You're probably familiar with parade groups that perform in parades like Muses, Chewbaccus, and Zulu, to name a few-not counting the many other visiting bands and dance groups from around the nation, but you may not really know what goes on behind the scenes. In high school, I was a member of the color guard, and as an adult I've been a member of three different dancing and walking krewes. So I wanted to offer an insider's perspective. Here are some things you may not know about your favorite parade units:
1. It is exceptionally difficult to get an invitation to be in a Mardi Gras parade-or any New Orleans area parade, for that matter. Each parade has a person in charge of booking the lineups. This is done many months or even years in advance, and krewes usually use groups they are familiar with or impressed by. More recognized and established groups may not have a problem repeating the same parades year in and year out, but new krewes can have almost a two-to three-year wait to get included in a lineup. And with the recent City Council ordinance that limits the number of groups in each parade, it's even harder.
2. The most difficult challenge a Krewe can face is weather. This one shouldn't be that surprising, as most of you already know that our fair city can be a sunny 85 degrees and feel like 100 one minute and pour down rain the next. This means that krewes have to make almost impossible decisions that affect lots of people at the very last minute. For example, on a rainy day, if your group is covered in feathers, do you remove them five minutes before the parade and risk not looking your best? Or do you let the pouring rain ruin a year's worth of handmade work and thousands of dollars of materials? Lots of things go into play here: Will our girls and boys be too hot? Too cold? Are they in sweatshirts? Should they put on an extra pair of dance tights? This is all dependent on whether you have enough volunteers to allow for a last-minute change (i.e., adding sweatshirts from out of the van) and if your support vehicle will be able to get close enough to allow volunteers to grab the necessary clothing.
3. That is, if you have a support vehicle… Most parade organizations and routes will allow for one support vehicle; some are generous and give two. But sometimes, you don't have that option at all. Parades that go through the Quarter or through narrow routes may be limited on support vehicles, and if that's the case, then everything your team needs (food, water, extra tights, clothing options, and even instruments) all must be carried by volunteers or pulled by wagons. It's overdramatic to call it "Sophie's Choice,"but I'd be lying if I said there weren't times as a krewe owner that I had to decide whether it was more important for us to have extra food or extra clothing.
4. The second-most difficult challenge a krewe can face is sound. Sound seems really easy, right? You put on music of your choice and connect it to some kind of speaker. This is easier said than done, especially when you're considering a couple of things. A generator is usually involved when it's a larger setup, which also means you need to be able to pull or store it, along with the gasoline it requires. If you're following along, this means that you need to give up some of the precious food or clothing you've managed to fit inside the truck, not to mention you need to allow extra space for the potential for spilled gasoline. If you rent a DJ, there are some other challenges, and you may face scheduling conflicts with other groups or have a huge bill if the equipment gets wet or jostled. And I know that people love to play their own music in their roped-off chairs or tent area or ladder camp, but it's pretty difficult to do a choreographed dance when your music is being obscured by something else.
5. Injuries are common. I have actually had a dancer carted off in the middle of the parade by ambulance. Things happen, and even more things can happen when you're dancing on the streets of New Orleans at Mardi Gras. Most of the injuries are not serious, but they do happen-everything from bruised feet to bloody toes, twisted or sprained ankles, falls from slipping on a bead or stepping into a pothole, as well as exhaustion, heat exhaustion/dehydration.
6. Routes are LONG. You don't ever realize how long Mardi Gras parade routes are until you have to dance for the entire length of them. The shortest parades come in somewhere between two and sixmiles, and the longest can go up to 15 miles. The next time you are tempted to yell "C'mon, y'all, SMILE!" at a dancer who's grimacing at Canal and Tchoupitoulas, just remind yourself that that person is on mile nine and has been dancing-nonstop-the entire way.
7. Call times are early. Krewes may have to line up as early as 5 a.m. for a morning parade. It's a hurry-up-and-wait situation, but fortunately, those extra hours can be used to stretch, socialize, and eat your bananas (a classic parade staple to avoid cramping on the route).
8. It is virtually impossible to catch up after the grandstands. You never want to be the person who is holding up the parade, but it's really difficult to catch up when you're behind someone giving a speech for 20 minutes who is on wheels and can drive away when the speech is over. It's a little harder making up that one mile on foot-AND dancing!
9. People do yell at (and do inappropriate things) to dance krewes ALL THE TIME. You would be surprised how many grown people try to join your dance line as you're in the middle of a number, moving down the street. Some folks are harmless, and hey, laissez les bons temps rouler, but it can be dangerous when someone's trying to spin a flag or do a jump. Unfortunately, a lot of people do try to grope and grab, and I shouldn't need to say this, but a skintight outfit or short skirt is not permission to touch anyone who doesn't belong to you. Most of the time, though, the crowds are amazing.
10. There's always some kind of drama. It's a given that when you have a lot of people working very closely together, some kind of drama can ensue. Someone's always going to feel slighted by someone else (especially when heat, cold, tiredness, 4:00 a.m. wakeups, and alcohol come into play). As a leader,it's also surprising how many dancers will voice their upsets and concerns over every issue under the sun, from the volume of the music to which song is playing to what color outfit they've been placed in. Krewe leadership is definitely not something for someone who's thin-skinned. Above all, groups love each other, and a real camaraderie develops between members, but not without some battles along the way.
11. Groups spend months, even years working on their choreography. Groups meet once a month to three times a week to work on their precise moves. Most krewes have strict rules about how many practices can be skipped. It's really hard to plan a visually appealing line, wave, or transition if even one person is missing.
12. …And even longer working on their costumes. New Orleans is full of unique people and our dance krewes are no exception. All of the costumes have to be custom-ordered or custom-made. For many krewes, this can be a labor of love that takes many, many hours, especially for krewes like Dames de Perlage, where it can involve literally thousands of moving parts, beads, and feathers. Many krewes and sub-krewes, especially in Chewbacchus, also hand-make their throws, and that takes even longer-and on something that's just given away at the end of the night.
Many krewes also allow their members to explore different costume options, so some members may have a different look for every parade-a Halloween variation for Krewe of Boo, for example, as well as different lengths of skirts, wigs, and footwear, depending on the occasion and mood. The average dancer probably spends between $500 and $1,000 on their outfit in a single season, not even counting their dues and registration fees.
13. But overall, it's a ton of fun, and something everyone should try once. Although I've had my ups and downs with Mardi Gras krewes and sub-krewes, it's an experience that I'd never be able to replicate, and I'd never trade it for anything else in the world. For more information on what krewes are available to join, you can see a full list at mardigrasneworleans.com/parades/marching-clubs.