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NEW ORLEANS — On a recent rainy Sunday, a group of women, donning silver, black and pink costumes, gathered outside Washington Square Park in New Orleans.
They ranged in age from their 20s to their 50s; they were doctors, accountants, artists, professors, social workers, lawyers, therapists. Many were mothers. Under the guise of ponchos and wigs, they began rehearsing the dance moves they’d been working on every Sunday since Halloween.
For the Camel Toe Lady Steppers, an adult women’s dance troupe, this was the final practice before they were set to appear in a major Mardi Gras parade the following week.
Crowds gathered, smiling and snapping photos as the women busted moves to the sounds of brass band music blaring from a pickup truck. Shimmying toward the French Quarter, they broke out into a chant: “Hey hey, ho ho, we’ve got Camel Toe!”
The Camel Toes weren’t practicing for just any Mardi Gras parade: They were set to march in Muses, New Orleans’s first all-women nighttime parade. Since 2000, the Krewe of Muses — which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year — has been shaping the city’s most beloved tradition.
But the Camel Toes could not have anticipated what would happen in the coming week, when several unfortunate events marred the Carnival celebrations, including two separate deaths of people who were struck by floats.
And on Thursday — the day Muses was set to roll — the city pushed the parade back a day due to severe weather. That shift meant many riders wouldn’t be able to attend the parade — and that the dance troupe’s performances would be cut.
The Camel Toe Lady Steppers wondered: Would they be able to follow through on the performance they’d spent the entire year preparing for?
“To New Orleanians, Mardi Gras is like Christmas,” says Staci Rosenberg, the woman who founded the Krewe of Muses in 2000. “Children feel that way, and adults still have that feeling.”
In Louisiana, the Carnival tradition dates back centuries, to when French explorers landed in the region. The Mardi Gras of today involves weeks of celebrations leading up to Ash Wednesday, which this year fell on Feb. 26. Throughout January and February, social clubs known as “krewes” — there are dozens in New Orleans — host parades throughout the city, where thousands of costumed riders toss beads and other “throws” from tractor-pulled floats. High school marching bands provide the soundtrack as locals try to spot their parading friends.
Contrary to some perceptions of the holiday, New Orleanians see Mardi Gras as family friendly: a time to reconnect with loved ones through celebration. But family friendly hasn’t always meant inclusive. Race, class and gender have always determined access to much in New Orleans, and that included membership in the exclusive krewes that originally ran the parades.
As Errol Laborde, a Carnival historian and the editor of New Orleans magazine, puts it:
That began to change around 1909, when the Krewe of Zulu launched the first Mardi Gras parade that was run by black men. Zulu would become famous for throwing hand-painted coconuts to the crowds, in addition to traditional Mardi Gras beads.
In 1917, the Krewe of Iris formed, becoming the first all-women’s krewe in the city. Despite that early formation, Iris did not launch a women’s parade until 1959. And it wasn’t until 2000, with Muses, that an all-women’s parade was set to run at night.
Rosenberg, an attorney in her 50s who originally hails from Pittsburgh, says she didn’t intend for the Krewe of Muses to be trailblazing. “I was out at a parade, watching someone I know who was in it, and he looked like he was having an unbelievably good time,” she says. “I started looking at which parades existed, and realized the vast majority were for men only. So I just thought, ‘Okay, let’s start a parade.’”
Rosenberg reached out to her friends, many of whom were successful women in the city’s professional workforce, and tasked them with overseeing different elements of parade-planning.
Weezie Porter, 60, was a friend who worked in sales; she was assigned to enlarge the new krewe’s membership. The women determined they needed at least 365 members to cover the cost of floats and bands while keeping dues reasonable. “We wanted to make it affordable, so teachers could ride as well as lawyers,” Porter explains.
By July of that year, over 600 dues-paying women had joined the krewe. The following February, the women held their inaugural parade.
Twenty years later, the Muses parade boasts more than 1,000 women riding on its 29 floats; the krewe estimates half a million spectators attend its parade annually.
“Muses allowed an opportunity for people who had only been allowed to be in the audience before to be in a show,” says Virginia Saussy, 53, a Muses founding member who helped design the original parade’s floats. “It didn’t change tradition. It expanded tradition.”
Since then, Muses has spawned other women’s night parades. Nyx, formed in 2012, has since grown to be the largest parade in New Orleans. Rosenberg says experts estimate more than 10,000 women rode in women-only krewes for the city’s Mardi Gras this year.
Participation in Mardi Gras parades can be quite expensive, even in a krewe like Muses, where leaders say they’re conscious of cost. Muses riders pay $900 per year for their memberships — still lower than many of the traditional krewes — and often spend that amount or more to buy the beads and other goodies they plan to throw to the eager crowd.
The Camel Toes, alternatively, charge less than $300 for membership, and that fee includes the handmade, matching costumes dancers wear on parade day.
“We don’t want to price anyone out,” says Cynthia Garza, a 46-year-old middle school teacher and founding member of the Camel Toes.
“One thing that is a conflict for us and that we have tried to sort of confront head on is that we wanted more racial diversity in the group,” says Garza, who is Mexican American.
Amid the rain and wind on Thursday, krewe leaders were told Muses, now bumped to Friday, would have to shorten its route to fit into an already-packed parade schedule. This meant the parade would have to cut its dance troupes and bands. But Muses founders spent what should have been parade time negotiating with the mayor’s office and police, begging to get things back on track.
For the Camel Toes — who only march in the Muses parade, and not for any other krewes — loyalty ended up paying off. Striking a compromise with the city, Muses was able to choose three troupes to participate, and the Camel Toes made the cut.
By Friday, spirits were back up, and the New Orleans tradition of laissez les bons temps rouler — letting the good times roll — was in full force. Muses’s 29 colorful, satirical floats only helped to reinforce that.
This year’s floats hit on a range of topics, from the New Orleans Saints to fracking, and from Marie Laveau, a 19th century New Orleans Voodoo practitioner, to President Trump.
There’s another reason locals and visitors alike love to attend Muses: The paraders are known for giving out hand-decorated shoes to revelers on the parade route. After an early Muses rider gave a glitter-covered shoe to a friend years ago — an homage to the Krewe of Zulu’s coconut throws — her idea unexpectedly took off.
This year, all along St. Charles Avenue, parade-goers waited for the floats to start rolling down the block, and many hoped to be handed a coveted Muses shoe. Kelly Johnson, 36, held a poster with an image of her sonogram — she’s due July 1. Johnson glued cutouts of green, glittery shoes on top of her baby’s feet.
“Baby needs a pair of shoes,” her sign read.
On Friday afternoon, the Camel Toes lined up on Napoleon Avenue, wearing matching pink outfits, oversized headdresses and big smiles. Due to the scheduling change, the group was placed at the very front of the parade, meaning they would now lead the way for the Krewe of Muses’s 20th year.
The women danced through the streets to the sound of the Stooges Brass Band. Behind them, a float declaring “Happy Birthday to Us” and “20 Years of Sisterhood” shot sparklers from a giant birthday cake.
Megan Ostrowski, 31, attended the parade with her 5-year-old daughter, Hazel Ndongi.
“She was born here,” Ostrowski says. “We moved away when she was 1, so we want her to see New Orleans culture. I love all-women parades.”
Near the end of the parade route, the Muses’s floats rolled to a stop, so the krewe leaders could partake in a traditional toast to the mayor. LaToya Cantrell — New Orleans’s first female mayor in its 300-year history — declared the parade one of the best in all of New Orleans.
Rosenberg, the woman who launched Muses, says everything came full-circle for her several years ago, when she was talking to a colleague’s young daughter. The girl told Rosenberg that if there were ever a parade “for just boys,” it should be called “Mooses.”
“It was so funny,” Rosenberg says, “because she didn’t know there were parades just for boys. She was born when Muses started, and we had become such a part of the landscape for her. It made me realize in her whole lifetime, there was this parade: this parade just for women.”