Who would have thought, a few short years ago, that a diverse group of men, incongruously adorned in headbands, high socks and satin jackets, would become one of the city’s most popular and visible dance groups, as well as a powerful non-profit raising money for worthwhile causes? It sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s the true story of the 610 Stompers, New Orleans’s only all-male dance crew.
Since their humble inception in 2009, the Stompers have become a NOLA institution. Pop-and-locking through parades, they draw rapturous applause from audiences equally impressed and amused by the Stompers’ unique style. People initially befuddled by the sight of a group of grown guys—all getting way, way down—rapidly change their minds when they recognize the commitment these gents have to their craft. And by partnering with local charities, the men in blue and red have committed to making every single swing of their hips a pivot toward a better New Orleans for everyone.
I spoke with the Stompers’ founder, Brett “Slab” Patron, and their executive director, Mont “Big Bird” Creamer, to find out how the group rose to power and what their plans are to continue spreading good vibrations and smooth gyrations through the city.
It was shortly after the financial collapse of 2008, and a group of friends who held Saints season tickets in section 610 were pondering how they could keep paying for their seats. “A night of drinks led to a conversation about me getting a second job,” says Slab. “Someone jokingly suggested I start a dance school.” Slab had no formal education in dance, but he had a passion for rhythmic movement that he felt compelled to share. “Normally you laugh something like that off and move on, but, for whatever reason, I just decided to do it.”
Slab reached out to like-minded friends, and the idea for a school rapidly morphed into a dance group, taking inspiration from “coaches and dads in the 1980s” for their uniforms. Their ambitions ranged from the relatively small (marching in a Mardi Gras parade) to the large (performing at a Saints halftime show). But at this point, they were still just a group of guys (with supportive women) who lived to groove.
So how did the Stompers grow from a ragtag band of footloose football fans into the massive movement they currently are? “I call it the Cinderella story of an all-male dance team,” says Patron, expressing wonder at the confluence of events that turned a half-baked idea into a cultural phenomenon. They had initially hoped to debut at the Krewe of Muses parade, but, in a twist of fate, the very year the Stompers got started, the Saints earned a trip to their first Super Bowl in 43 years as a team, and the Stompers got their shot early.
New Orleans sportscaster “Buddy D” Diliberto, a loyal but frustrated Saints fanatic, had once famously sworn that he would wear a dress and stroll down Bourbon Street if his team ever made it to the big game. Buddy died in 2005, but his promise was celebrated posthumously on January 31, 2010. It was fitting that on that day, the Stompers, born out of Saints fandom, made their auspicious public debut.
The Buddy D. Parade, in which thousands of men in dresses strolled from the Superdome to the French Quarter, was the perfect occasion to introduce New Orleans’s first male dance crew to the public. With over 87,000 people in attendance, this group of proudly graceful men stepped out in front of a massive and receptive audience, immediately earning a reputation.
“We have lawyers, doctors, teachers, a federal judge. Most have 9-5 jobs, but we plan around that. It’s just men who all love to dance.”
The Saints pulled out a victory in the big game, and the Stompers were invited to march in Lombardi Gras following the Saints’ victory—the largest parade in the city’s history—entertaining 800,000 people with their enthusiastic, unabashed choreography. The Super Bowl festivities coincided with the city’s massive Mardi Gras celebration, meaning it was less than a week before they were once again sashaying through the streets, becoming a highlight of the most boisterous and energetic Fat Tuesday in recent history.
The Stompers maintained their momentum, earning an invitation to the 2011 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. Suddenly, a group started on a whim was dazzling 65 million viewers nationwide, acting as ambassadors for their city and for the art of male dance. In keeping with the Stompers’ collective spirit, almost every member was able to attend, regardless of their finances. Big Bird notes that there’s no set demographic for the group. “We have lawyers, doctors, teachers, a federal judge. Most have 9-5 jobs, but we plan around that. It’s just men who all love to dance.”
The group’s yearly auditions at Harrah’s Casino drew over 1,500 people this past year, but the group has had to cap the number of men who audition at 100, with many camping out at 3 a.m. in order to secure their spot on stage. Acceptance to the group is based on moves, overall vibes and recommendations from current Stompers. Some persistent gentlemen have shown up to take their shot at being a Stomper four years in a row. Only 10 to 15 percent make it, but those who do are welcomed with open arms into a tight-knit crew of 120 men. “It’s absolutely like a family,” says Big Bird. “Eighty percent of my friends are Stompers.”
“Our main goal is getting ordinary men onto the dance floor and out into the streets, expressing themselves through dance. Charity is just a byproduct of that,” insists Slab. Even so, the Stompers’ commitment to local causes is admirable. This year’s Ball Crawl benefitted Angel’s Place and STAIR, local charities that provide children with respite care and free reading tutors, respectively. And the last day of this year’s auditions raised $6,000 for flood relief. The group fields hundreds of requests from charities, companies, and organizers who want to inject a dose of the Stompers’ boisterous boogie into their events. They perform around 90 times a year.
The Stompers have achieved their goal of performing at a Saints halftime show and expanded their ambitions even further. This December, they partnered with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra for their second annual Orpheum Holiday Spectacular. “For these not-so-talented dancers, getting to work with such amazing musicians is crazy,” says Slab. Their seventh annual Debutante Ball, a raucous extravaganza where they debut their new moves for the season, takes over Mardi Gras World on February 3.
But did Slab ever get those season tickets covered? “No, not yet,” he says, laughing. “The board hasn’t approved it.”
Photos by Romney