John Sharp likes to talk to strangers, and sometimes the University of Louisiana at Lafayette folklorist gleans valuable information from elderly folks standing in line at Target.
Sharp is gathering information on Louisiana dance halls for both LouisianaDancehalls.com, a website containing information on about 1,600 dance halls throughout Louisiana, and a full-length documentary on the subject he hopes to finish by the end of this year.
Even though Sharp has gathered photos, newspaper articles and advertisements and a valuable collection of dance hall matchbooks, it’s the oral histories that sometimes connect the dots.
“When word got out, I started getting phone calls, emails, started getting cornered at parties,” Sharp said. “I realized that this was such a rich subject that people love to talk about. It’s been really interesting to hear people who remember the dance halls.”
Sharp is the assistant director for research at the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
In addition to working with researchers visiting the university for its Archive of Cajun and Creole Folklore, he’s been compiling information on the state’s dance halls for the past year and a half.
The idea came to Sharp, an Alabama native, after listening to Cajun songs in the archives, tunes with names such as the “Chinaball Special,” “Hicks Wagon Wheel Special” or the “Blue Goose Special.”
These songs, he later realized, were theme songs about various dance halls in south Louisiana.
Once he started looking up the clubs, another dance hall in another town would pop up, he said. Then Sharp discovered old advertisements, band posters, postcards and matchbooks, among other items from the old establishments.
“I’m a sucker for those ephemeral items,” he said.
Sharp received a $20,000 grant from the Louisiana Filmmakers Grant Fund Program to create the documentary.
The dance halls website, which allows visitors to search dance halls by name, parish or city, is funded by the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission and invites public input. Old unidentified videos Sharp found, for instance, are located on the site with the question, “Can you help identify it?”
“One of the things that the website is for is to look at information, what’s right, what is wrong,” Sharp explained. “Can you add anything to this? Do you have a story?”
Documented Louisiana house dances can be traced back to the early 1800s, Sharp said, and the first documented dance hall to the 1830s. However, these dance halls proliferated after the two world wars.
“Most people think the golden age of dance halls was after World War II,” he said.
For a time, people congregated to dance, socialize, drink and enjoy meals nearly everywhere, Sharp said, including barns, civic centers and town squares.
“Some dances even happened on top of city buildings, like Abbeville, which had a dance on top of City Hall,” he said.
Some dance halls followed parish lines. At the Sabine River bordering Texas, for example, dance halls offered young Texas residents a chance to drink and dance because the age limit in Louisiana was 18 compared to 21 in Texas. On the Breaux Bridge Highway, dance halls on the Breaux Bridge side of the line stayed opened later.
Many times, dance halls evolved from another business, Sharp said. For example, a grocery store would make more money selling liquor. Because only men frequented bars in the early part of the 20th century, these stores would then sell food and add bands to create a family atmosphere and draw more people in.
“It’s much easier to make money as a dance hall than a grocery store,” he said.
Some dance halls diversified. Te-Maurice Club, for example, had a racetrack on the side and baseball games on Sundays. The Dauphine Club in Parks included a baseball field, ice cream parlor and barbershop.
“It was like an early shopping mall,” Sharp said of the Dauphine Club. “They showed movies there sometimes.”
People routinely contact Sharp to relate their experiences growing up with dance halls, he said, because these clubs figured prominently in their formative early adult years. For instance, many people drove to dance halls after first learning to drive or met their spouses at a dance.
Sometimes people remember the dance halls but not specifically where they stood, Sharp added.
“They couldn’t place it, would say my car knew the way home,” he said with a laugh. “A lot of the stories are anecdotal.”
Sharp doesn’t believe the collection will ever be complete, one reason the website serves as a database as well as an informative site. But after Sharp finishes his documentary, he hopes to start an organization that promotes and preserves these old buildings, perhaps even create a Louisiana dance hall tourism trail, much like Mississippi’s Blues Trail.
“I think it deserves historical markers,” he said.