By David Preda
Even in his professional garb—rather than the fluorescent red jacket and blue short shorts that make up his 610 Stomper uniform—Matt Nonnamaker could be the poster child for the organization, especially with his scruffy beard and shaggy hair, which he brushes off his forehead while speaking to me. “I think, honestly, the future of Mardi Gras is going to be with the walking parade people.”
A novice member of the 610 Stompers (a New Orleanian 80s-inspired all-male dance team), Nonnamaker joined his father, John, in 2016; however, Matt never actually expected to be admitted to the organization. Rather, he had only agreed to audition to support his dad who had tried out twice in the past to no avail.
Nonnamaker says. “I was sort of like, ‘I guess I got called back.’ I didn’t really think I was that good.”
Though 2016 marks Nonnamaker’s first year as a Mardi Gras dancer with the Stompers, he’s no newbie to riding the parade routes.
“I was in Thoth for two years,” he says. “I got in through a fraternity connection and it was fun; you ride the floats and you throw beads. But it’s also not very fun because people are very demanding of things. They’re like, ‘Give me the best thing you have,’ and I’m like, ‘I spent all of my own money. I’m a student, I dropped $500, and I have some beads. I’ll give you some beads.’ And they’re like, ‘Well, I want the big beads.’ They’re very demanding of you as a person [riding] a float.
“The mask definitely adds to that sort of barrier. Thinking about it in metaphorical terms of socioeconomics, when I look at Rex and I see Rex coming down the street — all these random-ass white dudes who own real estate companies throwing plastic to the poor. I’d much prefer to be with everyone on an equal playing field than to have this sort of power dynamic that occurs. I mean, everyone joins the floats, but it’s more fun, and I feel like people like me as a 610 Stomper.”
2016 marks the seventh anniversary since the Stompers’ first Mardi Gras performance in 2009. Drawing in enough wannabe Stompers to the point of requiring capping auditions at just over 100 this year, the 610 Stompers—who have, on multiple occasions, described themselves as “fat guys flailing around”—have icon status in New Orleans. Outside Mardi Gras parades, the 610 Stompers can be found at parties, charity events, and even weddings. This year, the Stompers, including the Nonnamakers, accepted thirteen new members.
Each parade season, the Stompers perform three dances: two “mobile” dances performed while the parade is rolling and a “stationary” dance for stops along the route. During the first round of tryouts, potential Stompers must perform half that year’s stationary dance.
“They have a bunch of guys downstairs teaching the dance and all these random dudes, dressed however they want to dress. One guy dressed up like Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover—work up a real sweat,” says Nonnamaker of the process. “Once you feel confident enough, you go into this room at the top floor of The Maison, which is open to the public, and you can just go. You pay ten bucks and get to watch a lot of people make asses of themselves. It’s a lot of fun, and it all goes to charity.”
A panel judges each dancer, but, given that the Stompers pride themselves on their lack of professional dancing skills, prospective members must also complete a public interview with an emcee, a master of ceremonies. From among the 100 or so men at the beginning of auditions, less than half are called back for the second weekend, where they are to undergo almost the same exact process. Potential Stompers learn the dance to the second half of the stationary, but when in front of the judges, they must perform the entire song. In the past, this was the final part of the audition process, but, recently, the Stompers have added a required social meeting.
“It’s essentially like joining a fraternity — you have to schmooze. Some guys brought like snickerdoodles and their wives and stuff; they’re just kissing everyone’s butts. And I’m trying my best to be social, but I’m clearly the youngest person in this crowd.”
Despite his perceived age difference and original reluctance to audition, Nonnamaker has come to enjoy the experience.
“I’ve never done easier charity work than just show up to something. I went to a Special Olympics, they did like a rappelling thing on a building downtown, and people were just so happy to see me—versus like paying all this money. I paid $250 in dues this year. That’s the entirety of my dues. Everything else is free — we get transportation and Abita’s a sponsor so we get beer. People hire us for weddings, then we get free food. It’s a lot cheaper than when I was in Thoth.”
In recent years, other dance groups — inspired by the Stompers — have begun appearing in Mardi Gras parades and around the city. Arguably, none of the other teams self-promote as “out-of-shape men dancing poorly in tight clothes,” but the Stompers’ celebrity in New Orleans is unrivaled.
“People just love watching fat dudes shake their butts,” Nonnamaker says, scratching his beard. “They don’t really know what to do with it at first, but then they get really into it. It’s totally out there, but I think that’s the beauty of New Orleans: that something like that could just sort of grow into a symbol.”