The Zydeco Queen Returns with a Princess In Step
By Peter Breithaupt
“They called us the ‘Human Tornado’ because we spun so fast,” Mona “Zydeco Queen” Wilson proclaims, as she remembers a zydeco dance contest she and her longtime dance partner, Joseph “Joely” Bias, won in the late 1990s at Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki. Slim’s was a dancehall and central hub of zydeco in Opelousas, Louisiana, until the club permanently closed its doors in 2016. Like her dance steps, Mona’s conversation spins effortlessly around, vacuumously linking together experiences from her decades-long career as one of the preeminent practitioners and educators of zydeco dance. While recalling the Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki event, Mona touched on how to assess the aesthetic predilections of judges at dance contests and the stylistic changes brought about by younger generations of zydeco dancers who “don’t know how to waltz”; the importance of being “a good follower” even if your partner is off step; accompanying her parents to zydeco dances while growing up in Cade, Louisiana; starting a “zydeco dance flash mob” while visiting Russia as a cultural ambassador part of an exchange program organized by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 2014; and her close relationships with zydeco’s foremost musicians, practitioners, and caretakers past and current.
Catalyzed by her apprentice Lindsay Gary, a Houston-based dancer and social entrepreneur, Mona is back zydecoing full force after over a decade of carefully tending to and recovering from a litany of unfortunate dance- and non-dance-related injuries and surgeries. Most recently, she had successive knee replacements in 2019 and 2020. Swirling together recent events and historical anecdotes, affiliations with zydeco greats and insights on dance technique, stories from her globe-trotting career and memories of former students, Mona reflects on her return to the dance floor:
"So Lindsay and I went to an event. She had to go somewhere else, so I went to another event. I had someone take me dancing to Jeffery Broussard. He actually did my first video. Andre Thierry did my instructional DVD. So I went to this other one, and I was like in hog heaven because Jeffery, you know, he’s old time. Boozoo [Anthony “Boozoo” Chavis] said, before he died, he said, 'If something ever happens to me, the only person that could take my place is Jeffery.' We grew up together because my dance partner is his nephew. So, you know, people saw what I put on there [Facebook]. I was like, 'The Queen is back with her new titanium knees.' One of the first people to respond was like, 'I am so happy for you.' She said, 'This is Margot.' She took my class. I can’t remember where, but she is from Australia. People were so happy. One of my cousins, she said, 'Mona, it’s so good to see you dancing again' because my hair was just going, and my eyes are normally closed when I’m dancing. You’re supposed to know where your dance space is. So I was in hog heaven that night. And, needless to say, the next two days my neighbors did not see me. I put myself in a mini coma, and I slept for like 21 hours. My dogs didn’t eat; they didn’t go outside. I was like, 'I’m back!'"
Not to belabor the tornado analogy but centripetal forces center and ground both Mona and Lindsay: family, deep connections to the Louisiana-Texas Black Creole community, and a shrewd sensitivity not only to the nuances of zydeco’s footwork, history, and business practices but the politics and imperatives driving their community’s desire to preserve and develop the cultural form according to their own terms. These shared principles motivate, inform, and lead the pair on and off the dance floor.
Scholar Roger Wood describes zydeco as “doubly syncretized” music (2006, 124). First known as “la-la,” zydeco is a form of accordion and rubboard-driven dance music that evolved within the Black Creole community of southwest Louisiana throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Practitioners mixed elements from a canon of traditional Creole devotional songs known as juré, which emphasized collective participation and an African-derived syncopated rhythmic framework, with accordion-laced melodies and dance forms associated with Louisiana’s Cajun community, white descendents of Acadians who were exiled from the Acadia region of Eastern Canada in the 1700s. Prior to and following World War II, an increasing number of Black Creoles left rural southwest Louisiana and relocated to the cities of Texas’s lower southeastern corner - namely, Houston, where the term “zydeco” entered common parlance. In this urban context, the Louisiana immigrants further developed their uniquely syncopated accordion dance music by incorporating instruments and stylistic components from various forms of popular culture such as R&B, blues, jazz, country and western, and pop.
For Mona, growing up, zydeco was a family enterprise. The Wilson’s owned the Wilson Super Pecan Grove, a dancehall that was located on the eponymous Wilson St. Julian Road in Cade, just south of Lafayette. Perhaps more significant than the regional and national touring acts like blues legend B.B. King that played the club, Wilson Super Pecan Grove was home to the cultural milieu of zydeco - its sounds and movements, relationships and responsibilities. Learning to zydeco while dancing on her father’s feet, Mona also heard Creole spoken at home. She fondly remembers hearing conversations between her father and aunt in the kitchen that would fluidly transition from English to Creole. Her enculturation later included other obligations. While an accounting student at Southern University, Mona would come home to visit and work at the club. “It was a family thing,” Mona says, “if you were available, you know, you’re there.” She continues:
"Because we were out of the city limits, we didn’t have to close. So when all the other clubs closed after two o’clock [in Lafayette], they came to Cade. I would get up and be at the club by four o’clock [in the afternoon], and I would learn how to make the drinks. The club closed, we had to put the people out, at six in the morning, and then I walked home. The roosters were crowing, and the sun was coming up. All I could do was go home, go to sleep. My momma would wake me up, fix me something to eat. I’d take my bath; I’d get dressed and start all over."
After graduating college, Mona relocated to Port Arthur, impelled by the pull of Texas’s oil and gas industry like many other Louisiana Creoles before her. It was here that Mona continued sharpening her skills as a dancer, Black Creole tradition bearer, and businesswoman - all facets that soon coalesced to catapult her career in zydeco. Living in Port Arthur, Mona hosted her own zydeco radio show while also frequently traveling back to Louisiana to feature in Zydeco Extravaganza, what she describes as a “zydeco Soul Train” that aired every weekend on local Lafayette television. Mona and her dance partner Joely would soon stake their claim as reigning zydeco royalty. The duo won the 1990 title of “World’s Best Zydeco Couple” in a dance contest at Richard’s Club in Lawtell, Louisiana. While certainly turning heads with their high-energy spinning, the couple insisted and continues to insist on dancing styles such as the shuffle and waltz. According to Mona, these styles typify the “smooth and grounded” nature crucial to proper zydeco and also harken back to la-la, zydeco’s roots as an acoustically driven form of social dance music.
Mona’s emergence as zydeco royalty fortuitously coincided with the meteoric rise of the genre within mainstream popular culture. Largely spearheaded by the decades-long reign of the indisputable king of zydeco, Clifton Chenier - who transformed the music by using his larger piano-keyed accordion and incorporating elements of R&B, blues, and rock throughout the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s - by the late 1980s, zydeco was experiencing widespread crossover and commercial success. As musicians were gaining popular media attention and being asked to perform on major national and international stages, Mona booked her first gig outside of Louisiana. In 1992, she travelled to Fishkill, New York, to teach a dance troupe preparing for an upcoming performance at a zydeco festival in Rhode Island. After the weekend-long intensive with Mona, the group went on to make quite an impression at the festival, which Mona travelled back up north to attend. She recounts the festival: "So they [the group from NY] had people that went up to them and said, 'How did y’all learn that?! Y’all didn’t know that at the last festival!' They said, 'Well, we hired some people from Louisiana to come and teach us, and we had this intensive workshop.' So they said, 'What’s her name?' This was some people from Long Beach. And they said, 'Well, she’s Mona ‘Zydeco Queen’ Wilson, and she’s sitting right over there!'"
What began as a weekend-long excursion to Fishkill, escalated into trips throughout the country and, later, world teaching and performing at zydeco workshops, camps, and festivals. Mona explains that, at first, she “wasn’t advertising or anything. It was just word of mouth,” taking any opportunity that came her way. Continually witnessing and experiencing first hand culturally appropriative acts vis-a-vis zydeco’s Black Creole roots throughout the dance circuit, however, Mona began making demands. First and foremost, she insisted that she work with other Creole teachers and musicians. Narrating a particularly vexing situation in which she received complaints from a non-Creole instructor from New York with whom she was co-teaching a workshop and who was feigning cultural connections to Louisiana’s Cajun community, Mona pithily explains how her authoritative stance regarding cultural authenticity came to be: “If anything, whatever I do is going to be authentic and is going to be the truth. You have to prep me to lie...And, you know, if I am teaching Creole, I need to be with a Creole...So that’s how I ended up, slowly but surely getting my foot in the door. I had to deal with some things that I didn’t want to deal with, but I dealt with them, and it was taken care of.”
“Can I just say,” Mona’s apprentice Lindsay Gary, who up to this point of our interview had been dutifully listening, immediately chimes in after Mona’s declaration, “I am so glad she did this. There is such appropriation of our culture.” While acknowledging zydeco’s historical connections to expressive forms associated with Louisiana’s Cajun community, Lindsay stresses:
"The predominating culture is Creole. It’s these Black people from here that brought this culture. So how do you continue to just embrace that? That’s why it is so important. It gave me chills that she spoke up, and she was courageous, and she demanded that. Because otherwise that type of thing would just continue over and over again. And it’s not okay for that attempted erasure of our culture. Like you can’t do that - whether that’s the dance or the music or whatever the aspect is - it’s from us. We brought it to you. We made it what it is, our people did...So, you know, we have to really be honest about that. It’s our truth, it’s our culture, it’s what our ancestors contributed. We can’t allow that erasure to happen. So that’s why I appreciate Mona so much, for what she’s doing and what she’s always done. Like, I wrote that quote down - 'You have to prep me to lie' - because that’s the word."
Lindsay, the granddaughter of two Louisiana transplants, grew up in Houston, where, as she puts it, zydeco was “in the atmosphere.” From multiple trips every year to visit family in Louisiana, participating in Houston’s active and distinctive church dance scene with bazaars and fundraisers that rotate throughout the community and center around zydeco, to being surrounded by many neighbors and friends who all shared histories shaped by the hotbed of sociocultural exchange throughout the upper Gulf Coast, Lindsay says that she has been involved with zydeco for as long as she can remember. Like Mona, Lindsay first learned to zydeco by dancing on the feet of her elders: “My grandmother had that old school record player, and she put on some zydeco. She used to put on zydeco all the time. She was teaching my sister first, and I walked in like, ‘Oh, I want to learn too!’ And she said, ‘Okay, take a step. Take a step. Take a step.’ She had on her little house dress and everything.”
These early experiences zydecoing with her family, friends, and community members helped guide Lindsay’s artistic and professional trajectory. Now the Artistic and Executive Director of her own dance company, Dance Afrikana, with graduate degrees in history and public policy, Lindsay dedicates her art, scholarship, and community engagement to researching and connecting, celebrating and amplifying narratives, expressive practices, and communities from throughout the African diaspora. She has traveled the world studying traditional and popular dance forms from places such as Ghana, Tanzania, South Africa, and Morocco to Spain, Cuba, Haiti, and Brazil. While her extensive travel and research abroad has yielded powerful insights into the shared and unique characteristics of various African and African-derived dance forms, Lindsay realized that her knowledge of what she calls her “own direct culture,” the zydeco she was steeped in growing up, was limited. Lindsay explains:
"I was even in Spain looking at flamenco and it’s African-derived origins. So, yeah, I was really doing all this stuff, but I was like I need to be dedicating that amount of energy to my own direct culture. [Zydeco] is my heritage, and I definitely valued it. But when it came to immersing myself in it as a dancer, I didn’t find that I was doing that with my own culture. And I was like, 'Why am I not doing that? This is important!' Like, you know, my ancestors would be proud of this. It’s something that they did. My grandpa, he was always zydecoing too. And, you know, I used to dance on my dad’s feet and my grandpa’s feet too. That was something we did at home, even before going out to an actual zydeco or bazaar or something. So it was really important to make sure I did that."
In 2019, wanting to “connect the dots” between zydeco, her family, Texas, Louisiana, and the broader histories of the African diaspora she had been studying, Lindsay remembered Mona’s instructional zydeco dance DVD, which she had come across while researching Louisiana Creole culture for her master’s thesis. Looking Mona up on Facebook, Lindsay saw that she and Mona had a mutual friend, one of Lindsay’s cousins who grew up in Cade, Louisiana and, as Lindsay would soon find out, right down the road from Mona. Through her cousin, Lindsay contacted Mona, and the two hit it off. As they began meeting together, the dots continued to connect. While preparing their application for the Apprenticeship Program, the pair realized that they are distant relatives. One of Mona’s great-grandfathers obfuscated the connection between their families when he changed his surname from “Jacquet” to “Wilson.” Not just learning from the Zydeco Queen, then, Lindsay is of royal descent, a bonafide princess.
Still ruminating on how best to articulate the significance of Mona’s dogged advocacy of zydeco’s Black Creole foundations, Lindsay picks up where she left off:
"Just adding on to that point - why it’s important that she speaks the truth - if she doesn’t preserve it, like who is? I think what happens now is that people just do their own thing and call that the original, whoever that be, and it’s like you still gotta be true to it if you want to add your own stuff…She has her own style, but she still says, 'This is how people used to do it back in the day. This is what we used to do. We didn’t do this,' so you know how to keep that going. It’s like oral history, keeping it and passing it on."
“If you ask Lindsay to compare my dancing from when I was in my zydeco hog heaven [at the Jeffery Broussard event] to what I have been teaching her,” Mona replies, “I am only giving her the roux of the gumbo.” Not concerned with elaborate spinning or jumping, Mona wants Lindsay to gain consummate control over what she calls the “basics.” With these basics, Lindsay will be able to “add all of her own spices” appropriately - all except Lindsay’s tendency to bounce her shoulders. The pair laughs as Mona reaches over and lays her hands on top of Lindsay’s shoulders, a recurring gesture that has come to remind Lindsay to keep her shoulders level and grounded by smooth, effortless footwork.
Not just basic steps, the foundation that Mona is passing on to Lindsay - the roux of zydeco dance - is layered and complex. Inseparable from its musical counterpart, the roux is a mixture of movements that enact and are enacted by the history, experiences of, and connections within and between Creole families and communities of southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana. Preserving zydeco means passing on sound and movement the Texas-Louisiana Creole community more broadly has heard, embodied, lived, and felt for generations.
Over the course of their apprenticeship, the pair has hit the scene hard. Like many Black Creole tradition bearers before them, Mona and Lindsay have been actively traveling the zydeco corridor, that venerable stretch of I-10 between southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana, attending, dancing, and teaching at zydecos. “Oh, she’s going to be a pro,” Mona proudly confirms after I ask about the pair’s plans to showcase the results of their apprenticeship in a multi-week workshop series at Jax Grill, one of Houston’s latest zydeco haunts. “I want y’all to see because it is going to be her show. That’s why we have the grant, so she can do it. So, as a Creole, from a Creole, I know I have somebody else out there that I can pull and say, ‘I need you to come with me here,’” Mona explains, clearly expressing her unwavering commitment to maintaining the continuity of zydeco’s Black Creole lifeblood. “Yeah, so we’ll be getting it cracking!” Lindsay remarks instantly, always in step with her mentor.
Header Photo Caption: Mentor Mona Wilson (left) and Apprentice Lindsay Gary (right)
Bibliography and Suggested Reading
Tisserand, Michael. The Kingdom of Zydeco. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.
Wood, Roger. Texas Zydeco. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.