New Orleans Carnival Balls: The Secret Side of Mardi Gras

By Neidenbach, Elizabeth C. | The Journal of Southern History, November 2018 | Go to article overview

New Orleans Carnival Balls: The Secret Side of Mardi Gras


Neidenbach, Elizabeth C., The Journal of Southern History


New Orleans Carnival Balls: The Secret Side of Mardi Gras, 1870-1920. By Jennifer Atkins. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press 2017 Pp. xiv, 239. $38.00, ISBN 978-0-8071-6756-4.)

In New Orleans Carnival Balls: The Secret Side of Mardi Gras, 1870-1920, Jennifer Atkins examines the private Mardi Gras balls held by elite white male organizations (known as krewes) between Reconstruction and the Progressive era through the lens of dance. Atkins argues, "Dancing was the heart of krewe activities," and through dancing and other choreographed events, krewe members and their guests affirmed their racial, class, and gender identities (p. 152). The book focuses on the old-line krewes--Comus, Momus, Proteus, and Rex--founded between 1857 and 1881. Atkins reveals how krewesmen used dance and choreographed rituals to assert power, forge class solidarity, and bolster conservative traditions through intermarriage. Well written and well organized, this book is a fascinating study that brings a new perspective to bear on the performative nature of elite white Mardi Gras traditions in New Orleans.

Moving chronologically and thematically, Atkins traces changes in the balls' choreographed activities. During Reconstruction, old-line balls centered on tableaux vivants wherein masked krewesmen acted out commentaries on the political threats posed to white men by emancipation, Radical Reconstruction, and woman suffrage. Dressed as mythological and historical heroes, krewesmen performed a chivalric version of white southern manhood foundational to Lost Cause ideology. In the Gilded Age, focus shifted to the presentation of the krewes' royal courts through a grand march. As queens and maids, krewesmen's daughters performed "polished pedestrian" movements that symbolized an idealized white southern femininity (p. 105). Atkins argues that women gained "a measure of performative power" in the scripted roles because their participation under-girded krewesmen's idealized manhood (p. 8). Women also found some freedom of expression on the dance floor where matchmaking took place. The general dancing that concluded the balls allowed couples to share romantic moments and provided krewesmen and their guests the space to experiment in a way that other ball rituals did not. …

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