Costumed Crusaders

Carnival dance krewes spread community spirit on and off the parade route all year long.
Photographs by Cheryl Gerber

 

Anyone attending a Carnival parade in recent years has likely witnessed a uniquely New Orleans phenomenon: the “dance krewe.” The popularity of these bewigged and bedazzled organizations, which entertain paradegoers with eye-popping routines and outfits, has exploded in recent years  with more than 40 clubs making parade appearances. The trend shows little sign of slowing, as existing groups spawn spinoffs and new clubs emerge to cater to different genres of music, costumes and cultural commentary.  

While these krewes are most visible during Carnival season, their contributions extend well beyond the parade route. Giving back to the community — whether by raising funds, participating in walkathons, or even pouring champagne — has become as much a part of the mission for many krewes as strutting  through the streets.

The following is a look at how a handful of dancing krewes work their philanthropic moves into their year-round routines.


The Sirens

 

Annually making a splash in ethereal costumes of blues, greens and fishnet tights that evoke the watery depths, this group’s broader mission covers the “three C’s”: choreography, comradery and community.

As with any serious dance krewe, the Sirens pay close attention to choreography. “Mermaids” dance through the entire parade route and practice at least twice a week for much of the year to perfect their moves. Their hypnotic performance is, indeed, a siren call.

“That’s what attracted me,” says Siren Kelley McDougall. “The majestic, dreamy feeling of mermaids and nautical life, the constant energy, smiling and choreography — it’s wonderful to watch.”

But the Sirens’ impact extends far beneath the surface. Their community work runs year-round, with a strong focus on organizations that support women and families. Every October, the krewe holds a “Mermaids and Mayhem” fundraiser; in 2018, the event raised $12,000 for the New Orleans Family Justice Center, an organization dedicated to ending domestic violence. The Sirens also support FestiGals, an event held each summer in New Orleans to connect and inspire women, and through this effort raised an additional $5,000 for nonprofits that serve women and families.  

“When I saw that it wasn’t just about Mardi Gras and pretty costumes and parades but caring about each other, caring about your community, giving back in different ways — that’s what sealed the deal for me to become a Siren,” says eight-year veteran Crystal Catania.

The krewe’s philanthropic efforts have added up to a significant impact. According to McDougall, over the past few seasons, the Sirens have raised more than $30,000 for local charities and logged over 1,400 volunteer hours at events to support Girls on the Run, Team Gleason, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, Odyssey House and the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, to name just a few. They donated more than 700 children’s books for LSU’s pediatric hospital and supported hurricane relief for Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. And, true to their marine roots, the Sirens have worked every year on a coastal restoration project, helping bag 38 tons of oyster shells to rebuild local reefs.

“Whether performing, rolling up our sleeves and giving back, providing direct financial help, fundraising or serving beer,” says McDougall, “philanthropy is a huge piece of what we do.”

 

The Sirens
Formed in 2010
Number of marchers: 85 dancing mermaids; 70+ sailor core members
Leader: Governed by a board
Mardi Gras 2019 parade appearances: Mystic Krewe of Nyx, Krewe d’Etat, Krewe of Cleopatra, Krewe of Pandora

 

Team Gleason is just one of the organizations the Sirens support. The group has raised over $30,000 for local charities and donated over 1,400 volunteer hours over the past few years.


   The Organ Grinders

 

The Organ Grinders are a high-energy dance machine committed to keeping the crowd engaged.

“You won’t see us walking — we’re not going through the motions,” says the group’s leader and founder Christina Duggar. In fact, every year the krewe choreographs 30 different dances to keep things exciting on the parade route — for both the crowd and the krewe. To polish these routines, the Organ Grinders hold 10 to12 practices a month, with members required to attend at least half.

In addition to their performance responsibilities, the Organ Grinders maintain a busy schedule of community service, participating in events to benefit a range of causes. For the past five years, the Organ Grinders have been active participants in Jefferson Parish’s annual Christmas Tree Recycling Project, which uses trees to shore up vulnerable areas of the state’s wetlands.

“We were the physical labor that puts the trees into the boats and throws them into the swamps,” says Duggar.  

The group’s philanthropic highlight is their annual blood drive, which they host every August at Tipitina’s in partnership with the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic and Assistance Foundation and the Blood Center of New Orleans. Why a summertime blood drive?

“There is a high need for blood in summer because school’s out, and that’s where most donations come from during the year,” says Duggar. “It’s also hurricane season and a peak period for violence in the city.”

Last year’s drive was a tremendous success, collecting 264 pints of blood in one day. In addition, the Organ Grinders pack other services into the event by bringing in community partners to offer what Duggar calls a “one-stop-shop” of voter registration, organ/bone marrow donor registration and information on topics such as Medicaid, mosquito control and public health.

The drive also serves as an opportunity to collaborate with other local dance krewes — last year’s event featured 10 troupes performing in a dance exhibition.

This spirit of collaboration among the city’s krewes is meaningful for six-year veteran Organ Grinder Nicole Spruill, who serves as the krewe’s dance captain.

“We have a lot to offer in that we are all a community that comes together to try to help the city,” says Spruill, “to bring a little fun to it while doing something positive.”

 

The Organ Grinders
Formed in 2010
Leader: Christina Duggar (Founder)
Number of dancers/marchers: 75
Mardi Gras 2019 parade appearances: Lyons Carnival Club Practice march, Krewe of Barkus, Krewe of Muses, Mystic Krewe of Druids, Krewe of Tucks

 

Last year, the Organ Grinders’ annual summer blood drive resulted in the collection of 264 pints of blood in just one day and also doubled as a public showcase of 10 different local dance krewes.


Merry Antoinettes

 

It’s hard to miss the Merry Antoinettes in a crowd — even during Carnival. Resplendent in towering wigs and costumes fit for a queen, the Antoinettes lend artistic flair and elegance to gatherings all year long.

“The main thing that sets us apart is that no one costume is alike,” says co-captain Julie Barecki. Most costumes are handmade and reflect the particular tastes of the wearer. Some are even inspired by pop culture references — from Harry Potter to Star Wars. “I have six Merry wigs at this point — and I don’t know how many corsets,” laughs Barecki.  

“We allow our members to be super creative,” agrees co-captain Francesca Brennan.

That desire for free expression was part of the inspiration for the group. The founding Merries were members of other dance or marching krewes who wanted to be in more parades and gatherings, but didn’t want more rehearsals.

“We are sort of like the antithesis of a dance krewe,” says Brennan. “Obviously we appreciate those a lot, but we just wanted to do something different. A friend of ours came up with the name, inspired by Sofia Coppola’s visually stunning movie, ‘Marie Antoinette,’ and we said, ‘We have to do this!’”

It turns out the founders weren’t the only ones in town with a fondness for champagne, corsets and cake.

“I think the first year we had about 40 members, then the next year was around 80 members,” says Brennan. “It’s really inclusive. I wasn’t in a sorority in college, and now I have 150 women and men that I wouldn’t have necessarily met because we don’t live in the same neighborhood, or I have kids and they don’t, or we’re in different fields. It’s pretty awesome at this age to make really great friends.”

“Over something so fun and joyful,” adds Barecki.

2019 was a landmark year for the Merry Antoinettes because it marked the debut of the Krewe de Bohème, a parade they co-founded with 19 other sub-krewes to present a “visual and auditory feast of mystery, artistry and fun” through the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny.

“When you take groups of creative people and say ‘Just have at it!,’ the most amazing things happen,” says Barecki.

After the hubbub of Mardi Gras (many of the Merries participate in other krewes), the group revs up with events and fundraisers. One key partnership is with the Link Stryjewski Foundation and their various philanthropic efforts, including the foundation’s annual Bal Masqué. The Merries also participate in the annual Big Wig Ball to support the New Orleans Opera Association’s student education programs, as well as events to benefit the New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, Odyssey House, Covenant House, Project Lazarus and a number of French-themed events, such as Ecole Bilingue’s Fête Française, among others.

“Most organizations want photo ops and ambience,” says Brennan. “We can help pour champagne and greet people. It’s awesome to see 20 Merry Antoinettes when you walk into a party.”

 

Merry Antoinettes
Formed in: 2016
Leader: Co-Captains Francesca Brennan and Julie Barecki
Number of dancers/marchers: 150  
Mardi Gras 2019 appearances: Krewe de Bohème

 

Looking for a little French flair at your next event or fundraiser? The Merry Antoinettes attend events throughout the year to benefit a wide array of organizations.


The Pussyfooters

 

Clad in their signature hot pink and orange corsets leading down to tall, white boots, the Pussyfooters have been a familiar sight on Carnival parade routes for almost two decades.

“We’re always trying to gauge the crowd and make sure we’re bringing life to everyone,” says five-year member Shelita Domino. “It’s about the crowd.”

To impress those onlookers, the Pussyfooters practice up to five times per week, particularly in the run-up to Carnival, but they also convene frequently for community-based activities. “That’s pretty much all we do all year!” says Domino.

The Pussyfooters’ highest-profile event is the krewe’s annual Blush Ball, which the organization puts on to benefit a local nonprofit – this year it was the Metro Centers for Community Advocacy, which supports survivors of trauma and domestic violence.

The Pussyfooters have also worked with organizations including the National Alliance for Mental Illness, the Tulane Cancer Center, and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, among many, many others. Domino estimates that the krewe participates in nearly 50 events per year to help other organizations raise funds. Last year, the Pussyfooters ended up raising enough funds to donate to a younger New Orleans dance krewe that needed money for uniforms.

“We as a board will discuss what’s needed, what they have done in the past, and how we can help,” says Domino. That might mean selling raffle tickets, serving food or guiding event attendees to a silent auction. “You find fun in all of them, in bringing a smile to someone else’s face.”

In addition to assisting outside organizations, the krewe prides itself on supporting its own members. “The sisterhood is real,” says Domino. “We are big on empowering each other and instilling confidence — whether in the business world or walking or dancing in the street.”

 

The Pussyfooters
Formed in: 2001
Leader: Overseen by an Executive Committee (led by President Tracy Brenes)
Number of dancers/marchers: Over 120 (all age 30+)
Mardi Gras 2019 appearances: Krewe of Carrollton, Mystic Krewe of Nyx, Krewe of Muses, Krewe of Thoth

 


The Disco Amigos

 

It’s hard to stand still when the Disco Amigos are around.

“When I hear the crowd talk, it’s ‘Wow! I love these guys! They have so much fun when they walk by,” says Disco Amigos founder and leader Francois Camenzuli. But the Amigos’ appeal is more than catchy dance steps. As Camenzuli says, “It’s about the production we do throughout the parade — the look, feel, image, and atmosphere we exude.”

The krewe challenges itself to keep the disco theme fresh, year in and year out. For this year’s Mardi Gras, the theme was “Fantastic Voyage” (after the Lakeside R&B hit) replete with a high seas pirate twist. But for Camenzuli and his amigos, disco is timeless.

The idea for the group emerged from a road trip that Camenzuli, then a 610 Stomper, took with friends in an old van they bought for $2,500.

“We didn’t think we’d make it past Slidell,” recalls Camenzuli.

The van’s shag carpet and mirrored disco ball set the stage for the journey. Along the way, the group researched the roots and evolution of disco and discovered a surprisingly heavy Latin influence. The van became a mobile disco machine, and the Disco Amigos were born.

The van is no longer, but the Disco Amigos are thriving as a year-round organization with the mission of “spreading the love and joy of disco.” The group gathers almost weekly to practice or appear at events, such as their partnership with Upturn Arts, a local organization that brings art to underprivileged children (the Amigos teach dance, naturally). Other appearances include events for Alzheimer’s research, Girls on the Run and the Down Syndrome Association of New Orleans Buddy Walk, where the Amigos donned capes over their uniforms to serve as superhero buddies and cheer on the walkers.

“A lot of the events we do are near and dear to certain members’ hearts,” says Camenzuli. “If we have the ability, we usually do it.” Last year the Disco Amigos participated in a whopping 42 events. “It allows a channel for folks to give back in a different way,” he says. “Our goal is to have multiple chapters and keep spreading that joy all around.”

 

The Disco Amigos
Formed in: 2012
Leader: Francois Camenzuli
Number of dancers/marchers: about 135. There is also a chapter in Birmingham, Alabama
Mardi Gras 2019 appearances: Krewe of Cleopatra, Krewe of Carrollton, Mystic Krewe of Nyx, Krewe of Tucks

 

The approximately 135 members of The Disco Amigos drive the group’s charity work by suggesting causes close to their hearts.


The 610 Stompers

 

The 610 Stompers have become one of New Orleans’ iconic organizations, instantly recognizable by their gym teacher shorts, high-rise socks and tagline: “Ordinary Men. Extraordinary Moves.”

“I knew it was something New Orleans was missing and the world wanted to see — their brothers, doctors, plumbers and next door neighbors dance,” says co-founder Brett “Slab” Patron. “You don’t see enough men letting loose except at special occasions. I knew it was a good concept, but as far as where we’ve taken it since then, it’s a culmination of a lot of passionate and smart people and the work they’ve done.”

The Stompers’ profile extends well beyond the New Orleans area. Over the years, the group has appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, the Kentucky Derby (twice), the Washington, D.C. Mardi Gras Ball and at NBA games.

“We’re always looking to take over the world one dance at a time,” says Executive Director Mont “Big Bird” Creamer.

Dancing is a cornerstone of the organization — the group practices as often as twice a week leading up to Mardi Gras — but community service plays an equally significant role. Through the Stompers’ quarterly charitable giving initiative, “Stompers Give Back,” the organization donates proceeds from its fundraisers (such as the “Debutante Ball”) to a variety of causes throughout the year.

“We like to focus on organizations that are close to the heart of Stompers,” says Creamer. “For example, we’ve had brothers who’ve been through organ transplants, so we’ve partnered with Louisiana organ procurement. We invite charities around New Orleans to apply for our grants. Our standard check is $5,610, but we gave $50,000 to the Youth Empowerment Project a few years ago, and we’ve donated well over a quarter of a million dollars to charity over 10 years.”

The Stompers are in demand for performances throughout the city.

“When you don’t charge, and your project is sought after, you get asked a lot,” says Patron. “We became very sought after very fast – we got tons of requests for charitable events and decided it would be fun for the guys and great for the community. Whether we’re doing some good putting smiles on people’s faces or helping them out with our philanthropic side, it’s a great thing.”

 

The 610 Stompers
Formed in: 2009
Leader: Executive Director Mont “Big Bird” Creamer
Number of dancers/marchers: 127 Stompers; 60-65 members of the Splits
Mardi Gras 2019 Parade appearances: Krewe of Poseidon (Slidell), Krewe of Hercules (Houma), Krewe of Carrollton, Mystic Krewe of Nyx, Krewe of Hermes, Krewe of Thoth, Krewe of Orpheus

 


 

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