Students, faculty, staff, and special guests of Vic A. Pitre Elementary received a special treat earlier this year. They had a visit from members of the New Orleans Society of Dance, New Orleans Baby Doll Ladies featuring Musical Ambassador, DJ Hektik. What was so special about this visit? The NOSD Baby Doll Ladies bring—not only a fabulous performance, but the 104 year old history of doll masquerading and parading in New Orleans.
Doll masking and parading began in New Orleans in 1912, when the first Baby Doll groups were formed. These ladies were a small group of African American, Creole women of New Orleans, who were not allowed to participate in formal parades. Hence, they formed their own Mardi Gras celebration where they combined African dance and rhythm with French Creole style and baby doll regalia, or costumes.
By the 1930’s this evolved into fierce competitions between several Baby Doll groups, who represented a variety of neighborhoods in New Orleans. Eventually, from 1980 to 2003, Baby Doll groups fell off. In 2004 Antoinette K-doe created her own group that was active until Hurricane Katrina. It wasn’t until 2005, after Katrina, that Millisia White, the Creative Director for the Baby Doll Ladies, decided to resurrect the Baby Doll tradition.
The Baby Doll Ladies is a masking, music, and dance group committed to preserving and promoting women’s arts in New Orleans and the surrounding areas. They are the only Baby Doll group that not only continues the Mardi Gras tradition of masking, but is a professional dance company as well. They are also dedicated to teaching others about the history of Baby Doll organizations. They are the only Baby Doll group that is historically linked to the first Baby Doll groups formed in 1912, has the blessing and historic heirlooms from Aunt Miriam Batiste-Reed and her brother, the late Uncle Lionel Batiste (descendants of the original music and dancing family of Baby Dolls from 1930), has a musical ambassador, and paints or “masks” their faces. Additionally, they are the only Baby Doll group called “Baby Doll Ladies.”
For the last few years, these ladies have had several accolades to boast about. In 2012, they celebrated their 100th anniversary. In 2013, they curated and co-sponsored the “Baby Dolls: Living Tradition & History” exhibit at the Presbytere State Museum, showcasing and celebrating 100 years of New Orleans Baby Dolls. In 2014, they were one of eight performance groups selected to participate in the 88th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. They made history again this year. On Mardi Gras Day, the ladies became the first Baby Doll group in history to have an official walking parade, in Cooperation with the City Of New Orleans’ Economic Preservation Office.
In 2013, the Ladies decided to foster a relationship with Pitre Elementary. This stemmed from one of their performance members, the school’s Academic Dean, Richelle “Ms. Ricky” Caiton, who sits on their School and Youth Committee, suggesting that the group visit the school. This was the start of a wonderful relationship. Since then, the ladies have re-structured their School and Youth presentation to fit K—5 Louisiana Standards, and saw Pitre Elementary as the perfect launching pad for the re-vamped program.
“Our organization is thrilled to be able to incorporate a school & youth teaching mission as part of our outreach efforts with Pitre Elementary school. It is important to us that we continue motivating students and raising their self-esteem, while also building awareness of Louisiana’s diverse cultural heritage. We facilitate this through the use of performing arts combined with literacy components. Our Collaboration with Pitre Elementary has been a great success, and as a long term goal, we hope to share our NOSD enrichment program with ALL other students in the region.”
“It is not only important that we carry on and teach the masking tradition, but it is fundamental that our teaching correlates with the Louisiana State Standards. This includes break-out sessions that cover dance, music theory, and art with a writing/English Language Arts component. We were blessed that our school was selected as the pilot for this restructured program. We wanted the students to take away some creative fundamentals as well,” says their Academic Dean.
“This is the second year that the New Orleans Baby Doll Ladies have come to Vic A. Pitre. We are always in for a special treat because their performances provide fun-filled learning opportunities that allow our students to see a piece of New Orleans history relived,” says the school’s principal, Wesley Taylor, Jr.
In preparation for the visit, students in grades 2 to 5 studied about the Baby Doll Ladies in their Louisiana Unit. The unit is a packet of information about Louisiana, its many cultures, music contributions, products, traditions, and festivals. Additionally, Ms. Ricky (as the students call her) had auditions for the newly-formed Vic A. Pitre Mini Dolls Dance Team.
“The girls were selected to introduce, or bring out the Baby Doll Ladies. They performed to Rebirth Brass Band’s “Do Whatcha Wanna,” a piece the Baby Doll Ladies danced to as well. Just like the Baby Doll Ladies, each girl has a Mini Doll name, such as Mini Doll Shortcake and Mini Doll Pepper. “I think the assembly was good because I got to perform, and I learned a lot about the ladies I was supposed to be like,” says 3rd grader Diamond Jackson or Mini Doll Mini Me.
The presentation continued with DJ Hektik doing “Roll Call” for the ladies present. Next, the ladies showcased their skill with a dance, which combined Second Line, Jazz, and Hip Hop elements. Soon after, a “Call and Response” lesson on the history of Baby Doll masking and parading began which include a Power Point—complete with pictures—about the historical figures integral to the doll-masking tradition. These figures included: Antoinette K-doe, Aunt Miriam Batiste-Reed, and Uncle Lionel Batiste. Students were quizzed on what they learned, and were able to ask the Ladies questions about anything from why they are called Baby Doll Ladies to how their costumes are selected. Students were able to win prizes ranging from Baby Doll Lady beads, bracelets, and pins to posters of past Dolls in a variety of costumes.
This visit is also culturally important to the students. Said Physical Education teacher, Dana Zitzmann, “The students were exposed to a piece of New Orleans history and culture some of them are not familiar with because they don’t live in the city. The only students who really knew about the Baby Doll Ladies, saw their performance here in 2013, or were students of Ms. Ricky when she performed with them in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2014. They got to see their teacher on TV.”
Jennifer Larche, a fourth grade teacher, who grew up in the 13th Ward, said,” I’ve known about them since I was a child, but they were always a mystery to me. They were the talk of my family or neighborhood. People would come back and say they saw them. I knew it was something to be proud of, part of our heritage. I am excited that it is being presented to schools, because the students would not know about them. Our students were exposed to the history other kids won’t know about. They will see these other female dance groups and wonder who started it all.”
Breakout sessions were also aligned with the school’s Positive Behavior Intervention System since students who attended them were selected because of their exemplary behavior.
“They were fortunate to learn how the dance session correlates to Physical Education GLEs, specifically those concerning movement. It was important that the Physical Education Department work with Ms. Ricky in hosting this event. We wanted to ensure that the students realized that P.E. has skills and standards that must be met as well,” says Coach Dana.
Several parents were in attendance, and were excited about the event. Shalonda Fraizer-Johnson, Vic A. Pitre’s Mini Dolls Dance Team Parent Sponsor says,” it was very informative and educational for the kids. The children needed to see this. They need to learn more about the city and the culture they come from.”
Cedricka Sartain, who facilitates the Advent after school program, stated, “it was really nice. It was awesome sauce. I really enjoyed myself and learned about the rich history of doll masking in New Orleans. I can remember travelling down Claiborne Ave. when Uncle Lionel died, and wondering why there were so many people attending his funeral. It was not until now that I fully understand his importance to New Orleans culture, music, and history. I learned a lot.”
Havanna Encalada, a fourth grade student from New Hampshire had this to say, “I liked it. The dances, costumes and the activities were fun. I enjoyed going to the breakout sessions. I enjoyed learning about the history of the Baby Doll Ladies because I like learning about history. We don’t have things like this in New Hampshire.”
Amongst the spectators was Ms. Ricky’s mother, Theola Caiton, who admitted that she was impressed with both the Ladies and Pitre’s students. “The performance was excellent and the students were all well-behaved and attentive. When the leader of the Baby Doll Ladies gave the history of the organization, I was very impressed and proud that the students answered all of her questions, and asked very mature and intelligent questions as well.” This was an extra-special performance for her since she had never seen her daughter in Baby Doll regalia, except on TV. “I was also excited to see my daughter, dressed in her baby doll costume, with her painted baby doll face, dance with the group, up close and personal.”
If you would like to know more about the New Orleans Society of Dance, Baby Doll Ladies featuring Music Ambassador DJ Hektik, you can visit their website at neworleanssocietyofdance.com.