Maybe it’s something in the air? New Orleanians are out there strutting their stuff – not as solo acts, but as members of a rapidly increasing number of local dance groups.
In most towns, people would know exactly where to find a dance team: a high school.
The Dominican Debs of St. Mary’s Dominican High School began in 1969. Fran Gandolfi Moran, current coach and former Deb Captain, admits, “It’s helpful to have had dance lessons” when girls audition. Deb coordinator Sina Baldwin noted that girls focusing on Debs choose that instead of sports teams.
Dominican Debs practice year round. They cheer for Dominican teams and for the Brother Martin Football Team. They march in Mardi Gras parades with both the Brother Martin and Dominican Bands. They enter competitions and have an annual dance review. Highlight of the year is the award for the Carmen Gaudet Deb of the Year, named for the founding Deb coach.
According to Coach Moran, “We want everyone to look the same – its important to look symmetrical.” Does this inhibit dancing? “They can shake in moderation,” she says.
That moderation idea proved difficult for Dedria Smith as a drum majorette in high school. As she recalls, “We had our little moves, but not too much. The principal was really strict.”
Once, at a football game while the other team was performing at halftime, she says, “Those girls, they got out there and they were good!”
Then, when Smith’s group had a chance to perform. “We got out there, and I looked at my girls and I said ‘Let’s get down.’ And ooh, we out-danced them.”
The result was predictable.
“Next day the principal called us all in to the office,” she laughs.
If school dance groups are a bit restrictive, off-campus dance groups welcome members of all ages.
After Chenell Taylor danced her way through school, she organized Girlz N Motion in 2009. This year, the 40 members range in age from 4 to 16. “Our costumes are royal blue, lime green, silver and a little white,” Taylor says. “We have advanced and beginners. There is a professional dance instructor and one for the majorettes.” In parades, the disc jockey rides in front and plays “music with a nice tempo – and no curse words.” There are regular rehearsals, and besides parades, Girlz N Motion appears at pageants, festivals and even for King and Queen coronations at nursery schools.
In the adult category, Mardi Gras authority Arthur Hardy calls Dance Connection “the grandmother of local dance groups.” Founded in 1979, the group numbers 40 women, aged 16 to 45 or so, and is led by Robbie Ganucheau, who was there at the beginning as a teenager. Uniforms are white vests and shorts, and purple shirts. Dancing is “bouncy, but we stay precise,” Ganucheau says. Besides parades, they’ve danced at car shows, basketball games and fund-raising events. “Before we go on,” Ganucheau says about a group tradition, “we hold hands for good luck, I say ‘Unity’ and they say ‘Through Dance and Friendship,’ and we raise up our arms and yell ‘Whoooo!’”
Camille Baldassar, an education consultant, was new to New Orleans and Mardi Gras, and while watching the Thoth parade realized how much she liked the dance groups. “I’d like to do that,” she thought, and began asking friends if they agreed. “In 2001, we just did it,” and the Pussyfooters began. That first year, they decorated white leotards with fringe and marabou and added capes. “Early on, we decided our mission would be supporting women,” Baldassar says. Fundraisers now include the annual Blush Ball. The Pussyfooters has 115 members, all over 30. “It’s very empowering to put on a wig and a costume and dance in the streets,” Baldassar says.
Unique among the dance groups is the 610 Stompers, an all male ensemble originally led by Brett Patron, that emerged about the same time as the parade honoring the late sportscaster Buddy Diliberto’s pledge to march in a red dress if the Saints made the Super Bowl. Now set at 120 members, the Stompers – members wear workout shorts, not dresses – has an executive director, Mont Creamer, and a full schedule of events. As many as 200 people have tried out to fill 12 vacant spots, Creamer says.
In this city, the beat goes on!