Cajun Carnival

La Danse de Mardi Gras

My Rouses Everyday, January | February 2018

Unless you’re tossing out beads from high atop a float, or marching with a hip-shaking dance troupe, it’s safe to say that Mardi Gras in most cities is, well, a pretty passive time.

Sure, we all holler and jump (and maybe throw a few elbows) at the chance to get our paws on a MoonPie, but after the heat of the moment has passed? We’re mostly back to just ogling the beauty of the procession and debating who has the best king cake in town. Parade watching is, by its very nature, mostly a spectator sport.

In rural communities across Acadiana, though, a different kind of Mardi Gras reigns. The Courir de Mardi Gras (loosely translated, “running of the Mardi Gras”) is a high-spirited, heart-racing procession that requires a lot of enthusiasm and a decent helping of athleticism. This is not for the meek or uncoordinated; the courir requires full and complete audience participation. And, yes, you’re probably going to have to run — in costume.

The courir is a tradition that can trace its winding lineage back to the shores of France, and involves going house to house asking for “charity” (read: foodstuffs) on the day before Ash Wednesday. In Cajun country, asking for these edible gifts morphed quickly into the ritual of “begging” for the ingredients to make a gumbo (think: chickens, sausage, rice, onions), which would then be cooked up later in the afternoon. Each year, after a sunrise wake-up and an all-day march down country roads on the hunt for fixings, runners would gather around the pot for a fortifying and justly rewarding meal based on the alms they’d been given for their hard day’s work (and party).

Today, the roux for the gumbo is already usually bubbling by the time the runners take off (and there’s plenty more chicken and sausage than that which runners gather), but the loose cast of courir characters has remained the same.

There are the runners (also called the Mardi Gras — that’s the bulk of folks), who grovel and whine and belly crawl towards preordained stops at houses along the route, pleading for the makings of a gumbo with a cry of, “Pardon! Pardon!”

There’s the capitaine, who — along with a small band of old-line revelers — oversees wrangling the (occasionally, ahem, inebriated) runners and keeping the jovial lot in a state of controlled chaos throughout the day. Often mounted on horseback (and the only person allowed to be unmasked), the capitaine commands massive amounts of respect. Step out of line — or pull a wildly dingbat move like trying to remove your mask — and the capitaine will sic les villains on you.

Traditionally dressed like fiendish members of the Queen of Hearts’ court (think: red, black and scary all over), they’re law enforcement for the day. Villains aren’t afraid to wield their power, whether by the bark of, “Tighten it up, Mardi Gras!” or a light flogging with a traditional burlap whip. (All in good fun, of course.)

Specific traditions shape-shift from town to town, and can involve a host of additional events revolving around the nucleus of the courir. A larger swath of communities proceed on foot and horse throughout the day, skipping and singing all the while. Others make use of wagons to haul merrymakers between neighbors’ homes. Many now combine the two methods of transportation for maximum jollity. After all, what’s better than a truck full of fiddle players rolling along beside you while you’re dancing towards the next stop? There are post-courir concerts and boucheries and street parties galore. There are runs specifically for children, like the Enfant Courir de Mardi Gras in Church Point; runs specifically for men (per the antiquated tradition) and those for women; but — most commonly — the courir is waiting with open arms for any and all community members ready to share in a good time.

At the mist-shrouded crack of dawn during my first courir a few years ago, I realized I had arrived to this hamlet just outside of Eunice woefully underprepared. Not because I wasn’t wildly ready to chase after live chickens and crack open an early morning beer (I was!), but because my costuming left a lot to be desired. I kind of felt like I was wearing sweatpants to a cocktail party; one glance around at the elaborate, glorious outfits of my fellow runners and my own attempt at masking seemed downright sheepish.

The traditional dress code for a courir carries with it a strict set of guidelines. A tall, conical hat resembling a dunce cap and known as a capuchon is key, as is covering your pants, shirt or overalls in rows upon rows of patchwork fringe, rounding out a decidedly bucolic, quasi-jester look. Being anonymous is necessary at courir, so masks — typically oversized and made of wire mesh with a clown-like face glued or painted on — are a must. (Runners must stay masked — no exceptions.) Today, though, the level of complexity and detail added to the (handmade, of course) costumes is downright awe-inspiring. There are masks shaped like ferocious bears, capuchons made from fast food themed fabric, and glamorous, jewel-dappled masks worthy of the Met Gala — even a man dressed head to toe like a swamp thing from the bayou. My sparse fringe and haphazard, Zorro-like mask made me thankful no one could identify me.

As we prepared for the run, repurposed school buses, flatbed trailers and other hauling devices of questionable sturdiness all awaited the bounty of musicians — fiddle players and guitarists and accordionists — who would provide a live soundtrack for the day as we journeyed along the road. A lack of music and dancing definitely isn’t a problem at the courir, where everyone — and I mean everyone — quickly gets swept up in reels and high kicks in the middle of the street. People dance solo if they don’t have a partner, and I quickly went from spinning like a top on my own to being twirled furiously by a man masked like a frog. (Insert your own Prince Charming joke here.)

Throughout the day, I joined my fellow runners with the kind of wild-eyed enthusiasm that can only be fueled by a potent concoction of adrenaline, competitiveness and a few nips from someone’s flask. I was initiated as a first-timer, and sang “La Vieille Chanson de Mardi Gras” in a call-and-response with the capitaine at the top of my lungs. I chased after the live chickens offered to us as “charity” at neighbors’ homes, collapsing in a dogpile with my fellow Mardi Gras runners. At one stop, I narrowly missing becoming the lucky runner to capture the chicken and deliver it to the capitaine. Later, we watched a ten-year-old scale a greased pole to unlock a guinea hen caged at the top while we paused to snack on a little mid-run boudin.

The sense of comradery at courir is palpable; it isn’t just a time for a little bit of liquor-fueled revelry and flipping your identity topsy-turvy for the day. It’s a two-stepping, fiddle-playing, beer-swilling love letter to the rich history of Acadiana and the communities that ensure that these traditions will be honored for generations to come. A place where the land, music and food are plaited together in a braid so tight it would be impossible to pull out a single strand without it all unraveling. A place where sharing and togetherness are paramount to not just Mardi Gras, but day-to-day life. As La Danse de Mardi Gras, a classic of the Cajun-French canon, instructs:

Captain, Captain, wave your flag…
Let’s go to the next neighbor
To ask for charity, you all come and join us
You all come and join us for the gumbo tonight!