Copyright © 2002, 2007, 2015 by Jim Hull

(Please cite the author if you quote from this work)


Like most Americans, Greg Benusa had heard the infectious sounds of Cajun music as they soared over the airwaves with the 1987 release of "The Big Easy," a film set in Louisiana. But until 1996, Greg knew almost nothing about Cajun music's spicy kissin' cousin, Zydeco. Today he's one of the foremost teachers of Zydeco in Southern California. The speed of this transformation owes partly to Greg's personal skills, but it's also an example of how deeply Zydeco can affect the lives of those it touches. Greg has dedicated himself to promoting Zydeco wherever he can, and one of his recent efforts is perhaps the most interesting: the weekly dance at Java Lanes in Long Beach, California.

Java Lanes is a bowling alley, busy at all hours with the clatter of falling pins and the shouts of players who make their 7-10 splits. But the place also sports a bar lounge that, on weekends, teems with dancers who move to the live music of loud rock bands. You know you're not at the usual bowling alley when you approach the "Lava Lounge" -- exterior walls are decorated in a volcano motif, garish orange flames rising against a jet-black background. The interior is painted black, the ceiling highlighted with stardust glitter. A bar serves patrons near the big double doors that open onto the bowling alley. Centered among tables and booths is a wooden dance floor outlined with a glowing orange strip that seems to proclaim, "Here's the landing zone for your night of fun!"

On a Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. the big house speakers pulse with Zydeco, and Greg Benusa is teaching the basics to a group of perhaps thirty men and women. Greg is a good-looking guy with a low-key manner and a way of putting people instantly at ease. He's also a terrific teacher who leads students carefully through each nuance of the Zydeco style. Greg welcomes questions; he has the knack of listening as if you're the only person in the world. By lesson's end, everyone is thoroughly comfortable with the steps they've learned.

After class, open dancing kicks in gear to Greg's giant collection of CD tracks. The music of Keith Frank, Beau Jocque, Nathan, Step Rideau, Zydeco Joe, André Thierry, Chris & Sean Ardoin, and Brian Jack rumble from the sound system. Greg's musical mix is one of the best: he has a great ear for the sexiest, most rhythmic cuts. Dance couples crowd the floor, talking and laughing, switching partners with each new song, as Californians like to do. Above them a screen displays slides and videos of Zydeco festivals, dance exhibitions, and bayou boat rides. At one point Greg pauses to give away a couple of CDs to lucky ticket-holders.

Greg trained in Swing, Country, and waltz before he met up with Zydeco. Galvanized by its rhythms, he absorbed everything he could, studying Zydeco films, taking lessons from local tutors, and attending workshops as far away as Seattle. In 1999 he took the plunge and began coaching dancers in San Diego. "I wanted to expose more folks to the great Zydeco music and dance," he says. "After teaching at a monthly dance, I thought it would be great to bring Zydeco to a more mainstream place like a local bar on a weekly basis." The first site was a small dive and the crowd soon outgrew the dance floor. "We moved to a better location with a bigger floor, Tio Leo's, where today it draws forty to fifty folks a night." Before long Greg was in demand, and he taught at the Long Beach Festival, at Gator By the Bay, and even in Denver.

Then Greg really got daring: he decided to start a mid-week dance in the Los Angeles area. The 85-mile commute from San Diego was daunting, but he persisted. He found a club in Orange County called The Barn -- a vast, two-story Country/Western dance club -- where he hosted a weekly Zydeco CD dance on the large indoor balcony. Some nights Greg had a crowd; other nights only a few showed up. But he refused to give in. "I decided to move it to a location closer to where they host Zydeco live dances." He discovered Java Lanes, a few miles from where Murphy Matthews sponsors the Sunday Gardena Zydeco dance. Better still, the Java Lounge manager, Scott Gravois, descends from Louisiana natives. Best of all, people really started showing up at the new locale, and some nights Greg had nearly as many dancers as in San Diego. Greg created a Website -- www.zydecoach.com -- to support his dances, with newsletter, calendar, instructional materials, and pictures.

Is Java Lanes the next Rock 'n' Bowl? Not exactly. The New Orleans mecca nightly presents big-name bands like Keith Frank, Rockin' Dopsie, and Steve Riley; its dance floor gives directly onto the bowling alley. At Java Lanes, the music is transcribed and bowlers are cordoned off beyond the lounge doors. But this is L.A. County, way down the Zydeco community list that begins with Louisiana and includes Houston, Baltimore/Washington, and San Francisco, among others. So it's an accomplishment to have a mid-week dance in the area, much less in a bowling alley.

Nothing lasts forever, and commuting took its toll on Greg. He turned the dance over to Fritz Turner, who has filled Greg's shoes with guest instructors chosen from the best local talent. (Greg will make appearances when possible.) So far, so good: despite the competition from local Swing, Country, and Salsa clubs, Fritz is optimistic enough that he hopes to start a Thursday dance up in Eagle Rock to serve north-county devotées.

In its short life, the Java Lanes Zydeco event has claimed a spot in the hearts of L.A. dancers. Thanks to founder Greg Benusa -- and with a little luck and pluck -- Java Lanes should keep Zydeco feet tapping for some time to come.

* * * *

A footnote: Zydeco Dance at Java Lanes is history, but these days you can enjoy a similar experience Thursdays at Golden Sails in Long Beach. Host Karen Redding welcomes you to an evening of hot Zydeco dancing. It's at 6285 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach, CA. There's a small admission charge and a 2-drink minimum. Dance lessons begin at 7:00 p.m. and open dancing starts at 8:00 p.m.


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