Tuesday, February 20, 2007

In New Orleans, Black Carnival Has its High-Society Side

The 2005 Bunch Club Gala attendees seven and a half months before Katrina struck. Photo by Lloyd Dennis

The Associated Press

Considering she says she's not a "girly-girl," Lynez Preyan has spent a lot of time dressing up, practicing the graceful wave of a scepter and working on her curtsy.

"They want us to sweep all the way to the floor," Preyan says, giggling as she demonstrates the move she employed as queen of the Young Men Illinois Club ball. "I'm a little shaky, especially in high heels."

Preyan _ who's older sister Lynesia made her debut with the club in 2002 _ is carrying on family and New Orleans traditions that are an important thread in the social fabric of the city's black community.

After Hurricane Katrina, Carnival clubs to which prosperous black New Orleanians have belonged for generations were lost, their members scattered by the storm.

Last year the Young Men Illinois Club, and its parent, the Original Illinois Club, founded in 1895 by Pullman porters, canceled their balls. The Black Pirates, Plantation Revelers, Bon Temps, Beau Brummels and the Bunch Club also canceled.

This year, many of the clubs are making a comeback.

Mardi Gras in the black community happens on several strata. There are the blue-collar Mardi Gras Indians, whose marches in Native American regalia are highlights of the season, and the middle-class Zulu organization, whose float parade is a local favorite. But the upper crust of New Orleans black society _ doctors, dentists, lawyers or skilled professionals _ debuts its daughters in the private setting of the traditional, invitation-only Carnival ball.

"People only talk about the poor people that were displaced by the hurricane," said Dr. Willard Dumas, a dentist and member of the Bunch Club. "But a lot of the black professionals, families that were a big part of New Orleans economy and culture, were flooded out as well."

Historically, the private side of Carnival has been a mostly segregated affair with whites and blacks forming their own organizations. In recent years, the race barrier has broken down somewhat, partly due to a 1991 city ordinance to bar street parading by racially discriminating groups.

Rex, an old-line white society krewe, admitted black members, but Comus, founded before the Civil War, dropped its parade rather than admit minorities though it still holds an exclusive ball. Zulu has long admitted white float riders.

"We've talked about admitting white members at length," said Lawrence Robinson, president of the Young Men Illinois, and a member for 31 years. "We don't prevent anyone from joining. We just haven't been approached yet. I think it will happen though. I look at the girls now and they have more white friends. They go to school together, play sports together. It'll happen."

The black Mardi Gras clubs are an important part of New Orleans society, said Errol Laborde, a Mardi Gras historian.

"New Orleans always had a large black middle class," Laborde said. "And the clubs became the way they introduced their daughters into society. And just as the white clubs do, it was always in connection with Carnival."

So despite the daily burden of the recovery from Katrina, the balls are reappearing on the Carnival scene. The Bunch and Plantation Revelers will stage scaled-down dances and balls as did the Young Men Illinois Club, though the latter is still short 10 of its 40 members.

Preyan, a freshman pre-med student at Xavier University, was queen for an evening on Feb. 2, reigning over a court of 15 other debutantes under the auspices of the Young Men Illinois Club. They range from 16 to 18 years old and most are students at the city's old-line Catholic high schools.

Preyan's family was displaced for almost a year after Katrina. Her father, who owns an electric service company, commuted from Baton Rouge. Preyan made the trip with him from January to June 2006 so she could finish her senior year at Dominican High School.

Their home in eastern New Orleans was gutted and rebuilt. But damaged houses, some with Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers in the yards, extend out for miles around it.

For the club's debutantes, events begin in September and include a formal tea and three or more formal parties, plus the debutante ball.

They attend weekly meetings with the club's etiquette officer, Gail Barnes-McConduit. Her instructions cover everything from proper table place settings to how to execute the floor-sweeping curtsey they will use at the ball.

"The Young Men Illinois Club has a great interest in teaching these girls how to make the transition into adulthood," Barnes-McConduit said. "That covers everything from table manners to common courtesy."

At 18, Preyan prefers jeans and tank tops. She and fellow debutantes balked a bit when Barnes-McConduit began introducing then to the finer points of protocol.

"It was all about which glass went where, which fork was used for what," she said. "We even had to learn how to walk a certain way. Grace and dignity, I heard those words over and over."

More than that, she began living them.

At the formal tea in September, Preyan, decked out in am off-white silk suit, matching hat and gloves, was undaunted by the elaborate place settings or the sedate ambiance of the regal tearoom.

In addition to the suit for the tea, the debutantes must have a different gown for each party and the ball.

"It is very expensive," said Dalton Savwoir, spokesman for the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office. His daughter, Macy, 17, is making her debut this season.

Besides the wardrobe, which costs thousands of dollars, Savwoir said, there are presents for the queen and the other debutantes, the pages _ young boys that escort the queen onto the stage at the ball _ the club members and their families.

Savwoir threw the required party for Macy at Gallier Hall, the Greek Revival building that served as City Hall for more than a century.

"The party ran about $8,000," Savwoir said. "And that doesn't include the limousine or the hairdresser or any of the incidentals."

The ball was the culmination of the debutante season.

Preyan, in a flowing white gown, a sparkling rhinestone crown on her head, a jeweled scepter in her hand, began the traditional tableau _ the picturesque grouping that highlights the ball.

"I'm supposed to stop when I first step onto the floor and stand there for a minute so the audience can admire me," Preyan said. "My pages will be behind me and we will slowly move around the room while I sweep my scepter back and forth."

Preyan ended up on the stage where each of the other debutantes was escorted and posed.

Although she originally hesitated at the rules that confined gowns to pastel colors with wide straps and billowing skirts, Preyan said she and the other debutantes eventually came around.

"I'm not really a girly-girl, or a tomboy," she said. "But for a little while I get to be an 1890s girl with all the glamour that goes with it. It really is wonderful."

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