One of my earliest Mardi Gras memories—I was five years old or so—is of my family costuming on Mardi Gras day and heading down to the French Quarter to claim a spot at the old police station. There, the convivial spirit was especially rich and we celebrated by drinking in the fabulously costumed revelers walking by and by dancing to the music wafting through the streets. The crowning moment was when my mother gifted me with my annual Mardi Gras treat: Italian fig cookies from Central Grocery, complete with sprinkles. Another memory from around the same time takes me to our other family Mardi Gras spot: Rampart Street. While waiting for a parade amidst a throng of spectators, I eagerly looked up and down the street and caught a glimpse of something amazing far in the distance: a man, dressed head-to-toe in magenta feathers, emerged out of the adjoining neighborhood and danced out onto Rampart. After the briefest of moments, he disappeared. I blinked and he was gone, but for a second I had seen a Mardi Gras Indian!
As I grew older, the details of my Mardi Gras festivities shifted but the customs themselves remained firmly in place. Whether I was celebrating Carnival with friends or family, watching a parade on the street or a krewe court at a bal masque, to me Mardi Gras meant costuming, community, and dancing.
While writing New Orleans Carnival Balls: The Secret Side of Mardi Gras, 1870-1920, I came to understand that my experiences echo the transatlantic, multicultural nature of New Orleans Mardi Gras, one that is both unique to the city (its geographical location, history, and people) while also global in scale, infusing ideas from Europe, West Africa, and the Caribbean. And while masking and parading are central to these traditions, an often overlooked—but highly visible—Carnival ingredient is dancing. In New Orleans history, even in colonial histories, a main highlight of the Carnival season was dancing at masked balls (both private and public). In fact, the mighty trio of masking, parading, and Carnival balls pervaded each Mardi Gras history I read, but over and over I encountered the same predicament: while most histories discussed balls as important to Mardi Gras, there was little mention of actual dancing.
I trained in dance for over twenty years before studying history. I loved every moment I spent in technique class, in rehearsal, performing on stage, creating movement in my head, and dancing through life at every possible moment, in every possibly way. Dance is a lens through which to see the world and ask questions. The way we move carries information about our worldview and the physical choices we make crystalize those views, even if for a moment. Taken together, our movement practices create identity and, when we look closely at the dance and movement practices of Carnival balls, we see that there’s a whole untapped landscape of information and history at our fingertips. This is the world that I wanted to dive into with New Orleans Carnival Balls—picturesque tableaux vivants productions, regal grand marches and quadrilles, debutante call outs, and romantic ballroom dancing (from waltzes to ragtime).
The carnival balls I investigated existed in a private social sphere—an opulent, secret realm only accessible to the urbane men who belonged to the oldest New Orleans Mardi Gras organizations (krewes) of Comus, Proteus, Momus, and Rex, as well as their family, and equally prestigious friends. While being a dancer equipped me with useful tools for this project (especially movement description), my training as a historian ensured that I could delve deep into archival detective work to solve the main mystery: how do you investigate a secret? Among many diverse types of sources I perused, from court cases to costume sketches, the most revealing, pertinent materials I found were handwritten letters, diaries, and handmade scrapbooks. These sources were the ones that provided a rich foundation from which to understand the static customs or shifting rituals embedded in old-line secrecy. They described what old-line Carnival balls were like a hundred years ago or more and are their own magical Mardi Gras memories chock full of dancing adventures.
In celebration of Mardi Gras, here are six diverse books that focus on Carnival, history, and customs:
Brian J. Costello, Carnival in Louisiana: Celebrating Mardi Gras from the French Quarter to the Red River (LSU Press, 2017). Costello’s new book is a comprehensive look at Carnival history and mores throughout Louisiana. While New Orleans Mardi Gras history, including balls, comprise the first part, it’s exciting to learn about the rich and varied Carnival traditions, like Courir de Mardi Gras in Acadiana, or historic moments, like New Roads’ 1911 African American parade, led by King Snowball and his consort on the first float while a second float carried a brass band. From the Florida and River Parishes to Shreveport and Monroe, Costello not only provides historical accounts in accessible prose, but also suggests Mardi Gras exhibits around the state where you can immerse yourself in each area’s unique way of celebrating.
Samuel Kinser, Carnival, American Style: Mardi Gras at New Orleans and Mobile (University of Chicago Press, 1990). Kinser’s cultural history explores the historical ties (and tensions) between New Orleans and Mobile’s Carnival celebrations, but also links Mardi Gras to Caribbean, European, and African festivals. This multicultural approach highlights the contributions of Congo Square dances and quadroon balls or discusses commonalities with eighteenth-century Afro-Caribbean John Canoe maskers (among other cultural practices) to understanding Carnival culture in New Orleans. Kinser discusses a range of topics, from parades and balls to tourism and cultural codes.
Reid Mitchell, All on a Mardi Gras Day: Episodes in the History of New Orleans Carnival (Harvard University Press, 1999). Out of all the books on this list, Mitchell’s work was most inspirational to me when writing New Orleans Carnival Balls. His ability to weave together diverse perspectives into a synthesized narrative urged me to consider the multiple forces at play—and the seriousness of play—within the realm of old-line ritual. His work also encouraged me to open my chapters with historical vignettes. All on a Mardi Gras Day juxtaposes revelry and racism, elitism and immigration, as it crafts a nuanced social history that delves into the centrality of Africans, Creoles, and gay rights to Mardi Gras narratives. From American annexation and the emergence of old-line krewes to Mardi Gras Indians, brass bands, and drag, Mitchell’s writing is a remarkable New Orleans history. Unsurprisingly, dance plays a key role.
Robert Tallant, Mardi Gras…As it Was (Pelican Publishing Company, 1989 reprint). To me, this book represents the “glossy” New Orleans histories: romantic, mysterious, slightly fantastical—everything that Mardi Gras is, for sure, but definitely written in a different era. Tallant continues to be one of the best-known Louisiana writers—his work on the Louisiana Writers’ Project of the WPA and publication of Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folktales (with Lyle Saxon and Edward Dreyer) in 1945 remains a cultural cornerstone. This work is no different; it persists in the canon of Carnival history. I recommend it for its tone and the evocative picture it creates: historical vignettes of nighttime parades, ball romances, and the like, but also advice of “how to get into a ball” or “become a queen.” Mardi Gras…As it Was is part history, part memory, all magic.
Henri Schindler, Mardi Gras Treasures: Jewelry of the Golden Age (Pelican Publishing Company, 2006). In this beautifully illustrated volume, Schindler explores the same period in Mardi Gras history—the Golden Age—as my own work. Mardi Gras Treasures moves through each of the old-line krewes (and the tableaux societies collectively), providing a brief history along with general ball descriptions. Sumptuous images of krewe court crowns, scepters, and other fine jewels, as well as an array of ducal badges, ball favors, costume sketches, and dance cards pepper the book. For me, though, the most exciting parts are the photographs of the people themselves—krewesmen in business suits or costumed as kings and court queens (sometimes with their attending maids) resplendent in their full dress, with trains, crown, and scepter. The past comes alive in these photographs and we have a chance to peer into the secret world of old-line balls for ourselves. The photographs are well worth lingering over. This is but one book in the Mardi Gras Treasures series, which also includes individual publications focusing on invitations, costume designs, and floats.
Kim Marie Vaz, The “Baby Dolls”: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Traditions (LSU Press, 2013). Except for Schindler, all of the books mentioned above touch in some way upon the Baby Dolls, a group of African American women from the red-light district, Storyville, who began costuming as baby dolls around 1912 and took to the streets during Mardi Gras with vivacious dancing. The original Baby Dolls dressed in short satin dresses with bloomers, bonnets, and garters (stuffed with money). They smoked cigars and “walked raddy” through the streets as they sang songs, drank, and claimed their turf through salacious taunt and boast dance battles. Today’s Baby Dolls, while still focusing on women and community, use dance to cultivate community education and outreach. Vaz’s book compiles remarkable primary historical documents alongside interviews with current Baby Doll maskers, detailing a tradition of spirited innovation, community bonds, ancestral survival, and of course, amazing dance.
Jennifer Atkins is associate professor in Florida State University’s School of Dance.
If you are interested in learning more about Mardi Gras Balls, buy New Orleans Carnival Balls: The Secret Side of Mardi Gras, 1870-1920 today! Jen Atkins and Brian Costello will also be speaking at the Barnes & Noble at Citiplace in Baton Rouge on Saturday, February 3rd at 1:30 p.m.