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."
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.