Mardi Gras Balls 2011
Before the beads and parades, there were Mardi Gras balls. The masquerade ball was a staple of Carnival (the period from Catholic Epiphany on Jan. 6 to Mardi Gras) celebrations: big, formal, often-exclusive soirees featuring elegant costumes, formal dancing, and ornate masks (to hide one's identity from that potentially scandalous behavior) .
History in the United States
While the Italians may have started the modern Carnival (well – modern as in 1094 A.D.), the French coined "Mardi Gras," and ran with it. Thus, the places people have come to associate closest with Mardi Gras today, such as New Orleans, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama, were all once part of French territory.
See: History of Mardi Gras, Mobile Mardi Gras
Traditionally, Mardi Gras balls are arranged by "mystical societies" or "krewes," which are also responsible for organizing, funding, and carrying out Mardi Gras parades and other Carnival festivities. Membership is exclusive, and many of these clubs have existed for hundreds of years, although new ones do pop up occasionally. Each krewe usually picks a King and Queen who are both officiators and icons of the ball. The King might be a special member of the Krewe, or a national celebrity, while the Queen might be chosen by the King (such as the Krewe of Zulu) or a recent debutante. The process of choosing one's royal court varies from krewe to krewe, and some are far more secretive than others, especially the older ones.
American high-society tradition has mixed with the Mardi Gras ball in many places, but especially New Orleans, where the ball could be a debutante's coming-out party, complete with formal "call-outs" for dances from krewe members doing complicated steps reminiscent of a traditional French cotillion (hence the alternate term "cotillion ball" for "debutante ball").
How to Attend a Mardi Gras Ball
Mardi Gras balls are traditionally by invitation-only, and those invitations are both highly sought-after and usually non-transferable. So you have to either be part of a krewe, know someone who is, or know someone who knows someone. In other words: You have to be persistent, well-connected, and/or lucky, as well as prepared to spend a lot of money on tickets, costume, dress, and (potentially) dance lessons.
But not all Mardi Gras balls are created alike, and there are a handful of balls more open to public participation, like New Orleans' Krewe of Orpheus's Orpheuscapade, whose ball features live music, dancing, and plenty of celebrity sightings at the New Orleans Convention Center for $135 a head. Newer krewes tend to be more likely to open their balls, or at least their admissions policy to become part of their krewe, to outsiders. They're your best chance to don a mask of your own, so keep an eye out.
Photo by Caitlin Regan via Flickr