Friday, February 12, 2010

Muses & Little Girls growing up

In 10 short years MUSES has become one of New Orleans signature parades (and my daughter's favorite). This parade is a must see for her and her friends, this year despite the fact that it was COLD! and the parade had to be postponed until Friday and it was the last parade of the night. What happened at the Friday night parade celebration this year is that my daughter found her Mardi Gras Mojo. She found out that she can get the attention of people in a crowd, look them in the eye, have them react positively to her. It is a taste of what it means to be a blossoming female. It was empowering for her.

At Mardi Gras, Krewe of Muses puts its best foot forward
By John Pope, The Times-Picayune
February 10, 2010, 10:40PM

While Staci Rosenberg was watching a male colleague rollick in the 2000 Krewe of Druids parade, a thought came to her that would eventually change the way hundreds of women celebrate Mardi Gras.

“I thought, ‘That looks like so much fun, and there’s not a parade I want to be in,’” said Rosenberg, a lawyer. When she returned home, Rosenberg started calling some of her female friends, asking, “If I started a krewe, would you be in it?”

What resulted was the Krewe of Muses, a hard-charging, wildly creative, women-only Carnival club.

Thursday night, toting bags full of shoes bedecked with glitter, nearly 800 Muses will climb aboard floats for their 10th anniversary ride, reveling in the notion that their Type-A approach to everything from satire to swag has catapulted their parade to the top of revelers’ must-see list. Another 800 women are on a waiting list to ride.

“We’re all perfectionists, and we always want to outdo ourselves — and everyone else,” said Virginia Saussy, who is in charge of floats and themes. “We’re very competitive, but our biggest competition is ourselves.”

Muses’ processions have become known for their humor, whimsical marching groups that include platoons of male Elvis Presley impersonators and batonless majorettes of a certain age, jabs at politicians, and just the merest hint of naughtiness.

How naughty? For the first parade, members dressed in virginal white, and the title of the last float was “Is That It?” The next year, the final float proclaimed, “It’s Always Better the Second Time.”

“I realized after Year One that there was room for bad girls in Mardi Gras,” Kathy Conklin said with a smirk. ‘I tend to think of (the all-female Krewe of) Iris as well-behaved women. I think Muses struck a chord for not being so well-behaved.”

The sole of the parade

And of course, there are the shoes. Lots of shoes.

Riders throw all kinds of outlandishly spangled footwear — from high heels to platform shoes to boots — and marchers carry outsize, brightly colored fiber-optic outlines of high heels between floats.

Finding and decorating shoes for the parade is a year-round affair. In addition to real shoes, members toss beads with little red high heels that have become iconic — and coveted.

Originally, those trinkets were supposed to be limited to the first parade.

But shortly after Muses’ debut, when Saussy and Rosenberg were wearing red-shoe beads at a party, Saussy said a police officer told them: “You guys are going to be big. There was a brawl in a gay bar last night over a pair of Muses beads.”

“We thought, damn, this could be something big,” Saussy said. “Now we’re all about shoes.”

In addition to the beads, some members sport charm bracelets with all manner of high heels, and shoe-shaped plastic earrings dangle from earlobes. The riders of one float call themselves Soul Sistas, proclaiming their affiliation with black shirts, each of which sports a dramatic high-heel shoe with an ankle strap.

And, of course, there is Muses’ dominant symbol: a huge pump, covered with 350,000 points of fiber-optic light, in which each year’s honorary muse rides. This year’s luminary is political consultant Mary Matalin, chosen because one of the attributes of Calliope, this year’s muse, is that she is the goddess of eloquence, Saussy said.

No one is exactly sure why shoes have become such an important part of Muses, although some members suggested that it stems from an inherent female interest in footwear. Another member pointed out that the krewe’s early years coincided with the popularity of “Sex and the City,” in which Carrie Bradshaw and her gal pals were obsessed with stilettos bearing such high-fashion — and high-price — names as Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo.

Foot in the door

During this year’s party, where members inspected the floats and socialized, Rosenberg sat near the big shoe’s toe. The krewe has clearly taken over her life: Rosenberg wore a Muses jacket over a Muses T-shirt over a Muses turtleneck, and on her right wrist, a black bracelet spelled out “MUSES” in big rhinestones.

At first, she said, it was difficult for anyone to take the women seriously, even after the City Council voted to let the krewe take to the streets in 2001.

Dionne Randolph, who books bands and marching groups for the parade, said it was tough to get bands to participate in the first parade because they weren’t sure whether the new krewe would be able to pay them. And because Muses paraded on a week night, Randolph knew some schools might be reluctant to let their musicians march.

But organizers knew that if they could book a major band, others would follow.

Randolph, an environmental engineer, had a distinct advantage: Her husband was a graduate of St. Augustine High School, where he played drums in the Marching 100.

“I knew I could do it,” she said — and her charm offensive was rewarded: St. Augustine signed up.

With that booking, other groups joined and have returned year after year, Randolph said, along with marching groups, some made up of men whose wives are riding.

Extending a hand

But there’s more to Muses than flashy footwear and a spiffy parade. From the beginning, the organization wanted to be active in community organizations, especially those benefiting women and children, said Conklin, who is in charge of outreach.

At first, the krewe enlisted elderly shut-ins to make riders’ masks, and they let schoolchildren design headdresses. In the wake of the destruction associated with Hurricane Katrina, Muses gave the New Orleans Police Department $50,000 to help cover Carnival overtime.

Muses members also stepped up during the organization’s darkest hour, after Latasha Bell, a 20-year-old single mother, was fatally shot while watching the 2004 parade.

One member helped pay for Bell’s funeral, Saussy said, and the organization set up a trust fund for her son, David Anthony Powell, raising about $25,000 in the first year.

The next year, when the parade passed the spot on St. Charles Avenue where the shooting occurred, “across the street was the family with a big sign that said, ‘David Anthony Powell loves the Muses,’” Saussy said.

After Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, members said there never was any doubt that Muses would roll in 2006.

Cecile Tebo, a social worker and administrator of the New Orleans Police Department’s Crisis Unit, described riding in Muses in 2006 as “mental health at its finest.”

“It was a moment to escape out of the heartache,” she said, “and to be members giving the city such a wonderful party and give people a moment when they could escape as well.”

As Muses gets ready for Thursday night’s 10th parade, Saussy had a simple explanation for the organization’s survival.

“We want all the little girls who are on the street to grow up and do what we’re doing, to perpetuate it.”

John Pope can be reached at or 504.826.3317.

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