Picture this: 1978. LSU. Sigma Chi house. Frat boy writhing and sweating, prostrate on the dance floor encircled by cheering boys and giggling girls; me, age sixteen, peering over my freshman date’s shoulder in abject horror.
“What’s wrong with him?” I ask.
My date dives in and begins seizing beside his seizing friend.
My high-school boyfriends never had the gumption to try that at our homecoming dances. And the Hotty Toddy cheering crowd only wished they’d invented “The Gator,” in which the entire fraternity squirmed, flopped, humped, and flipped like a floor full of -- well…alligators. Make that drunken alligators.
My introduction to the Gator was almost as puzzling as the first time I watched someone suck a crawfish-head. Looks like they are enjoying the hell out of what they’re doing…still…I think I’ll just watch.
As my hometown Natchez, Mississippi, is only ten miles from Ferriday, Louisiana (birthplace of Jerry Lee Lewis), I have seen quite a bit of both crawfish-head sucking and gatoring. (Yes, “gator” conjugates in these parts.) I’ve watched guys gator in upscale clubs, dive bars, Cajun restaurants, at Mardi Gras balls, holiday country-club dances, 21st-birthday celebrations, 60th-birthday celebrations and wedding receptions.
Sad to say, the Gator is not as compulsory at celebrations in other parts of the country. Even sadder, some people don’t know how to gator or even to which song they should hit the floor.
To enlighten the uninitiated, I sought the clarity of a professional. If anyone can give you the skinny on the alligator and entree into the gator inner circle, it’s Glen McGlothin. Mayor of Ferriday on and off for the last 14 years and a professional musician for 47 years (his pedigree includes cousins Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley), McGlothin has gatored his way from Plaquemine to Memphis and back again.
“The first time I saw it done was to Louie Louie at a club in Breaux Bridge in the '60s” he said, making a slow rocking movement with his shoulders.
Theoretically, the diaspora of gatorers is thought to have begun with African American bands who played for white frat houses as depicted in the movie, Animal House. McGlothin, however, has a more realistic and culturally integrated take.
“Cajuns are a whole different ball of wax,” he explained. “They weren’t as uptight. Blacks and whites partied together; white bands had black members; black bands had white members. Who knows who did it first—but I think it came from those juke joints down in south Louisiana like the Purple Peacock in Eunice and the Pelican Club in Ville Platte.”
The original dance he described as getting down on all fours, like you might if getting ready to do push-ups, and crawling forward and backward to the reggae beat of Louie Louie.
“I still do that version, but you have to be careful how you move your rear-end or you might look like you’re doing something you ought not be.”
The movie Animal House changed the gator, he explained. “Now they like to gator to Shout by the Isley Brothers, and they dive in, flop over on their backs and do what I call the dying cockroach—it’s all your own interpretation now. They do the worm and pile on top of each other.”
Wild party boys willing to chug-a-lug and moon anything carried forth the primordial dance for five decades and have never pretended to get down on the floor and crawl around with one another for anything more than a laugh.
“Third set out of four—people are ready to party. That’s when they gator. They get loose and have fun,” said McGlothin.
But I sense a deeper reason lurking beneath the sweat-stained tuxes and booze soaked laughter. With dance, they seize the moment of party crescendo guaranteeing an uninhibited and appreciative audience and offering up their own kind of performance art, an interpretive “King of the Mountain” horizontal victory prance coupled with a daredevil challenge.
The gator stirs up man’s urge to climb and paint water towers, dangle their rears from speeding car windows, water ski barefoot, show-off, and laugh at fear.
“I’ve seen guys slide up into the drums. I’ve seen middle-aged guys dive in to start the gator, get the breath knocked out of them and just lay there,” said McGlothin. “I’ve seen guys start it at their own weddings and it becomes a ‘gator-off.’ The daddies jump in, then the uncles, then the old grandpas. Then there’re the people who forget they’re at a wedding and do the X-rated version…”
McGlothin’s band, Easy Eddie and the Party Rockers, plays at least 15 weddings a year at which, he says, gatoring is guaranteed.
“If it’s around here, they’re gonna do the alligator. It’s a participation dance. Mothers of the bride and groom, grandmas and aunts gather around to watch. It can make the party.”
Women watch. Make that ladies watch.
“If a girl gators, she’s…um…less inhibited than the other ladies,” said McGlothin, “She’s not a debutant…um…she’s more fun.”
At 63, McGlothin is more of an instigator than a gatorer.
“Hell, I wish I could still do it. I can get down but I can’t get back up. I look more like a turtle. It’s embarrassing to waller around on the floor.”
Unless you mean to wallow around on the floor. Then you’re doing the gator.
Courtney Taylor is a freelance writer and dance floor commentator living in Natchez, Mississippi.