Girls adorned in traditional multi-colored dresses with bonnets atop their heads and boys in jeans and white shirts with a handkerchief behind their neck come together as the fast paced zydeco music starts up.
The box zings across the strings of the Cajun fiddle and the singer on the track half shouts in a nasally Cajun french as the metallic tones of the frattoir (the vest-like corrugated percussion instrument akin to the washboard) keeps a beat. The second grade students at Des Allemands Elementary dance much like their ancestors did in years past.
Throughout the 22 parishes, including St. Charles Parish, that make up Acadiana such dances were popular for many years at the salles de dance – dance halls – that at one time dotted the region. Although many other facets of the traditional Cajun culture in St. Charles Parish have dissipated, each second grade at Des Allemands Elementary have been keeping the tradition alive for the past two decades.
Tradition is just the reason that Tonya Tastet, a para-professional at the school, took over the Cajun Dancers program after its founder Carol Touchard retired from the school ten years ago.
“We talk to them and we have a map and show them the different parishes where the Cajun culture came from and where it all started,” Tastet said.
It is her hope by keeping the Cajun Dancers program going she can in some way preserve Cajun culture.
“It helps keep the Cajun culture alive,” Tastet said. “They get to learn about how the dances were different years and years ago when their ancestors came into the region, because now the dances are totally different from what they were back then. So these kids get to learn and show other people and they show their grandparents, who remember these dances.”
Tastet said her dancers use instructional material left from dancers that have come before them.
“We do have some old books from Cajun dancers, so we also study those. We also have old videos from some of the other groups,” she said. “We look at the videos and the books and that is how we get our moves.”
The moves taught include the Cajun step, the hand stand, the tunnel, the sweetheart as well as others.
In addition to teaching traditional dances to all second grade students who attend Des Allemands Elementary, a select group of Cajun Dancers travel in the region and put on shows.
“At the beginning of the year, I teach all of the second grade and then we have an audition and choose about 40 that travel to put on performances,” Tastet said.
During those public performances, Tastet said the group often encounters former students who as adults still remember going through the program and the different steps they learned.
“You’ll see them in the community when St. Charles Parish has the arts festival,” she said. “If we are out there and one of our kids doesn’t show up sometimes our former students who are in the crowd will step in for them.”
Tastet said her favorite event of the year for the kids is the Destrehan Plantation Heritage Festival.
“At Destrehan Plantation the kids also get to see how they made candles at the same time when they made the wax and to see them make iron and the moss they would use to stuff bedding,” Tastet said. “They get to see all kinds of things that also happened back in the day. I think it is important for this to stay alive so the kids can experience these things.”
As for the dancers themselves, Tastet said they cannot wait until the next performance.
“They love it. They are excited about and they are always wondering when they are going to dance again,” she said. “They are excited about it and they enjoy it.”
The Cajun Dancers will perform next at the Wetlands Pavilion Park on April 30.