Searching for the dance for a chicken

21 February 2012, from Acadiana

It’s Fat Tuesday, mid-morning, and it looks like it’ll be a hot day for February. I’m speeding along Interstate 10, through the Cajun prairie, where the already modest topography of south Louisiana becomes even more flat and wide. West of Lafayette and Opelousas, north of Crowley, lies a cluster of tiny agricultural towns: Mamou, Basile, Iota, Church Point. In the middle is Eunice, hardly larger than its neighbors.

Most of the year, little holds a traveler’s interest in these tidy, utilitarian towns. But come February, the area blooms with the celebration of another side of Mardi Gras culture, one arguably far older, and certainly more mysterious, than the urban parades of gaudy floats throwing necklaces of beads. This is the Courir de Mardis Gras, the ‘Run of Fat Tuesday.’ The courir is a sort of parade, but one that winds along the country roads of the prairie, filled not with floats but with chaotic rabbles of costumed men and women. The runners travel from house to house (traditionally on horseback, but now more commonly in a wagon or trailer towed by a pickup), dancing and singing and begging ingredients for a community gumbo. The final ingredient in this stew is the chicken, and so the courir is also known as the ‘dance for a chicken.’

In the few weeks before Mardi Gras, several people I’ve met have mentioned Basile’s courir as being one of the most traditional, and least attended by outsiders. And unlike some of the other courirs that were held over the weekend, this is one of the few that’s actually happening on Fat Tuesday.

Basile is quiet when I arrive. It appears to be an ordinary, quiet weekday, with no festivities in sight. But in a tiny town like this, how hard can it be to find a parade? And so I meander around the back streets, looking for revelers, listening for music. But nothing breaks the peace, no clues reveal themselves. Perhaps I’ve missed the parade? Or gotten the date wrong?

I’m running low on gas, and fill up at a service station on the main street. A police officer pulls in, and I ask her if she knows where the courir is. She’s not exactly sure, but says it’s definitely out in the country — and out of her jurisdiction, a fact I’m not sure I need to know. But she thinks they might be out on Bearcat Road, and points up the main street in the direction I should go. As I’m leaving, a woman waiting in a car has heard my question, and leans out the window to tell me that indeed, the runners are down on Bearcat Road, but that their next stop will be Trapper’s Bar, back towards Iota, and suggests I head there instead.

Trapper’s is one of those classic and now-rare third-place establishments that used to be common in America: part convenience store, mostly bar, and all local. About twenty people are here already, both inside at the U-shaped bar and at the tables, and outside leaning against pickup trucks, drinking early beers. A few folks have settled into portable folding chairs, waiting for the courir to arrive. Everyone’s calm and friendly, yet expectant. People filter in and out of the building, ordering sodas and beers and burgers, chatting with the women working behind the bar. Small children push open the door and boost themselves confidently up to a bar stool; I have a tiny conversation with a tiny girl, who states that she has a stomach-ache. She says it’s from all the soda she’s been drinking. I don’t argue, but sip at my Budweiser. It’s about 11am.

A commotion arises in the parking lot out front. The runners from Basile have arrived, and now they lope off the trailer being towed by a pickup truck. Another truck has two large speakers playing the Basile song (each courir has its own song, evolved over the years). The dancers’ costumes are similar to each other, but obviously unique, constructed of fringed rags patched together from old clothing. I spot tiny John Deere logos arrayed across one fellow’s costume, apparently an old pair of pajamas. Most of the dancers sport high dunce-like hats — the capuchons, originally were worn to make fun of the kings and queens and priests in the France of the 1600s, where this celebration originated. Masks of painted window screen finish off the alter ego of each dancer.

The capitaine, wearing a red cape and brandishing a whip, attempts to keep the crew in line, and led by him, the dancers sing and bellow and sway madly in a snaky line that weaves through the crowd. After a few rounds, the line breaks up, and the dancers dissolve among the onlookers, who cheerfully dance a languid two-step. A few of the dancers carry buckets, to which they mutely signal, grabbing at our pockets, and into which we drop nickels.

After a while, in the growing heat of the day, the masks come off, and the dancers reveal themselves, drop a bit of their adopted personality of the runners. They are men and women, teenagers and elders, a neighbor, a friend, a boss, a worker.

One of the runners comes over and introduces himself to me. Russel ‘Potic’ Driver is in his fifties, wearing a salt-and-pepper goatee and a bright red costume; around his neck hangs an absurd, oversized baby pacifier. I suddenly have a weird flashback of the 1990s rave scene in San Francisco, of boys with big pants and floppy hats. But Potic is the president of the Basile Mardi Gras Association, and has been a part of this traditional celebration since he was a boy. He introduces his wife Sandy, who also grew up doing these same celebrations, and they both generously answer my questions about the traditions and evolution of the festivities.

Back in the bar, seeking some water for the now-hot day, I’m cornered by Allison, a cheery and talkative woman who’s a friend of the owner. She shares her jug of rum & coke, and excitedly asks me about Oregon, where an old pen-pan friend of hers lives. We trade our stories, sip at the rum & coke, laugh along with everyone else now enjoying this day.

Eventually, the Basile crew loads themselves back onto their trailer, and leaves for the next stop of the day. About fifteen minutes later, the Tee-Mamou dancers arrive, another crew from another town. Allison tells me the different crews can’t be seen together, but I never learn the reason why.

Unlike the mixed group from Basile, the Tee-Mamou crew is all men. Clambering down as a jeering mob from their wagon, they carry a darker, more mischievous energy: more trickster than fool. They dance, too, but seem separate, less joyful, more intent on causing trouble—although all still in fun. One man climbs an oil tank and slowly beats a deep gonging tone with a piece of found lumber, then intones, ‘Church is in session!’ Everybody laughs. Another climbs onto the roof of the bar, crawls to the very peak, and bellows, then slides down the corrugated metal, landing in the mud in his rubber boots. A man standing next to me, visiting from northern Louisiana, says, ‘Back home, if these guys showed up at a bar dressed like this, they’d get shot.’

The morning turns to afternoon, and the Tee-Mamou dancers scutter back to their wagon, along with an incongruous painted cut-out of a cow which is dragged behind them as they pull out the parking lot, down the road to Iota, to the next house on the run, to finally catch that chicken for their gumbo.