Once devoted mainly to traditional jazz, the French Quarter Festival has vastly expanded its sound and styles over the past few years at its 23 stages stretching from the Old U.S. Mint on Esplanade Avenue to the fringe of the Central Business District.
Now, the festival attracts every variety of indigenous south Louisiana music, from Cajun to zydeco, as well as brass bands and plenty of swing. It also lures plenty of professional and amateur dancers who come to enjoy the various styles.
On Saturday, dance enthusiasts old and new laced up their shoes and kicked up their heels to a plethora of sounds during the 33rd edition of the self-proclaimed “largest free festival in the South.”
To that end, the event offered several staged dancing demonstrations, where instructors encouraged audience members to participate in the music a little more and passively watch while sitting or standing still a little less.
“It’s another angle on learning about the music and the culture here,” said Matt Hofmann, 31, as he took a 20-minute jitterbug class with his wife, Emily.
The Hofmanns were in New Orleans from Boston to celebrate their anniversary.
Several years ago, they got engaged nearby, at Café du Monde, during one of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival weekends, and so they frequently come back during festival season to celebrate, he said.
On Saturday, they decided to do something a little out of the ordinary for them: stopping by the French Market Traditional Jazz Stage, which offered various lessons throughout the day on dance styles such as swing, African, traditional jazz and second-line.
“We’re younger and don’t know some of these traditional jazz steps,” said Emily, 29. “So it’s really cool to learn.”
And that was exactly the point, according to Jen Fultz, a member of the Chorus Girl Project, a group that teaches musical numbers from the 1920s and ’30s to New Orleans women of all ages and ability levels.
“It’s fun because we cater to all ages and stages of dancers,” Fultz said about her group, which was on hand Saturday to demonstrate steps such as the Charleston and “peels,” a show-tune move in which dancers peel folded arms away from their bodies in quick succession, creating a wave of movement.
Also on hand to demonstrate moves were N’Fungola Sibo, an African dancer, and Dancing Man 504, who’s become well-known in New Orleans for leading second-lines and teaching the steps to those eager to learn.
At the National Park Service Centennial Stage Chevron Children’s Headquarters, a kids’ area in its second year at the festival, the instructional group Dancing Grounds led kids in choreographed movement.
Since 2012, Dancing Grounds has been offering dance education and performances for students in schools around the city; it also offers instruction to youth and adults at a studio on St. Claude Avenue.
Not every festivalgoer needed a class or even encouragement to get their feet moving, however. Plenty of seasoned dancers were grooving during acts like the Lena Prima Band, who performed at the Jackson Square stage, and Cajun and country singer Jo-el Sonnier at the Bienville Statue stage.
Julie Denslow, a 73-year-old New Orleans resident, said she felt free to dance because of the setup of the festival, which is more spread out and not as crowded as Jazz Fest.
“It’s not quite so intimidating,” she said, adding that the festival offers the music she likes to move to — more jazz, blues and zydeco, and less rock.
Even the youngest enjoyed a bit of freestyling during acts like the Storyville Stompers Brass Band, which performed at the Popeyes Brass Band Jam with Offbeat Magazine Stage.
Maggie King, a 7-year-old from Jacksonville, Florida, was one of the many kids who cartwheeled, kicked around and jumped up and down in front of the less crowded stages while their parents watched from lawn chairs.
Maggie’s mother, 40-year-old Carrie King, said she had made a point of taking her daughter to several festivals as she’s growing up, to let her hear different kinds of music. On Saturday, as the band played “Iko Iko” and “You Are My Sunshine,” Maggie gave her two thumbs-up.
“It’s fun to dance to,” King said, “because there’s a lot of different instruments playing at the same time.”