How to Dance to Zydeco Music

Written by Jeremy Rice

(Please do not copy without permission.)


Basics for Dancing Zydeco

Basic Footwork

The zydeco dance is based on 8 counts. The reason the dance fits zydeco music so well (and also is a little difficult to learn) is that one must learn to take steps at two different rates. In other words, one must stay on one foot for two beats, switch the other foot for one beat, and then switch back to the first foot for the next beat. The whole process is then repeated starting on the other foot.
Schematically the whole 8 beat series could be given as:
Foot(Beat):L(1) - L(2) - R(3) - L(4) - R(5) - R(6) - L(7) - R(8) (Repeat)

Most people are more used to stepping at the same rate with each foot, so it may be hard to hold on one foot for two beats. Some zydeco dancers take a little step or just twist their foot on beat (2) and (6) to make sure they stay on the same foot for two beats (this is sometimes referred to as having to eat-a-beat, meaning to take up and extra beat before switching feet.

An alternate pattern of footwork that may be easier for some to learn involves the "brush", meaning to kick forward in such a way that the sole of your foot brushes the floor. The brush step is used to take up the extra beat described above. Schematically the whole 8 beat series could be given as:
Foot(Beat):L(1) - R(Brush)(2) - R(3) - L(4) - R(5) - L(Brush)(6) - L(7) - R(8) (Repeat) If you find this pattern easier, than it can be your basic learning step.

One should first practice the footwork without music. Persons show great variability in picking up the basic footwork. It generally takes somewhere between a few evenings to a few weeks. In other words, don't get discouraged if it feels a little awkward at first because it takes everyone a while to pick it up.

What to Do After You Think You have the Basic Footwork

Try dancing to some zydeco music. Pick something slow at first - Paper in My Shoe by BooZoo Chavis, for instance.

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Try to find the beat and adjust your step rate so that the dance fit well with the music. To help find the basic beat, listen to the bass (listening to the bass seems to work well for lots of types of music). Try to feel the rhythm of zydeco music and get your dance to flow the music. The cadence of the dance is slow-quick-quick, slow-quick-quick [in the scheme above (1-2)(3)(4), (5-6)(7)(8)]. Generally most zydeco has this slow-quick-quick rhythmic pattern. If you can't find this in the music your listening to, then look for something else. Railroad Blues by Lynn August is another song with a slow but relatively strong beat which is good for starting dancers.

If you feel you have it, try a little bit faster music, say Dance all Night by BooZoo Chavis , or something of similar speed.

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You should find this much more difficult. There is little time to make the faster steps (3 then 4, or 7 then 8). You will need to make your steps quick and light without shifting much off your weight from side to side. Initially most people tend to make large distinct steps, picking up there feet, and making lots of large body movements. This is good to start with - you may need to overemphasis your movements to get to the point that they come without thinking about them. However, as you progress you should begin to make you movements more subtle; good zydeco dancers tend to be smooth and understated, rather that exaggerated and stompy. An analogy might be that one starts dancing like they stomping through deep snow, but you should eventually be more like gliding on ice.

How to Dance with a Partner

Dancing with a partner involves two basic positions: dancing close and dancing apart. In either case, your partner should be on the opposite foot as you. Some people teach the leader starts on the left, and the follower starts on right. Since zydeco dance is very based on the rhythm, the first matter to handle, is to get in sync with your partner. Everyone has a slightly different style, so both leader and follower should be prepared to give some way and adapt to your partner's style. Part of the fun is to find a groove you can both enjoy. Sometimes is easier to find your partners rhythm when dancing close so I will start with that.

Dancing close is done in something similar to ballroom position. The leader faces the follower, the right arm around the partners back, and the left arm is up in typical ballroom or closed swing position. The leader's right foot is positioned between the follower's feet. The follower's left hand sits on the leaders right arm or shoulder. You may have heard of a dance term called a "frame" - there should be a little pull on the leaders arm around the back and a little pressure on raised up hands (leader's left and follower's right). This produces a solid frame for communication so that the dancers are together as a unit. In other words, it's hard to show your partner what you want if one or both or both of you are both limp noodles - there is nothing to push and pull on.

After you feel comfortable in a basic closed position, there are a number of variation you want to try. Keep in mind that there should always be some tension or pull between the partners even if you no longer have the classic frame position. For instance, the leader's left and follower's right can assume many positions: straight up, straight out, straight down (something like a 50's slow dance), or not connected at all. There is also variations in how close you dance. You can lean back and dance fairly far apart but still in the close position, or you can get as close as you want (or your partner lets you!) and bump and grind and make it a very HOT dance. When close, the leader can drop the left hand and follower drop right. Now the dancers can communicate using the rest of their bodies. Another variation, is to put the leader's left and follower's right high up, lean in somewhat, stick you tush out a little, and give the dance kind of a Latin flare.

The second main way to dance zydeco is dancing apart in an open position where the partners face each other and are two to three feet apart. In this position, the dancers have more room to improvise and do their own thing since they are mostly unconnected from their partner. I say mostly unconnected because they should be on the rhythm together - the partners periodically make contact with the leader's left hand generally grabbing the follower's right hand as both partners rock back (leader rocks back on the left foot and follower rocks back on right foot on beat 7). The footwork for the rock step is:Foot(Beat):Leader: L(1) - L(2) - R(3) - L(4) - R(5) - R(6) - Rock back L(7) - Forward on R(8) (Repeat)Follower: R(1) - R(2) - L(3) - R(4) - L(5) - L(6) - Rock back R(7) - Forward on L(8) (Repeat)

The hand grab should be reasonably solid pull since this keeps the dancers in sync. An important point is that that the grab and pull are generally done on every set of 8 beats, but not on every set of four beats. In general, you have lots of time to do your own thing before you have to sync back up with your partner. Some things you might try are spinning yourself, spinning your partner, or pulling your partner toward you while you slide past to the left your partner, so that you end up switching places.

HOT Tips to Improve Your Zydeco Dance

Syncopate Your Footwork

This point can not be overmade since it is probably the biggest difference between the novice and the good dancer. The syncopation comes in on the fast step (beat 3 & 4 and beat 7 & 8) which should be faster and sharper than the longer step (1-2 and 5-6). In fact you should drag out the longer step so that the faster step don't take you off the beat.

Dance from the Waist Down

This is perhaps a matter of personal taste, but the sharpest dancers seem do most of there dancing from their butts down with upper body movements being fairly understated. This gives the dancer a lot of style because he or she looks smooth, and it's obvious that he or she has rhythm. The untrained dancer will probably have a hard time figuring out why this person looks good because most people think dance is about fancy turns and upper body movement. In fact, next time you're in a bar or club, note that most untrained dancers try to dance well by do lots of huge turns and rocking their arms on torsos to the music in big movements. You, nor anyone else, will be fooled into thinking these dancers have any clue what they are doing.

Notes for Swing Dancers

It seems a lot of zydeco dancer come from a swing background. There seems to be a good and bad side to this. On the good sides, such people know about good dance form, a good frame, keeping there upperbodies still, and in general, have a good sense of how to dance. Some of my favorite dance partner (as well as myself) come swing backgrounds. On the down side, swing dancers probably have to gear down a little bit to do zydeco. In swing, the main enjoyment is leading or following through sometimes fancy or intricates moves. Although good dancers do this with rhythm and proper footwork, the emphasis in swing still seems to be on the moves (and, of course, looking cool while you do them). In zydeco, the emphasis seems much more on rhythm and footwork, with a lot fewer fancy moves. The lack of moves seems to bore a lot of swing dancer, and they often seem to want to add a lot of swing turns and moves to zydeco dance. While I think everyone should experiment and be creative in their style, I would suggest going easy on the swing moves. One because it is particularly authentic (and a lot of zydeco dancer will look at you as a lost swing dancer). Second, and more importantly, you shouldn't miss out on what zydeco dance has to offer. I see a lot of zydeco dancers (some are also good swing dancers) dancing to zydeco, very subtle body movements but very much in groove their partners. They are laying down a perfect beat with their feet, and really being taken to different world by the rhythm of the music (and their partner). If you haven't been there yet, it's really worth the trip. 'Nuff said.

Watch Other Good Zydeco Dancers

This may seem like a fairly obvious point, but I think it is good idea watch the dancers you like and try to figure out what makes their dance style appealing. Then later (probably at home in private is best), try to imitate them (in front of mirror if you have one). Maybe the dancer you like leans back or forward, maybe it is a little more bounce or emphasis on some steps, or just some subtle body or foot twist. While on my last trip to New Orleans and Louisiana, I got to see many zydeco dancers of all skill levels, and got to check out many styles and new moves. There seems to be lots going on in zydeco, such as adding hip-hop moves and different hand grabs. Some of it I liked, some I didn't, but in most cases I tried to figure out how people were doing the moves and how they worked with the music. Some stuff I saw I hope to incorporate into my dances, other things I either didn't like or didn't work for me so I'll just drop. As I've said probably too many times already, zydeco dance is mainly about rhythm so you don't need to know every move; find those that are right for you, lay down a groove, have some fun, and hopefully look good doing it.

Go Out and Dance Often (If Possible) with Lots of Partners

Again, this may seem like a fairly obvious point, but some of the best zydeco moves just hit you like there was some kind of divine intervention. In reality, you just find moves and your style evolves (sometimes in jumps) as you dance a lot and become more comfortable. Another way to pick up new things is by dancing with other good dancers. Many good zydeco dancers have fairly subtle movements (pulls, pushes, & twists) that may hard to see, but should obvious when you dance with them.

OK-OK, You Want a Few Advanced Moves

Here are few moves I've seen around in LA that you might want to try. Remember I made up the names, so don't expect anyone else to know them.

Special thanks to Rounder Records for providing sound clips.

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Copyright 2001 by Jeremy Rice