Book A French Quarter Hotel

Dancing to Latin and Louisiana Sounds in New Orleans

By: Ian McNulty
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Top to Bottom: Hot Venues for Latin Music – Blue Nile, House of Blues, Tipitina’s Uptown.

Cajun and Zydeco

In Uptown New Orleans, the likeness of R&B legend Professor Longhair looks down on the dance floor of Tipitina’s (501 Napoleon Ave., 504-895-8477), a landmark music hall named for one of his tunes. But on early Sunday evenings, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., all eyes are on Bruce Daigrepont, who has hosted the Cajun Fais Do-Do at Tipitina’s for years. ‘Fais do-do’ is a Cajun term for a traditional dance party, and people certainly show up at Tipitina’s ready to dance. Skill levels vary from native Cajuns who seem born to sweep across the planks of a wooden dance floor to eager visitors learning their first steps together. Veteran band leader Daigrepont, backed by accordion, fiddle and a tight rhythm section, mixes up traditional Louisiana French music with original Cajun and Zydeco material for a very danceable blend.

A trip to New Orleans is enough to make most people want to dance in the streets — and it’s many a visitor who doesn’t bother resisting this inclination along Bourbon Street on any given night. But the city also offers a multitude of more structured opportunities to cut the carpet with a variety of theme nights and venues around town.

For a city heavy on its homegrown traditions — especially musical traditions — New Orleans has openly embraced dance styles of other cultures. While there’s nothing particularly ‘New Orleans’ about Latin American salsa dancing, for instance, it seems to fit the sultry feel of the city. Take a walk down Frenchmen Street, just across Esplanade Avenue from the French Quarter, on almost any weekend night to see how salsa tastes in New Orleans.

First stop would be the Blue Nile (532 Frenchmen St., 504-948-2583), where local Latin crooner Fredy Omar takes the colorful stage most Friday nights. A flamenco show kicks off the evening early at 7:30 p.m. and leads into free salsa dance lessons at 9:30 p.m. before Omar performs around 10:30 p.m.

Across the street and just down the block, Café Brasil (2100 Chartres St., 504-947-9386) has been a dance destination for years. Salsa is a mainstay, though the schedule can be a little unpredictable. No matter, when the place is on, it is obvious, with the crowd spilling out onto the sidewalk where a second band might be set up playing for people outside.

A little further down Frenchmen Street, the music and dance steps change tempo a bit. Café Negril (606 Frenchmen St., 504-944-4744) is a Caribbean restaurant early in the night, but on Friday and Saturday evenings the dining room tables are quickly crowded out by dancers and reggae bands. Steel drums echo, dreadlocks swing and Red Stripe beers keep flowing at this late night, island-inspired scene.

Things get going late indeed at the Rumba, a Latin music dance party held on Fridays at the House of Blues (225 Decatur St., 504-529-2583) which doesn’t start until the evening’s concert crowd has been ushered out around midnight.

Tango Time

Dancing the tango was such a rage in New Orleans early in the 20th century that a portion of the French Quarter crowded with dancehalls was nicknamed the Tango Belt. While discos are far more common in the Quarter now, tango has made a sustained comeback in recent years and today turns up in unexpected places.

The normally cool and collected vibe at the bar of the Loft 523 boutique hotel (523 Gravier St., 504-304-4555) gets downright steamy on Tuesday evenings with Planet Tango. Practically hidden down a side street in the Central Business District (though only two blocks from the French Quarter), the bar’s deconstructed, understated ambiance channels most of the attention to the dancers. Instructors show up at 8 p.m. to give free lessons to the uninitiated, and the real action gets going around 9 p.m. A D.J. provides the music, and there is generally no cover.

A similar tango scene develops at Mimi’s in the Marigny (2601 Royal St., 504-942-0690) on Wednesday evenings after 9 p.m. The comfortable, stylishly-renovated bar has become an instant classic in its bohemian neighborhood, and provides an appropriately sultry venue for Argentina’s sensuous dance obsession. The dance floor is upstairs, where large windows are kept open most of the time to take the breezes coming off the nearby river. Iron balconies provide excellent perches to cool off between numbers and enjoy the intriguing view both outside and back inside on the dance floor.

Many of the same moves are on display at Mulate’s (201 Julia St., 504-522-1492), a Cajun restaurant which features traditional music and dancing each night. Its location directly across from the convention center and close to the cruise ship terminal means Mulate’s is highly accessible to guests of the many downtown hotels, which is reflected in the usual crowd here. A regular roster of Cajun bands and performers, including La Touche, Jay Cormier, Lee Benoit and Jonno, give visitors a convincing reason to work off their catfish dinner on the dance floor.

Cajun twang gives way to the more funky rhythms of Zydeco at Mid-City Lanes Rock ‘n’ Bowl (3000 S. Carrollton Ave., 504-861-7000), a combination music hall and bowling alley where accordions and guitar riffs are punctuated with the thunder of strikes and groans of gutter balls. Thursday’s dedicated Zydeco Night in particular brings out the dancers, who get to see top touring acts direct from south Louisiana. Rock ‘n’ Bowl’s large dance floor gets a different type of workout on Wednesdays, which is Swing Night. The music has a retro sound, and many in the crowd turn up dressed in a retro look with big skirts and fedora hats. A dapper outfit isn’t necessary to have a good time, however, just a desire to move your feet.