On Sunday afternoon, for four hours, thousands of people crowded the streets of the Sixth and Seventh Wards, even climbing up to the top of freeway ramps – all to get a peek at the Treme Sidewalk Steppers.
The event itself, known as Sidewalk Sunday or Six-Mas — a play on the word Christmas — may only be eclipsed by the parade’s braggadocious buildup, as summarized by a popular media post: “The 6th Ward thinks that God died and left them in charge.”
Judging from turnout and social-media enthusiasm, the club’s 29th annual parade lived up to the swagger. Corner stores in the area were left with empty shelves and coolers after the parade. Yet for some, the day turned into a Where’s Waldo picture, as they unsuccessfully searched the throngs for a glimpse of the club’s legendary 5-foot 5-inch president, who helped to launch the social aid and pleasure club in 1994.
As it turned out, Derrick “Charlie Brown” Walker, 57, had quietly decided to not show up. Instead, as his club was dancing onto North Rampart Street in custom-made turquoise suits, Charlie Brown was at home. He didn’t watch social-media feeds from the parade, didn’t look at photos posted.
“I stayed home crying because I couldn’t get out there,” Brown said. “I was messed up. Because that club is what I love. That’s my everything.”
Those who know the Sidewalk Steppers felt the loss, as if the Orpheus parade had rolled without its founder, Harry Connick, Jr. Because when Brown was healthy — even after he had a hip replaced — he commanded attention, because of his intensity.
“He’s like a small battery, with nothing but juice in it,” said newcomer Keinan Chapman, 40. He joined the Steppers two years ago after a lifetime of watching Brown “monkey-shine,” Chapman said, referring to the way that Brown struts, dips, slips, twists, rolls on the ground and slides through other club members’ legs.
Second-liners differentiate Brown’s style of dance from the intricate steps of well-known current Sidewalk Steppers Rodrick “King Scubble” Davis and Utopia Francois, among others.
But now, his equilibrium is off and his range of motion is limited because of two strokes and an aneurysm that put Brown in the hospital for two months. His doctors say that it’s a miracle that he is even up and moving around like he is – but they advised against dancing in the streets for four hours. “They said it will kill me,” he said.
Other people, similarly injured, might have chosen to ride in a limousine. Not Charlie Brown, who is accustomed to climbing between the ropes and dancing hard. “When the spirit takes me over, I don’t have no control. I go too hard,” he said. “I don’t have no half speed. I don’t know how to do 10 miles per hour. I am used to 99 or 100.”
He decided to sit out a year to heal.
His decision was not typical. Often, cultural figures in New Orleans ignore the “self-care” trend. Horn players keep gigging even if a tooth is throbbing or their pressure is high; second-line dancers may puff on their asthma inhaler during parade stops but keep going.
“I love that he put his health first,” said Utopia Francois, 21, though she was “heartbroken” to parade without him. “He’s showing us that, even if you miss a year, you will always be a Sidewalk Stepper.”
Keeping Step with History
There’s the Jolly Bunch, Money Wasters, Bucket Men, Sixth Ward High Steppers, Treme Sports, and the Original Dumaine Street Gang, to name just a few who have had roots in or near the Sixth Ward for more than a half-century. And whenever anyone from the community died, a band would routinely strike up and wind through the streets.
In recent decades, more clubs have sprouted up in the Sixth and Seventh Wards, including Sudan, Ole and Nu Style Fellas, Black Men of Labor, Footwerk Family, Versatile Ladies of Style, The Chosen Few, Original Big 7 and Spirit 2 Da Street.
Since 1968, most children raised in the area went through the youth cultural organization Tambourine & Fan, begun by civil-rights fighters Jerome Smith and Rudy Lombard. There, kids learned that, because of the history of Congo Square – where enslaved people were allowed to trade and dance on Sundays – social aid and pleasure club parades were not simply a moving street party. They had meaning.
“We’re not just second-lining to second line. We’re second-lining because our ancestors rejoiced on Sundays,” said Utopia Francois, who was raised in Tambourine and Fan and then became a counselor in the organization’s annual summer camp, at the Treme Community Center.
As young men, Charlie Brown and his childhood friends used to go to all of the Sunday second lines, to flaunt their footwork. “We’d head Uptown to show them what we could do,” Brown said. “Then I decided that we should really show them what we could do. So in 1994, I decided to start a club. I chose Sean Martin to come in with me, as co-founder. We’ve known each other all our lives.”
Expectations were high, largely due to the club’s attitude, as reflected in one of its key slogans: “We do what we want. They do what they can.”
Sidewalk Steppers became almost a lifestyle. On weekends, the Treme Music Hall and Joe’s Cozy Corner across the street, the club’s informal hangouts, were packed, with crowds spilling down the block.
Younger people were allowed to join, only if they met the club’s differentiating standards. King Scubble, 31, said that he knew, even as a child, that he was destined to join the Sidewalk Steppers. “I’ve been second-lining since I was 4 years old. Everyone knew once I got older I was going to be a helluva dancer,” he said. “I know I lived up to their expectations.”
Nothing off the rack would do for club clothing. Usually, members danced out the door in tailor-made suits, with custom shoes and belts and accessories handmade for the Sidewalk Steppers or with labels like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, all paid for through member dues and fundraisers.
This year, in line with that tradition, suits for the Sidewalk Steppers’ male contingent were provided by Lepremier Miami. The ladies’ suits were made by celebrated local designer Briana Henry and her team at New Orleans Design, Development & Manufacture.
Over the years, the club has worn suits of all colors and fabrics, including Cab Calloway-style, all-white Zoot suits and custom-made cow-hide cowboy outfits. The club’s traditional parading accessories — hand-decorated fans and suitcases — are typically created by acclaimed decorating expert, Melvin “Left” Reed.
But they do occasionally put aside their suits. In 2001, the club chose camouflage outfits, with expensive custom-made leather boots. They started the parade from atop the Music Hall, climbing down on military-issue netting mounted onto the side of the building. The theme: “You don’t wanna go to war with the Sidewalk.” Their movements were punctuated by the Rebirth Brass Band playing their anthem, “You Don’t Want to Go to War,” which was later recorded with Soulja Slim.
That year, 2001, marked an unforgettable club moment among followers known as the “Sidewalk Nation.” Nicole James-Francois, who was then pregnant with Utopia, remembers running to catch the parade at Hunter’s Field, as a helicopter circled overhead before it landed, dropping Sean Martin onto the field. As soon as his expensive custom-made boots hit the ground, Martin danced his way into his unit of his parade, with Rebirth’s horns blowing behind him.
One of the most quintessential Sidewalk Steppers traditions happens each year, after the parade has stopped.
That’s when Brown grabs a pair of scissors, climbs onto a roof, and throws parts of his outfit to the crowd below. He destroys his jacket, his shirt, even his shoes and tosses the pieces into the air.
Brown compares it to the mindset of Black masking Indians he grew up with, who create new suits each year. “To me, our outfit is a costume that I parade in. I wear it for that day only,” he said. “Then it ain’t no good anymore. So I tear it up. My shoes too — they’ve done their work. They’ve made me feel invincible and beautiful all day.”
Once, co-founder Sean Martin joined Brown, dousing a vest with gasoline and preparing to set it on fire, only to be stopped by the firefighters who showed up at the scene.
The message is clear: money is no object. “We spent $2,000 to $3,000 for our day,” Brown said. “But the money don’t mean shit to us. I ain’t going on no budget to make a parade.”
This year, after the parade wrapped up at Kermit Ruffins’ Mother-in-Law Lounge, a handful of members crawled to the roof in honor of their absent president. Down below, crowd members waited for Charlie Brown’s annual purging of his outfit — not knowing he wasn’t there.
No one tore up anything. “That’s only for Charlie Brown,” Francois said. “He’s the person people come out to see. No one can cut their clothes up like Charlie.”
Note: An earlier version of this article misstated Nicole James-Francois’ name.
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