How to Dance to Cajun Music
This page is covers basic Cajun jitterbug footwork and moves. The material was originally written as a supplement to a dance class given in the Boston area by Jim Whinfield. For some interesting thoughts on the "authenticity" of Cajun Jitterbug, see Notes on the Origin of Cajun Jitterbug.
Jim Whinfield, March 1992
The Cajun jitterbug that you learned in this class is a classic two-step. This means that there are two beats to every measure of the music, with the emphasis on the second beat (one-TWO, one-TWO, one-TWO). The version of the two-step that we learned is the urban style that is typically danced in a large city such as New Orleans. To perform this version of the two-step, go up on the ball of one foot (either foot will do) and leave the other foot flat on the floor. On one, push up on the "cocked" foot. On two, drop down into the flat foot. Repeat this basic motion -- push-DROP, push-DROP, push-DROP -- until the music stops. (You can change your "cocked" foot when one leg gets tired.)
To add an extra bit of styling to the basic step, try twisting your "cocked" foot out to the side on the DROP part of the step. (Imagine that you are extinguishing a cigarette with your "cocked" foot.)
The Cajun two-step is an improvisational couple dance. Since it is not planned out in advance, one person (the leader) assumes responsibility for deciding which move to do next, and the other person follows (guess what this person is called?). Traditionally, the man has been the leader, but as we have seen in this class, the woman can lead just as well. (Note: to simplify the descriptions of the moves in these notes, we will use the term "he" to describe the leader, and "she to describe the follower. Sorry...it was just too awkward and confusing any other way).
All Cajun moves are initiated from one of two basic positions: open-handed position and cross-handed position. In the open-handed position, the partners face one another and join right hand to left (and left to right) slightly below waist level. Cross-handed position is identical, except the hands are crossed (right hands joined on top, left hands below).
It is essential for both partners to maintain a firmness, or tension, in the forearms (not too tight, but not too loose) in either of the basic positions. This makes it easier for the leader to provide signals as to which move is coming next. Try both leaning backwards and supporting one another to get a feel for the tension that is required.
In all, we learned nine moves that you can do from the open-handed position, and seven that you do from the cross-handed position. (All of the open-handed moves typically flow together; so do the cross-handed moves). We also taught two ways to get from open- handed position to cross-handed position. All of these are described below.
The following moves are all performed from the open-handed position:
Probably the most versatile (and often used) open-handed move. The leader raise his left hand to create an arch, and gently, but firmly pulls the follower towards him. The follower steps under the arch and turns 180 degrees counter-clockwise, so that she winds up standing next to the leader (on his right), facing the same direction. The leader lowers his left hand in front to complete the move. (The follower ends up encircled inside the leader's arms, hence the alternate name for this move -- the "inside turn".)
From the Sweetheart position, you can shuffle forward, back or around in a circle (usually with the leader moving forward and the follower backward). When shuffling forward, the leader can stop moving a step before the follower, and swing her around in an arc to his other side.
To perform this basic turning move, the leader pulls the follower slightly forward and to his right, placing his right hand on her left hip, and his left hand on his own left hip. Both partners should be standing slightly offset to one another, so you both have room to shuffle forward, and move clockwise around in a circle.
The Hip Turn can also be performed in a counter-clockwise direc- tion. The leader pulls the follower forward and to his left, and places his left hand on her right hip and his right hand on his own right hip. (As before, both partners shuffle forward.)
The outside turn begins exactly like the Sweetheart (or inside turn) -- the leader raises his left hand to form an arch. However, instead of pulling the follower forward, the leader pushes gently out and to the left with both hands (the raised left hand and the lowered right). The leader sweeps the follower in a clockwise direction under the arch and all the way around (360 degrees) until she faces him again. When the turn is completed, the leaders' right hand should be behind the followers' back, and his left hand should be in front of his own chest. As in the Hip Turn, both partners should end up standing slightly offset to one another, so you both have room to shuffle forward and turn in a circle.
As with the hip turn, the outside turn can also be performed in both directions. (To turn the follower in a counter-clockwise direction, the leader raises his right hand and guides the follower out to the right, and around.)
While in the outside turn position (in either direction), the leader can raise the hand that is at his chest to form an arch. He then steps through the arch and lowers the hand. This puts the couple in a back-to-back position. From this position, you can both slide to the left, or both to the right, in a motion like that of sliding doors. At the point of greatest arm extension, look back over your shoulder to establish eye contact with your partner. Repeat several times for dramatic effect. To return to the outside turn position, the leader raises one arm to create an arch behind his head and steps backwards through it. (Leaders, be sure to raise your arm when you are standing directly behind your partner. There is no convenient way for human arms to bend at the any other point in this move.)
The Sweetheart Slide is a variation that is performed from the Sweetheart position. Begin by getting into the Sweetheart position and starting to turn (the leader should be shuffling forward at first, and the follower shuffling backward). The leader lets go with his right hand and raises it up in the air. While the follower continues to move backward, the leader slides in front of her. When the leader reaches the follower's right side, he returns his right hand to waist level and rejoins it with the follower's left hand. At this point, you have resumed the Sweetheart position, except that the leader and follower have swapped position (the follower is now on the left side and the leader is on the right). As you continue to turn, notice that the follower is now shuffling forward and the leader backward.
The follower now lets go with her right hand and slides in front of the leader, using exactly the same motion described above. You can take turns sliding in front of one another until you become nauseous .. or until another move occurs to you.
The Sweetheart Slide and Spin works exactly like the Sweetheart Slide, but is adds a fancy extra frill. (Note: Either partner can initiate this move, but for the purposes of this description, we will assume that the leader starts on the left.)
Start exactly as you would with the Sweetheart Slide. In the Sweetheart position, turn in a circle, with the leader on the left moving forward, and the follower on the right moving backward. The leader lets go with his left hand and places it behind his back. The follower leaves her right hand in front, and rejoins it with her partner's left hand between their bodies. (This can feel rather awkward at first.) Now -- just as he did in the Sweetheart Slide -- the leader lets go with his right hand and begins to slide in front of the follower. However, in this move, the leader spins 360 degrees in a counter-clockwise direction while he is sliding. When the "slide and spin" have been completed, you should return to the Sweetheart position, with the leader on the right and the follower on the left. Just as in the Sweetheart Slide you have swapped positions.
Take turns performing this "slide and spin" motion until you've had enough.
The Back Out move provides you with a particularly dramatic way to unwind from the Sweetheart position. While the leader is on the left in the Sweetheart position, he gently slides his right arm up so that it is higher than usual on the follower's back. The leader then places both his thumbs on the biceps of the follower and gently pushes backward. Together, these signals tell the follower that she should duck down and back out under the leader's crooked right arm. (It may sometimes be helpful to supplement these signals with a verbal cue, such as "back out!")
Once the follower has passed under the leader's right arm, the leader raises both hands and turns 360 degrees in a clockwise direction under the raised hands. This unwinds back to the basic open-handed position, so that you are ready to continue.
To perform this elementary turn, the leader lets go with his right hand and raises his left hand to form an arch. The follower steps forward under the arch, and turns 180 degrees in a counter- clockwise direction. The leader turns 180 degrees in a clockwise direction to face the follower and lowers his left hand. (The net result is that the partners have changed places.)
The Double Turn-Under adds an extra frill to the Turn-Under. It begins exactly like the Turn-Under: the leader lets go with his right hand and raises his left hand to form an arch. The follower steps forward under the arch, turning 180 degrees counter-clockwise as she does so. Once the follower has completed her turn, however, the leader also steps under the arch, turning in a counter- clockwise direction to face the follower. (Again, the partners have switched places ... but in a little fancier way.)
We learned two ways to get from the open-handed to the cross-handed position: Scissorhands and Hand on the Stomach.
From the open-handed position, the leader swings both hands up (the right hand slightly before the left). He swings the right hand over the follower's head and places it on her opposite (right) shoulder. The left hand is swung over the leader's own head and placed on his own right shoulder. From this position, you can turn in a circle by both shuffling forward. The leader then lets go with both hands and slides both hands down the follower's arms, joining hands at the bottom -- Voila! in cross-handed position.
You can add an optional frill to the circling position described above. Rather than releasing both hands at the same time, the leader can choose to release only his left hand. Both partners leave their right hands resting on their partner's left shoulder, and they rejoin their left hands below -- continuing to turn all the while. From this position, the leader releases his right hand, and both slide down only one arm to the cross-handed position.
(Notes Scissorhands is a move that requires lots of space to perform. It probably should not be attempted on a crowded dance floor.)
The leader initiates the Hand on the Stomach move by stepping towards the follower, letting go of her left hand, and placing her right hand on his stomach. (The leader also simultaneously pulls the follower gently forward.) As the follower walks past the leader (on his right), he turns in a counter-clockwise direction. The follower trails her right hand across the leader's waist, and as the hand starts to come off his other side, the leader grabs hold of it with his right hand. The couple then joins left hands underneath, completing the transition.
These moves are initiated from the cross-handed position. (Remember: At the start of each move, the right hand is always on top.)
The leader starts the Windmill by raising his right hand to form an arch (and lowering his left hand slightly). He starts the follower turning in a clockwise direction by passing his right hand across his body and pushing out and away. The follower turns all the way around under the arch, while the leader remains facing her. As the follower completes her turn, the leader lowers his right hand and raises his left. The leader's left hand now forms an arch, and he turns under it (in a counter-clockwise direction) while the follower dances in place.
You can take turns turning in this fashion as long as you'd like. However, the Windmill can be a much more elegant and dramatic move if you pause for a moment between revolutions and establish eye contact with your partner. (Pause for just a split-second, then start the next turn.)
Little Windows is a circling move that can be performed in either direction. The leader turns the follower twice to assume the clockwise turning position. He then turns her three times to go into the counter-clockwise turning position. In either position, both partners move forward to create the circling motion.
The leader begins the move by raising both hands. With a flick of both wrists, he starts the follower turning out and away from him (to his left). The follower turns twice in clockwise direction while the hands remain raised. When she completes the second revolution, the arms are lowered. Your right arms should be positioned to form a "window frame". Your biceps should be placed side-by-side to form the lower part of the window (the sill); the leader's forearm forms one side, and the followers' forearm forms the other side. The leader cocks his hand backwards, much like a waiter carrying a tray, and this hand forms the top of the window. Your left hands are joined through the window, and you should establish and maintain eye contact through the window as you turn. (You both shuffle forward to circle around one another.)
To circle in the opposite direction, the leader again raises both hands, and with a flick of both wrists starts the follower turning in a counter-clockwise direction. The follower turns three times under the raised hands. When she completes the third revolution, the leader lowers both hands and again forms a "window frame". This is exactly the same as the window in the opposite direction (though it feels quite different at first). The difference is that your left arms form the "window", and your right hands are joined through the window. The leader cocks his left hand like a waiter, and his left hand forms the top of the frame. When you shuffle forward, you will circle in the opposite direction.
Big Windows is very much like Little Windows. Like Little Windows, the follower must turn twice to assume the clockwise turning position and three times to turn back into the counter-clockwise turning position. Big Windows also begins in exactly the same way -- the leader raises both hands and gently starts the follower turning clockwise under their joined hands.
The difference occurs after the follower has completed one clockwise revolution, and before she begins the second. At the end of the first revolution, the leader slides his right hand (still holding the follower's right hand) down to her left hip. (The joined left hands remain high.) The follower continues with her second revolution, and when she completes it, a big "window frame" has been formed. Turn as far as your arms will allow, so you wind up standing side-to-side, facing in opposite directions. Leave your joined left hands over your heads to form the top of the frame; your shoulders will naturally form the bottom. As with Little Windows, you both shuffle forward to circle in a clockwise direction.
To reverse and turn counter-clockwise, the leader gives the follower a gentle nudge with his right forearm. With this cue, she will start to "unwind", turning in a counter-clockwise direction. Once the follower has completed her first revolution, the leader raises both hands. The second revolution occurs while both hands are raised. However, at the end of the second revolution, the leader slides his left hand down to the follower's right hip. She continues to turn until you assume the same position, in mirror image. (Your right hands should remain high to form the top of the "window frame".)
The Broken Window is a variation that is performed from the Little Windows circling position. Turning in the clockwise direction, your left hands were joined through the "window frame". You release your left hands and rejoin them underneath the window. The leader then pushes up with the joined left hands, and the follower "flips" (i.e., makes a quick turn under both hands, which are now raised). The leader brings both hands quickly down, and you assume the Little Windows position in the opposite direction (i.e., the window is formed with the left hands, and your right hands are joined through the frame).
This same maneuver can be performed in the opposite direction by releasing your right hands and rejoining them below the window frame.
To get into the Promenade Position, begin by doing the Windmill (remember, in this move, the follower and leader take turns turning under an arch). At some point, just as the follower is completing one of her turns, the leader raises both arms simultaneously. He places his right hand on the follower's right shoulder, and his left hand on his own left shoulder. Both partners then turn an extra quarter turn so they are standing side-by-side, facing in the same direction. From this position, you can shuffle forward and backward together. Or you can turn in a circle -- if the leader shuffles forward, and the follower shuffles backward.
You can also slide into "Loose Hands" position. To do this, release both hands and slide them down your sides. Rejoin your hands at hip level (still right-to-right and left-to-left). To find out what to do next, read the next description.
The "Loose Hands" move got its name for a very simple reason. It can only be completed if your hands are joined loosely. From "Loose Hands" position (see the previous paragraph), you can shuffle forward and back, or turn in a circle. Initially, if you are turning in a circle, notice that the leader will be shuffling forward and the follower will be going backward.
At some point the leader will flick both his wrists. This is the cue for both partners to quickly "flip" around and change direction (keeping both hands joined the whole time). Be sure to turn towards your partner. Notice that when you have completed the "flip", the follower is now shuffling forward and the leader backward. Repeat the "flip" as often as you'd like. When the leader is on the right, you can let go with both hands, and slide out of "Loose Hands" position. The leader should grab the follower's left hand with his left as she slides away.
For another way to get out of "Loose Hands" position, read on.
The Duck-Under is performed from the "Loose Hands" position (see Promenade Position for a description of how to get there). Typically the Duck-Under is performed when the couple is turning in a circle and the leader is on the right.
From this position, the leader bends forward at the waist and begins to slide his right hand up along his right side, towards his armpit. When the hand almost reaches the armpit, he backs out under the follower's right arm and steps quickly over to her left side. (His left hand is now in front of his body at waist level, and his right hand remains on the follower's right shoulder.) From this position, you can also shuffle forward and backward, and you can also turn around in a circle.
Thanks to Hedy Sladovich for typing in this guide.
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