Photo: Marilee Eaves
“The Bearded Oysters” Dancing for Mardi Gras
Photo Credit: Marilee Eaves

After the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, women’s Mardi Gras parades and dancing troupes proliferated. The oldest all-women’s krewe, the Krewe of Iris, was founded in 1917. In 1941 the Krewe of Venus became the first all-female krewe to parade. After the 1960s, many more women’s krewes formed—including Helios, Diana, Isis, Pandora, Cleopatra, Eve. I’m excited this year about the Krewe of Muses, which my neighbor, Jennifer, is riding with on the Thursday before Mardi Gras. Muses was formed in 2000, with an open-membership policy—a great way for women to participate in Mardi Gras without paying krewe fees!  

When the first Muses float passes, I find my designated spot next to the streetcar tracks and wait so I can wave to Jennifer and catch the signature Muses throw, a hand-decorated shoe. When Float 19 rolls up with a bevy of masked women in shades of shiny purple and lavender, I scan the concealed faces looking for Jennifer’s eyes and ha! we find each other. But, uh oh, two girls next to me see her too and move in front of me to catch her throw. I stretch up high on my arthritic toes and snatch the package—a high-heel shoe decorated with golden glitter and tiny plastic babies like the babies hidden in Twelfth Night cakes but painted purple, green, and gold. I often give throws away. What do I need with them? But not this time! I place my shoe next to a bunch of beads on a special shelf in my living room, happy to display the shoe from one of the women’s krewes.

            A few days later on Mardi Gras Day, I wake up at seven to loud voices below my bedroom window above Washington Avenue. I rush out of bed to lift my window shade to see what’s happening. It’s 33 degrees and the cold seeps through my windows. Three dozen women are clustered together, in short yellow baby-doll dresses with hot-pink trim, black wigs, painted white-face, and no coats or jackets! Two or three twirl batons. Most are wearing white-face and are African-American. Certainly a women’s krewe! On the edge of the group, a tall dude in dreads, white-face, long black coat, and boots holds a large banner upright for the women, “Continuing 100 years of Masking and Dancing.” The group performs jumping jacks to warm up. One woman kicks her leg up over her head and starts a trend, the others kicking and stretching and jumping and moving their arms in circles. Baby it’s cold outside.            

I admire these dancers and marchers, essentially women’s krewes, parading and strutting their fit bodies and smiling in fun. They look like they’re being true to themselves in joy and delight. They don’t seem to be intimidated by anything!

On the other side off my condo, eight women emerge from the house next door, highly made up and dressed in red old-timey flight attendant uniforms—the Amelia Earhawts & Cabin Krewe Dance Troupe. I spot them later in the day between two floats in a group of 50 other Amelias so snazzy and out there! They are surely a women’s krewe!  Following them is one of my favorite troupes, the Bearded Oysters, who shake and woo with glitzy beards hanging off their chins. They’re sassy, sequined, and irreverent. They embody joy!

          Mardi Gras traditions have changed over the decades (since the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s). In a Times Picayune interview, my daughter, whose film “By Invitation Only” questioned Mardi Gras practices, asked “Is there room in the tradition for everyone to be true to themselves?” It’s a question I’ve been exploring for years, as my own views about Mardi Gras and tradition have evolved, and a question that’s still present with me this year as I watch the parades go by.