By JOSH CAFFERY
Special to The Advocate
HENDERSON -- As this tiny town dozed off in the brisk Sunday twilight several weeks ago, Angelle's Whiskey River Landing patrons rose to a beat more steady and urgent than an alarm clock's pulse.
Outside, a light mist on Lake Henderson curled around old cypress stumpsand the pillars of the twinkling Atchafalaya Swamp bridge.
"I'm trying to bring back what it was years ago," says owner Terry Angelle, a Marlboro Red pinched between his ring and middle fingers. "Like it used to be years ago. On Sunday afternoons. Dimanche aprés-midi. I think it's working. We're not overwhelmingly busy, but it's catching."
Accordionist Damon Troy, in black jeans and T-shirt was full of energy, as helped his band through country-tinged waltzes and two-steps.
The crowd was neither young nor old, black nor white, rich nor poor. If therewere tourists here, they were being discreet. Everyone, though, was smiling and bouncing with the rhythm, with the exception of the 10-point buckmounted above the bar. The atmosphere in Whiskey River Landing recalled a country fair, or a festival, more than a bar. Crab traps and an ancient pirogue dangle from theplywood ceiling over the dance floor and the blue-carpeted stage.
Burgers and hot dogs sizzled on the barbecue pit near the entrance. The smell wafted through the front door, luring more than one dancer outside for a burger, a beer and a breather. "See this place? It ain't nothin' fancy," Angelle said. "But the people that come here love the hell out of it. When people come down here then they leave, they get tears in their eyes. They don't want to leave." Finding a good dance on Sunday afternoons wasn't always easy.
In 1982, after hurting his knee working offshore in the Persian Gulf, Angelle bought the building -- previously a country and western club -- at a sheriff's auction. At first, Angelle didn't have dances, concentrating primarily on operating the boat landing and running swamp tours with his brother Dean and their cousin, Dwight. At the urging of friends, though, he hired Cajun musician Joe Douglas to play one Sunday each month, from March through November, and the tradition caught on.
Nothing happened overnight, but he soon found himself building a wide pine porch over the water to accommodate the swarming dancers. Though it was initially an outdoor porch, he eventually enclosed it because of the heat and the relentless mosquitoes.
At the time, Cajun music was still entertainment for the old and eccentric.
Now, though, Angelle finds himself riding the crest of resurgent pride and interest in Cajun culture.
"A few years ago, Cajun Music was just based for old people," he said. "You walk into a place, and it (the clientele) would average 70 to 85 years old. It'strue. But now you got that young generation that's coming, coming with the music. And the old folks come. I mean, I'm 53; I'm old, but I'm not an antique, and they got people older than me. But these young kids, we socialize and everything else."
The popularity of the dances grew, but it wasn't until a few years ago, when the levee road from Henderson was paved, that Angelle could hold the dances on a weekly basis. Angelle credits his family and popular Cajun bands he works with for his success.
"See people like Christine Balfa and Balfa Toujours, and Steve Riley, who are friends of mine, and Geno Delafose,
friend of mine," he said, "They play here. They get paid. But they love to play here 'cuz they have a party when they
play here. They have a blast." Most of Angelle's employees are relatives. His aunt, Verna, collects the cover charge, and another aunt, Nancy, works the bar. During the long weekdays, which start at 5 a.m. during fishing season, his brother, cousin, uncle and his girlfriend, Martha Broussard, help out with the landing and the swamp tours.
"It's not just a bar. It's more than a bar," explains Dana David, a doctoral candidate in folklore at University of Louisiana at Lafayette and an aficionado of Cajun dance. "There's more a feeling of family and community than you don't find at most places," David said.
Angelle is involved in every facet of the operation. He lives in an apartment in the back of the building and can be seen every Sunday tending the bar in a bright red shirt and chatting with the legion of friends and customers. "We're doing something right," he maintained. "You just got to stick with it."