The traditional Mardi Gras ball is venerable institution in Carnival society, often following a stylized routine that began well over a century ago. For many years, the balls of older Krewes took place in the Municipal Auditorium. Since Hurricane Katrina, the Morris F.X. Jeff, Sr. Municipal Auditorium still festers un-renovated, even though next door, the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts has been restored beautifully. For 2009, Rex will hold its ball in the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street in the French Quarter.

Most balls are slated to begin at 9 pm and valets often with years of experience, help the riders with their change of clothes. Many Krewes have to hurry because there is only a short period of time between the end of the parade and the start of the ball.

Receiving an invitation to a Krewe ball, especially an old line club like Rex or Comus, is a social coup of major proportions, as there are only a very limited number of invitations and attendance is by invitation only. There are two levels of guests, those whose invitations specifies balcony seating and those who are spectators only; those who have a “callout” card enclosed in their invitation have floor seating and are allowed to dance as they are “called out” by members of the Krewe. This procedure is rigidly set in tradition. As a Krewe member decides on a dance partner he whispers her name to a “committeeman” who then escorts the lady to the floor. A favor is customarily given to the lady by the Krewe member after the first dance.

The primary reason for holding a traditional ball, however, is not dancing. The highlight of the ball is the tableau; the auditorium is decorated, often lavishly, and the King and Queen are seated on the dais “reigning” over the proceedings. The court is then presented in an elaborate pageant. Drinking is not allowed on the floor of the tableau balls although refreshments are usually available backstage. The festivities are usually over by midnight.

Tradition is changing, somewhat, as newer Krewes have more interest in socializing and less in tableaux presentations. Dinner dances, potluck and cocktail parties have gained in popularity, and a few large Krewes such as Bacchus, Zulu, Orpheus, and Endymion stage huge extravaganzas with national entertainment. Even Rex has changed, allowing all guests onto the dance floor after a specified time.

The culmination of the traditional ball season is the meeting of Rex and Comus at midnight, an impressive fitting and fitting close to Carnival festivities. (more…)