To read parts I and II of Niya Zulu’s “Mardi Gras morning” series, click here.
One year during Mardi Gras season, my Dad decided to take full advantage of his inherited multi-talentedness and created what I consider the first of his more “ambitious” suits. From the crown to the apron, it looked basically like your average downtown-style suit: tipped pink feathers lined with marabou, three-dimensional pieces all lying under the “Ancient Egyptian Symbols” theme for that year, and a beaded mask. But underneath the added custom-made-five-foot-long pants were his tallest pair of wooden stilts.
I’m not sure if an Indian had ever masked on stilts before, but even if he wasn’t then I’m sure he had to be the tallest.
From my short frame, I could only see his full crown if I stood far away from him. It was kind of funny seeing him tower over crowd the way that he did; every time he danced the crowd would quickly expand in attempts to avoid being kicked by the bottom of his stilt. If only I had had my Nikon D40 at the time, I would’ve gotten the clearest photo of my collection.
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When I was three years old and just starting to take a few dance classes here and there, my parents felt that it was time to start learning one final aspect of the family trade. I had grown up seeing my Dad perform stilt dancing – a masquerade art form that his Dad taught him as a teenager, but had never thought that children to do it as well.
Apparently, I wasn’t the first kid in my family to try. The tiny, hand-painted wooden stilts that my Dad used to teach me how to walk had been passed down from my uncles, who both used them when they were children. I don’t remember anything from the experience, but when I asked my Dad how I reacted to the experience, he said that as soon as he pulled me up and showed me how to balance, I had quickly gotten the hang of it. I took a few steps around the house, and then on the same day he took me to the park to walk around on them.
Once I got comfortable with the walking, then came the dancing. He played music every time that I’d practice and taught me a few simple moves. At times I would get too confident and end up falling trying to copy the acrobatic movements that I’d see my dad do on stage. I learned how to pace myself, and how to watch my surroundings, and how to break my fall with my hands the next time I tripped myself up.
By the age of four I had gotten a costume made, and I started performing alongside my Dad and the other dancers. We were constantly on the road with my uncles and the other members of my parents’ performing arts group, and we were always busy. I’d return to school from a trip, excitedly telling my classmates all about my experiences, and would fill my class journal with photos of me and my parents clipped out of newspapers and event brochures.
My teachers would sometimes ask my parents’ group to perform at events going on at school, and after it was all over I’d hurry to change out of my stilts and costume to catch up with my friends who were watching. Every year, I’d wait eagerly for school to end and for our summer festival tour to begin. As a kid I never thought of it as a hobby or a job or anything like that, just something that we did from time to time. Now, at 19 years old, I kind of miss having that mindset—just doing gigs from time to time for the fun of it, rather than for a paycheck.
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It seems that the majority of the times in which I see my grandfather is by chance rather than by planned visit. As a vendor, I always end up coming across his booth at festivals or dance conferences that happen throughout the year. He’ll always give me something from his booth that he sees me eying — usually a dress or bracelet, or maybe a roll-on body oil. We’d start a conversation, which would usually end up being about history, current events or whatever social issue that comes to mind. He’d tell me “look this up when you get home,” and then I’d tell him all about what new things I found out about the topic the next time I’d see him. These short exchanges almost always result in me learning interesting new facts.
My Dad told me about similar conversations that they’d have together when he was my age. He seems to have enjoyed them just as much as I do now, and learned a lot of the things that he’s taught me over the years from conversations with his father. Just like he taught me how to walk on stilts, my grandfather taught him everything he needed about being a salesman, and they’d travel together working their booths at festivals all around the country. When they weren’t vending, they were performing together in my grandfather’s African drum and dance group, either drumming or stilt dancing.
The similarities between my Dad and Granddad’s career and lifestyle don’t stop there: they’re also both involved in the Mardi Gras Indian culture. As second Chief of the Northside Bone Gang, a masking tradition that’s gained quite a bit of recognition in the past years, he’s just as busy during Mardi Gras season as we are. But since they come out at different times, my Granddad coming out early in the mornings and my Dad coming out during the late morning or early afternoon, they never really cross paths.
As a kid I would sometimes spot a few Skulls somewhere in the crowd that stuck around later in the day, usually posing for photos or talking to children and making sure that they were doing well in school and listening to their parents. I’d see who were even children, themselves. As a somewhat apprehensive child, I’d always be glad that my encounters with the Skull and Bones were from a distance, rather than face-to-face like other kids whose parents felt they were in need of some “straightening out.”
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The Free Spirit Gallery, an ever-growing collection of my grandfather’s paintings, is located in the front room of his home. The collection seems to get noticeably bigger every time I visit. He describes his work as folk art – much of it including recycled materials such as shards of broken mirrors or pieces of fabric, and often of cowry shells. Their themes range from landscape scenes, to UFO landings (one of his more recurring themes), to depictions of inner-city street violence. To accompany the paintings, he keeps sculptures and other art pieces around the room and the rest of his house. No matter how much time you spend taking everything in and looking at all the pieces, you’ll always find ones that you don’t remember ever seeing before.
My grandfather, like my dad, loves to talk about history and has a knack for storytelling. His gifts in art, music and masking have brought him lots of life experiences, and I’m sure there are many more to come. As someone who lives and breathes the Arts, one could say that he truly embodies the name of his performing arts group: Free Spirit.