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Ladies With Beads: Why We Must Encourage Carnival's Walking Groups
Sports has a way of stuffing emotions into game-sized packages. Victory is joyous; defeat is upsetting, though not so upsetting that we can’t get over it at a reasonable pace, especially in New Orleans where providence placed the end of the NFL season to coincide with the beginning of Carnival. Happy or sad, we can move easily from one to the other. It is Carnival time and there is lots to talk about, including ladies with beads and the future of walking groups.
There was a party Saturday night for a Carnival marching group called the Dames de Perlage. The name translates to "Ladies of Beadwork." Its membership of professional women wears decorated bustiers featuring a brilliant display of beadwork for special occasions. Each design is different. One displayed Saturday at the Costume Museum on Conti Street was a beaded picture of Chef Leah Chase. There were neighborhood scenes and even a parody of the Prytania Theater's "lets all go to the lobby" refreshments commercial. I did get a sneak peak of one of the works in progress showing the pirate Jean Lafitte. To do this work a person must have talent, patience, good eyes and steady hands as thousands of tiny beads are strung together. (In the world of Carnival only some of the Mardi Gras Indians show similar finesses with beadwork.)
Designs by the Dames properly belongs in a museum. They will also be on display in the most public of visual events, parades. The Dames are scheduled to walk in the marches of the Krewes of Freret and King Arthur, plus the neighborhood procession of the Krewe of Oak.
Seeing the creativity and sensing the excitement of the members reminded me of one great way that Carnival has grown in the last decade or so; and that is the increase of walking groups. I like the groups because they create new and creative ways for people to participate in Carnival that are not too expensive, yet still fulfilling. They enhance parades by bringing more creativity, and in many cases, humor, to the street level. They are not all about throwing beads rather they are about showing imagination.
On a wall in one of the museum rooms is a list of walking clubs past and present. Recent times have been most productive, especially with female groups, including the Organ Grinders, the Camel Toe Lady Steppers and the Bearded Oysters (additional thought may be required to understand those names) and some that do not technically walk, including the scooter-bound Rolling Elvi and the hilarious Laissez Boys, featuring men in smoking jackets relaxing on motorized easy chairs. All of these make the parades more fun. (Meanwhile on St. Claude Avenue the free spirited Krewe of Chewbacchus has so many groups, rumor has it that last year's parade has not finished yet.)
There is a problem however. An effort is being made to cut down on the number of groups within parades. The concern is that the parades have become too long and that creates a manpower problem, particularly with the police. By agreement between the krewes and the city there will be fewer marching groups and bands within parades, that means fewer opportunities.
Like the law banning parades from the French Quarter, every time Carnival is regulated there is a loss. Unfortunately, there is probably a need to. Safety trumps everything. Still, maybe for next year the issue can be looked at a little more closely. Creativity is a terrible thing to stifle.
Meanwhile, look for the Dames de Perlage along the parade route or wherever bead workers gather. They have earned the right to take pride in their nickname, "Goddesses with Bodices."
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. WYES-TV, CH. 12.