‘Big French Dance’ photo exhibit captures vintage Louisiana spirit

"King" Ned and Bill Besson Photo courtesy Ron Stanford

Saturday evening, after you take in the last act of the night at Festivals Acadiens et Creoles (that’s Horace Trahan, BTW), you may want to head Downtown. In conjunction with ArtWalk, the Acadiana Center for the Arts is giving a sendoff to Big French Dance, a photographic journey that captures Festivals’ roots.

The exhibit features selected images from a newly released book — of the same name — by photographer and filmmaker Ron Stanford. The black-and-white photographs are documentary vignettes, technically precise and delightfully soulful. Here is D.L. Menard, still strumming his guitar. Canray Fontenot fiddles. And from beneath her veil, a Cajun bride takes a drag on her cigarette.

In the early 1970s, Stanford haunted Southwest Louisiana’s dance halls, soaking up Cajun and zydeco music, and photographing the performers and people who gathered there. In 2016, he began to digitize the black-and-white negatives, rediscovering a time and place like none other.

Photographer Ron Stanford
Photo by Dwayne Fatherree

“I opened a time capsule,” Stanford says during a recent phone interview from his home in Philadelphia, Pa.

While studying history at Grinnell College in Iowa, Stanford worked a couple of summers in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife, where he saw Dewey Balfa on stage. In 1970, he invited Balfa and his band to perform on the Grinnell campus. Come to Louisiana, said Balfa. After graduating in 1972, Stanford did just that, along with his wife Fay.

The Balfa family embraced the young couple. “Dewey found us a house to rent. It was in Basile, on a cattle farm, at the end of a very long road,” Stanford says. Rent was $25 a month. Stanford patched up an old smokehouse, creating a makeshift dark room.

For the next two years, Ron and Fay visited as many dance halls and dives as possible, immersing themselves in the Cajun and Creole cultures of southwestern Louisiana.

“There was so much happening. We really tried to find every little place we could, but even two years was probably not long enough to experience it all,” says Stanford. Many of the venues are gone now, places like Richard’s Club in Lawtell, Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki in Opelousas and ’Tit George’s Club in Lake Arthur.

Sunday afternoon at ‘Tit George’s
Photo by Ron Stanford

“We heard about this place in Lake Arthur and we had to go,” Stanford recalls. “Man, that place was wild.”

Ron and Fay also visited the homes of area musicians, interviewing, photographing and sometimes recording them. They brought artists into the recording studio, as well, producing a now-classic LP, J’Étais au Bal: Music from French Louisiana, which was released by Swallow Records in 1974.

More than 40 years later, their work has more resonance than ever.

“I’m not exactly sure what made me open that box of negatives,” Stanford tells me. “But I’m sure glad I did.”

Visit www.bigfrenchdance.com for more information.