The 610 Stompers are New Orleans' only all-male marching dance troupe. Their message: Dancing is for everyone, even pudgy, middle-aged men.
Dante Hale is a large man. High school fullback, pro-wrestling hopeful, nightclub bouncer large, all of which he's been.
Now, on a cool Saturday night, Hale fidgets in a mall parking lot in this town southwest of his home in New Orleans. All 6 feet and 300 pounds of him has been poured into a white tank top and baby blue polyester shorts like those favored by high school wrestling coaches in the '80s.
"You know, I'd like to have some anatomical anonymity," Hale complains of the tight shorts. "I don't want to be responsible for anyone's therapy bills."
Hale's reprieve comes as about 90 other men surround him. They are dressed identically: white terry cloth headbands, red satin bomber jackets open to the belly, knee-high white tube socks and sneakers, spray-painted gold, that glow softly against the concrete.
They are the 610 Stompers, New Orleans' only all-male marching dance troupe. Doctors, lawyers, geochemists, math teachers and a pedicab driver fill the roster. Most are mustachioed, middle-aged and soft around the middle. They love Patrick Swayze movies, and the music of Michael Jackson, Sir Mix-A-Lot and Marky Mark.
Hale, sporting a pinkie-wide mustache, is part of the rookie crop of 20 who came on board in August. The 35-year-old tried out on a lark because a friend is a Stomper, and was quickly drawn in by the camaraderie.
The Stompers dance at charity events, bars and halftime shows. But the parades of Mardi Gras season are their Broadway run. Their months of training build to performing extravagantly goofy dances over six-mile-long parade routes.
The Houma parade is Hale's first, a dress rehearsal for three in New Orleans leading up to Fat Tuesday. A tall man with "Slab" stitched onto his satin bomber jumps on the Stompers' white Ford F-250 pickup with its huge black speakers.
"Is everyone fired up?" he shouts. "Y'all know the dances. Three things you got to do: Be humble, don't be cheesy, and don't make sex with the people."
The Stompers line up four across. The crowd cheers. The first synthesizer notes of "Safety Dance" pound out. Men Without Hats sings, "We can dance if we want to."
In unison, more or less, Hale and his fellow Stompers kick out their arms and legs like robots in a move they call the "Moon Soldier." They make horns at their foreheads with their fingers, doing the "Mr. Tumnus," named after the faun in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
"Hey, big man! Hey, big man!" a man in a jacket and tie shouts at Hale as he snaps a photo.
"I love you!" yell all sorts of women to all sorts of Stompers.
"They're great," a woman tells her male companion. "What are they?"
The 610 Stompers started in January 2009 on a dare over drinks at the suburban Metairie home of Slab — also known as Brett Patron. Patron recalled that he critiqued Mardi Gras parade dance troupes that are largely made up of high school girls: They were sharp but preened too much and danced too little.
His friends challenged him to start his own troupe.
"I'd always been an entertainer by nature, and every day after that, I felt like something had to be done," he said. "I would tell people, and their eyes would light up."
I have zero shame. ”
— Brett Patron
By early 2010, Patron had pulled together three dozen cousins and friends. A 6-foot-3, barrel-chested real estate appraiser, Patron, 40, sought men like himself who had no formal dance experience but were first on the dance floor.
"I have zero shame," said Patron, who got his Slab nickname when he ended up on the floor, looking like a hunk of beef, after a college pizza binge.
Doctors, lawyers, geochemists, math teachers and a pedicab driver fill the roster of New Orleans' only all-male marching dance troupe.
The Stompers' music spans the pop and dance classics of the last four decades. The choreographers include Patron, two cousins who go by the names Dalton and Mr. Sunshine, and the Stomper Sir Dancealot. They draw inspiration from as far back as the 1920s and from diverse sources, including Beyonce, "The Book of Mormon" musical, the pregame rituals of former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, and, by the look of things, 4-year-olds.
They give a name to every move they dream up, such as "200 IM," for steps that look like the 200-meter individual medley in swimming. Nobody makes sex with the people, but they flirt with a lot of hip-shaking.
"Our dances are as far from professional as you can imagine," Patron said.
The Stompers' look was built around shorts and tube socks, Patron said, because they "screamed 'ordinary man,'" reminding him of the archetypal coach, "a little bit past his prime, but still intense."
Allover hairiness and facial hair, in particular, are celebrated. The image the Stompers strive for is "Magnum, P.I.," but many end up looking more like the show's British butler, Higgins.
The Stompers know the prevailing view, even in a diverse city like New Orleans, is that straight white men don't dance. (The group is mostly white, though that is slowly changing; Hale is black.) New Orleans has long had marching groups that boogie almost year-round, but men did not march in synchronized performances.
"Even in New Orleans, in modern times, it became not very cool for a man to put himself out there dancing, to be really free and interesting," Patron said, adding that normalizing the idea of men dancing drives the Stompers.
They have apparently tapped some secret desire, because their rise has been swift. They now have 115 members. They are overwhelmed with invitations and danced at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2011. They have raised more than $200,000 for charity by hosting fundraising balls.
They have their own all-female security squad, the Splits, women in white visors, tennis skirts and warm-up jackets who form a perimeter to keep revelers from jumping in to dance or pinch the men's bottoms.
Our dances are as far from professional as you can imagine.”
— Brett Patron
Stomper tryouts in August can draw about 200 men, some lining up at 4 a.m., for perhaps two dozen spots. Daryl McGill, 31, tried out three times before he made the Stompers last year.
He said the anxiety he once felt about performing had been tempered by the twice-a-week practices and the group's tolerance for flubs.
"The atmosphere with the Stompers is that as much as we want everyone to be perfect, we don't want everyone to be perfect," said McGill, a Nevada transplant who discreetly runs through the routines at the New Orleans zoo, where he works at the sea lion house.
McGill was drawn by the celebration of zaniness. "If you walk in your 610 jacket, cars will honk, people will give you a thumbs-up," McGill said.
In Houma, McGill is in front of one of the group's best dancers, Broadway, and next to a veteran who goes by Drunk Jesus. Rookies, like McGill and Hale, will have nicknames bestowed on them in June at the Stompers' annual banquet.
Hale smiles throughout a performance. McGill smolders, intent on getting the moves just so. Rookies don't always pace themselves. By the fourth song, MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This," McGill and Hale limp through a flurry of choreographed punches like battered prizefighters.
Families jump to the beat in the beds of their pickups parked along the parade route. Burly men pump their fists. Women ask the Splits about tryouts for their men. One man asks a Split, "Are they heterosexuals?" (Mostly, yes.)
The Stompers are used to the question. Hale, who grew up dancing at parties as a kid in Atlanta, recalled a relative's disapproval after seeing a photo of him in his Stomper outfit.
"So you have one culture, African Americans, who say men aren't supposed to dress this way, and another culture, whites, who say you're not supposed to dance," said Hale, a security guard at the World War II museum. "You have to be yourself because all that doesn't matter."
Four days after the Houma parade, the Stompers step into the big time, marching in their first New Orleans parade with the Krewe of Nyx. The night is cold. The Stompers warm up by stretching and drinking Budweiser. They start an impromptu dance-off to Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Something" against the all-female Cosmonaughties.
The parade route winds past the ornate homes of the Garden District, five people thick in places. The Stompers' hometown embraces them with earsplitting shrieks.
"Represent! Represent!" a man yells as they pass.
Midway through, the parade stops. Unlike other dance troupes, which hold formation during a short halt, the Stompers invite the audience to dance. The Stompers DJ puts on a hip-hop song that celebrates the Saints. The chant "Who dat say gonna beat dem Saints?" pulses through the crowd.
"Aw, aw, they're killing me," says Hale, a fan of the Saints' archrivals, the Atlanta Falcons. But after a minute, he gives in and starts dancing with a woman in a yellow poncho and feather boa.
More people enter the street to dance to "The Wobble," line after line: women, men, senior citizens, Stompers, kids. For five minutes, before Nyx resumes, New Orleans wiggles, struts and turns — just as Patron imagined.