Local couple preserves traditions through dance
Rob and Mel Soileau have been teaching the Cotton Festival’s Contradanse to the new generation for 13 years now. For them, it’s about keeping the tradition alive.
This year 31 kids performed the Contradanse, which is the biggest group so far. Mel and Rob began participating in the dance when they were newlyweds. Mel said, “I think it’s as old as our marriage. We’ll be married 13 years in November.” They had gone to see family members perform and thought it looked like fun. When they were ready to teach it, they had a difficult time getting adults do join, but they kept up with the kids. It was originally 5th graders, but they invited anyone who had done it in 5th grade to keep coming back. The classes start the first Sunday after Labor Day, learning the Contradanse and the Waltz. This year they implemented the Jitter Bug.
With the addition of older kids, they are finding the older ones are helping the younger ones. “It’s teaching them responsibility, but also it’s showing them that it’s up to them to pass on these traditions because we won’t always be there,” said Mel. “They’re going to be the ones the torch is going to get handed to.”
When asked how long they’ve loved to dance, Rob laughed, and Mel said, “That’s actually a funny story.” Rob said, “I’ve always Cajun danced because my mom taught me when I was very young, but we didn’t know a lot of the turns. When I was in junior high, Mom decided to take a class at LSUE. I showed up the first night, doing homework in the bleachers. It just so happened there was one girl who didn’t have a partner. That happened to be Mel’s cousin, Wendy, and I wound up being her partner.” Mel and Rob did not meet until years later, when they worked at Sears in Lake Charles.
The couple also loves to dance outside of the Cotton Festival. They go dancing regularly. One time they even made their own dance floor when there was none. Prejean’s restaurant does not have a dance floor. When Mel and Rob went to eat there one time, there was a large party of guests who had pulled two tables together, leaving an empty space on the floor. Mel and Rob asked the waiter if they could dance there. Rob said he noticed the band smiled as they danced. Before, the band was playing straight-faced, going through the motions, but seeing people dancing to their music brightened their night.
They could be anywhere, if there is music and the mood strikes them, they will dance. They’ve even done an impromptu dance at a garage sale where there a couple of people playing music. “When we feel like dancing, let ‘em watch! We don’t care. If we stumble, we laugh and we keep going,” said Mel.
Sometimes they even make their own dance moves by blending different but similar styles. Rob said, “We took a Rock Step class at U.L., which is pretty much the rock ‘n’ roll Jitter Bug, and we blended the turns between the Rock Step and even have a couple of Western turns that we blended in.”
They hope to continue doing the Contradanse for as long as they can to continue the tradition for generations to come. “Everybody was a teacher in my family, so that’s my opportunity to go out there and teach,” said Rob.
“We’re hoping that the kids who stay with us long enough, that we instilled the importance of it,” said Mel. She added that bringing little children on the dance floor helps because they’re being exposed to the beat and rhythm of the music, so parents should absolutely bring their kids out on the dance floor.
When they are not dancing, Rob is a field engineer for a clinical diagnostics company, and Mel is a pre-k teacher. Aside from dancing, the couple love to act together and have appeared in several community plays together between Opelousas and Eunice.