You don’t have to worry about anything. Just grab a drink and dance. Nobody judges anybody.”
It all started with 1984. Not the year, or the movie, but the original ‘80s-themed dance party at the nightclub formerly known as The Shim Sham on Toulouse Avenue in the French Quarter. In a city known for jazz, funk, and hip-hop, it might be surprising to learn that an ‘80s-themed dance party has been happening every week for nearly 20 years, yet this tradition has endured and thrived.
“When it started, my friend, Morgan (Higby Night), had The Shim Sham Club — and he was talking about doing this ‘80s thing and it was a great idea, so he did that. And it was a big hit,” says Ryan Von Hesseling, co-owner of One Eyed Jacks, home to what is now known as Fast Times ‘80s Dance Dance Night. When Hesseling and his partner, Rio Hackford, bought the former Shim Sham Club, they didn’t just get a venue — they inherited the ‘80s dance party along with it.
“When he finally closed that and left, everyone was really wanting that night. It kind of moved around after that. It ended up at a club — 735 Bourbon Street — I think, for a minute, it popped around,” Von Hesseling says. “When my partner and I opened One Eyed Jacks, we weren’t really thinking about going that direction. We really wanted to stick more with (live) music, but after that, people were just coming to us every Thursday night asking us — begging us — to have an ’80s night again. We kind of fought it for a while, but sure enough, people would just ask us and ask us and ask us. We gave in, pretty quickly, actually. And, it turned out to be one of the best recurring events we’ve ever done. And it still is, to this day.”
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What has helped Fast Times ‘80s Night become such a long-running success? So much of it has to do with the sense of community fostered at the popular venue. Alex Pomes, an alcoholic beverage industry consultant in New Orleans, was a regular from about 2006-2009.
“The ’80s were obviously trendy during that time period so the music was a draw, but the main thing was the communal aspect. All my friends went, I knew all the bartenders, the door guy, the DJ, etc. It was our weekly watering hole (that happened to include dancing),“ recalls Pomes.
Bella Blue is a burlesque performer and yoga instructor in New Orleans. From 2007 to 2011 she performed as a go-go dancer at the weekly ‘80s parties.
“I think the thing that was the most fun about it was all of the regulars that came out. It’s a very local event, and it would be packed every single week. You knew you were going to get to see all of your regular people that came there, familiar faces,” Blue said. “That was kind of the highlight of it. It was really fun, too because the other dancers and I were all friends and so we would coordinate our outfits and plan things together. We got really excited about it. A lot of times the next morning, we would all get together and go have brunch. We created this whole little thing together. It was really cool.”
Gogo McGreggor is the lead go-go dancer and self-proclaimed “Madam of ‘80s Night.” It’s her job to greet guests, make sure the dancers are taken care of and make sure everyone has a good time. She says the performers get just as much out of it as the crowd.
“Being a gogo dancer here is insanely hard on the body, but you can ask any of the regular dancers here: It’s dance therapy for us,” McGreggor says. “We go up on that gogo box and just transform into another world. You’re up there with your own thoughts and you dance it out. You could have the worst week ever, and you get to go up there and dance it out. You get joy out of seeing other people get joy out of seeing you dancing. It’s an exchange of energy.”
Van Hesseling says the weekly dance party is still a frequent stop for local service industry workers and creative professionals.
“It really doesn’t even start until like midnight,” Van Hesseling says. “Doors are at 10, but it really gets started about midnight. Service Industry people come, too, when they get off their jobs, and then they come over and hang out for ‘80s night. So that’s still a pretty big part of it.”
“It’s definitely gotten a lot more traction in terms of tourism,” notes Blue. “It’s a super-affordable event. The music is fun. It’s pretty (relevant) to people — even if they were born in the ‘90s, they still have affection for the music. The crowd is very different now, but it’s still fun. I have a good time any time I go.”
On a recent late-summer night, I stopped by Fast Times ‘80s Dance Party for the first time in years. It was a quiet, hot night in the French Quarter, so it wasn’t as busy as usual at One Eyed Jacks. But there were still a few die-hard regulars, and what appeared to be a few delighted tourists in Mardi Gras beads who found their way in.
A woman in a black romper and gladiator sandals excitedly got back out on the dance floor, saying, “Nineteen eighty! My senior prom, y’all!”
She was there with her partner and a group of friends, who were clearly having a great time. I later learned that the woman’s name is Michelle. She comes from the Arabi/Chalmette area. Michelle and her friends have been going to Fast Times ‘80s Dance Party almost every week for the past three months.
I asked her how she found out about it. Her now-adult children, all in their 20s and 30s, liked going to One Eyed Jacks and suggested their mother might like ‘80s night.
“This is the music of our heyday!” says Michelle. When I asked what brought her back every week, her answer echoed that of almost everyone else I spoke with.
“I like the diverse people that are in here. It’s so relaxed,” she says. “You don’t have to worry about anything. Just grab a drink and dance. Nobody judges anybody. Some people come dressed up, some not dressed up. Just come as you are.”
“I think a lot of it just has to do with One Eyed Jacks, just in general,” McGreggor says. “The club, and the owners. They’re such good people in New Orleans, as opposed to other larger venues that are more corporate. I think another great part is a sense of family, and also, you know, letting go and being free. Marketing always helps — it’s been the same logo for 10 years. I think it’s the staff. The staff, the DJs, the gogo dancers, this family vibe and this sense that when you walk through those doors, everything else is gone.”