it is. And as Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, a splendid Cajun band, have the gig on this particular evening, it's a packed, exuberant affair indeed.
If only I could dance for shit. Alas, I cannot.
Oh, sure, once the dance lesson ends and Steve Riley's crew dials up the Mothership, I find myself with multiple dance partners/victims, mostly of bridge-playing age. But the two-step rhythm is confounding. I end up dragging ladies around like a Mafia hitman dragging upright corpses across the floor and stuffing them into a refrigerator.
"Don't worry," one woman says. "The point's just to have fun and listen to the music." (We are almost annihilated by an overexuberant nearby couple.) "Just keep your eyes open and you won't get hit."
"Take a class -- take my class," DeSimone counsels a few days later. A former expert at clogging and tap dancing, he now teaches zydeco in Berkeley, forty bucks for a four-week course -- individual or group lessons available. "I specialize in getting guys, especially, to dance. That's one of my specialties. A lot of people you saw there Friday night, a lot of them I taught. And most of them were pretty bad when they started."
This is DeSimone's life now. He's helped keep the Eagles Hall rolling for nearly eight years now, and he'll patiently explain the difference between Cajun and zydeco (the latter is more diverse and less rigid), and gamely take a stab at explaining the music's cross-cultural appeal: "People just like good music, man. It's just that. People wanna dance, and that's really it. Since the women come, guys will show up. All different types of women come, which means all different kinds of guys are gonna come."
He says he knows at least half a dozen people who met and subsequently married thanks to Eagles Hall excursions. The singles vibe is palpable, but for once, not threatening.
"I love it," says one twentysomething lass unfortunate enough to dance with a music critic. "It's a really safe place to be -- you know it's not gonna be a meat-market nightclub. When people ask you to dance, they genuinely love to dance. You know they're not going to grind up on you, like, heeyyyyyy."
Even at 1 a.m., with Steve and the boys still flailing away, no one's devolved to grinding. Two young kids are sprawled out across chairs trying to sleep, while their parents keep on twirling. "When the band stops playing, we'll leave," Mom promises.
Rhythmic incompetence aside, the spectacle alone justifies the trip.
"It's daunting at first, but keep coming," one woman insists. "Eight times. Come eight times before you give up. The eighth time you come, you'll think of me, and you'll know I was right."
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