Mardi Gras 2013: 3 new marching groups take to the streets, in style

Debuts at Mardi Gras. They’re not just for white-gowned young women with long white gloves and social pedigrees.

This season, three groups are being introduced to society – not before make-believe royalty, but to crowds in the streets.

For these are marching clubs. The Chorus Girl Project, whose music, costumes and dance movements evoke lavish musicals and snazzy nightspots that thrived from the 1920s through the 1940s, will march through Metairie on Monday night in the Krewe of Hera’s debut parade.

The Dead Rock Stars, dressed like a deceased rock luminary whose identity is being kept secret, will be part of the Krewe of Muses’ Uptown procession on Thursday night. And the Déjà Vu Dance Team is scheduled for 10 parades.

Chorus Girls -- Marching.jpeg Members of the Chorus Girl Project, a new marching group, head down Spain Street in a rehearsal.

To Carnival chroniclers, these groups democratize Carnival by making participation possible for people who want to do more at parades than snag trinkets but may lack the cash or connections to get into a well-established krewe.

“It’s the cheapest, easiest way for newcomers as well as others to set their own Mardi Gras agendas,” said Michael Mizell-Nelson, an associate professor of history at the University of New Orleans.

To their founders, this is the purest form of wish fulfillment. “I had always fantasized about being in a parade,” said Amy Johnson, one of the Chorus Girl Project’s organizers, before putting a dozen women through their paces in, appropriately, the Movement Room at the Healing Center in Faubourg Marigny.

Chorus Girls -- studio.jpeg Under the direction of Amy Johnson, right, members of the Chorus Girl Project work on their dance routines, in anticipation of Mardi Gras splendor.

These women, whose experience ranges from none to near-professional caliber, did crossovers, kicks and a hip-swinging shim-sham over and over and over. Vintage tunes poured out of an iPod, including “I’m Alone Because I Love You,” “My Blue Heaven” and a peppy rendition of “Some of These Days.”

The prospect of working with this diverse group was what attracted Lori DeLeon, an experienced dancer and choreographer.

“I’m not saying we’re totally professional and perfect,” DeLeon said, “but collaboration and the group effort make it so that, as a group, we’re an entity that can’t be rivaled.”

The dancers, facing a mirror that covered an entire wall, were not in costumes, but Johnson told them to act as if they were. To illustrate her point, she put her hand above her head and walked slowly, as if she were supporting a towering headdress.

“We are fabulous ladies,” Johnson said in faux-grand tones, “and we are presenting how fabulous we are to (pause) Metairie.”

Although Hera will be the group’s first parade, the Chorus Girl Project has been around slightly more than a year, in one incarnation or another. Every couple of weeks, a new dance troupe forms, learns a routine and puts on a show. In previous incarnations, these women and others have been the Crescent Kitties, clad in black vests and shorts; flappers called the Adorabelles; and the Winter Wonderettes, whose outfits included fascinators resembling big peppermint disks.

Dead Rock Stars.jpeg The logo of the Dead Rock Stars, a new marching group whose founder promises a 'super-freaky' show.

 The Dead Rock Stars aren’t exactly greenhorns, either. They’ve been around for 10 years, said Herbert Dyer, the group's founder, who said they have spent that much time wondering whether to hit the streets in a parade. “We never could get our act together,” he said. “But the 610 Stompers gave us the motivation. We said, ‘This is possible.’”

The 610 Stompers are a men's dance troupe whose uniforms – short shorts, knee-high tube socks, headbands and shiny red jackets – are straight out of the 1970s. Formed in 2009, they are an extreme example of the fame that a marching group can achieve. They are in demand for parades, they have posed for signs and placards touting street safety, and they marched in Macy’s 2011 Thanksgiving Day Parade, where none of the New Yorkers seemed to know what to make of the raffish group.

Although the Stompers were role models, Dyer said the Dead Rock Stars set their sights somewhat lower “because we don’t have a lot of dancers. This is the best way to explain what we are: 610 brings a dance and a show; we bring a spectacle,” Dyer said, promising it will be “super-freaky.”

The 610 Stompers The New Orleans marching club's co-founder Brett Patron discusses being "ordinary men with extraordinary moves."

That’s certainly what it sounds like. Although Dyer declined to disclose whom his krewe will impersonate, he did say that when his 60 costumed members hit the streets in the Muses parade, they will be preceded and followed by 18-foot trailers. The rear vehicle will hold beer and portable toilets; the one in front will have enough gear to stage a small concert: a wall of disco lights, plus a 12,000-watt sound system that, Dyer said, requires four generators.

And that’s not all. Women in leather, including leather corsets, will carry the krewe’s banner. Rolls of red and black duct tape will be on hand “to seal people back up,” Dyer said. “Some guys are too big to fit in the costumes.”

At the other end of the size spectrum is the Déjà Vu Dance Troupe, whose all-female membership ranges in age from 12 to early 20s. At 24, Shannon Demma, co-owner, is the oldest member.

Although being in a parade has been a dream, putting it together was “very stressful,” Demma said. “There are a lot of teams out there, and it was very hard to get our name out there.” In one weekend, she said they marched in three parades in their pink and black outfits for a total of 18 miles.

Despite the stress and fatigue, Demma said her group will be back next year. “I love Mardi Gras,” she said. “Mardi Gras is my favorite season. It’s fun. Dancing is my passion, and I love to go out there and entertain.”

The Chorus Girl Project, the Dead Rock Stars and the Déjà Vu Dance Troupe are the latest additions to a long list of marching groups that is almost as old as Carnival itself. The Jefferson City Buzzards have been strutting through Uptown New Orleans since 1890, 33 years after the first major Carnival parade, and Pete Fountain’s Half-Fast Walking Club started its tradition of Fat Tuesday saunters in 1960.

The Krewe of Clones, a project of the Contemporary Arts Center in the early 1980s, gave rise to marching groups because they used them in their parades. Carrying on that tradition is the Krewe du Vieux, in which floats and marching clubs flaunt themes of sex and satire.

People who are marching in the streets instead of riding on floats “interact better with the crowds,” Carnival historian Errol Laborde said. “They bring humor down to the people.”

Hurricane Katrina was another spur to the growth of marching groups, Mizell-Nelson said. In addition to a desire to preserve the region’s culture, “it has to do with this spirit that if there’s another hurricane, this year’s Mardi Gras might be the last,” he said. “There’s a sense of seriousness of purpose.”

Carnival observers also credit the Krewe of Muses for making marching groups popular because the organization uses so many of them and gives them a big audience in its wildly popular parade. Among them are the 610 Stompers, the Rolling Elvi – Elvis impersonators in white jumpsuits riding scooters – and the Camel Toe Lady Steppers, a group of women dressed as majorettes.

This year, Muses will feature 10 marching groups, but the krewe had to turn down requests from many more, said Dionne Randolph, who books the organizations. “We get requests all the time,” she said. “We’ve found that the groups we have in the parade don’t leave. They tend to be very loyal and stay.”

For new groups, this is the kind of exposure to which they aspire. “I wish we were marching in New Orleans instead of Metairie,” said Debbie Easley, a member of the Chorus Girl Project, “but you’ve got to start somewhere.”