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Inheriting Mardi Gras (PHOTOS)

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The ceremonial fan has been passed, and during this year's Mardi Gras, New Orleans' oldest all-women krewe, or parading troupe, rolls under the direction of a new captain for the first time in twenty-four years.

Kristin Danflous, who, at 33 years old, is also the youngest krewe captain in all of New Orleans, was handed the reins to the Krewe of Iris by her grandmother, Joy Oswald, at the group's January 2011 masquerade ball. Although she paraded as captain in last year's Mardi Gras, this season marks the first time each decision required Danflous' approval. Everything -- from the cut of the masks to the thousands of pounds of plum-colored beads tossed from Iris' 33 gargantuan floats - must pass muster. Danflous cheerfully compares it to "planning a wedding all-year long, with the biggest wedding party. We're already planning for next year," she adds.

The family has a long tradition of piloting the 900-plus member krewe: Oswald was Iris' captain from 1987-2011, and her aunt, Irma Strode, held the post for 36 years prior. Of being a third generation captain, Danflous says, "I've lived it my entire life -- it's in my blood."

Although it took some time for her to commit to the decision. When other family members were unable to take over, Oswald would ask Danflous "Kristin, when are you going to do this?" "But," Danflous laughs, "I kept having kids!" She has three children. At the 2010 bal masque, her grandmother said "this is my last year" and Danflous responded "good, 'cause I'm ready."

Dedication to Iris has spread to the fourth generation. Danflous jokes "my kids are always covered in sequins and glitter." Her daughters, aged seven and eight, were participants in the January 2011 bal masque where Danflous' reign began. At this formal event, men don coat-tails and women shimmer in evening gowns. The auditorium is wrapped in gold and silver lame. But 2011's ball saw the addition of a rarer spectacle: Oswald formally presented an enormous, ostrich-plumed fan to a grandly attired Danflous - the krewe's version of passing the torch. Opulent fans are a longtime symbol of Iris; the one carried by captain Irma Strobe was said to be six-feet long.

The Krewe of Iris puts on another upscale fête, the coronation ball, held annually in autumn. A black-tie affair, this event is notable for revealing the name of the krewe's queen. As Danflous says "the queen represents Iris during the year. She's the spokesperson." Although anyone in the krewe can put their name in for queenhood, the captain makes the final selection. Melinda Richard, Iris' queen in 2002, said that her time as queen was "the greatest experience of my life, next to getting married and having my child. It's one of the proudest things that I've ever done to be queen of Iris."

The Krewe of Iris was established in 1917 by Mardi Gras pioneer Aminthe Nungesser. As Danflous tells it: "the men weren't letting the women in. And Aminthe said, 'if I can't be a part of your ball, then I'm going to start my own.'"

Strictly a ball in the early days, Iris paraded for the first time in 1959. While its size has grown enormously since then (Danflous notes: "it went from walking around with someone pulling something to...humongous floats, tandems and bands") certain traditions haven't budged, like "long gloves, the masks, and the balls. And we've kept it strictly female," she maintains. Legend has it that there's an even ordinance on the books about such Mardi Gras attire.

The Krewe of Iris parade always rolls the Saturday before Mardi Gras. A daytime event, the ensemble is family-oriented, and their throws (tokens tossed to the throngs of eager parade-goers) range from stuffed animals to beads to Iris' signature novelty, sunglasses, chosen because they have never cancelled for inclement weather. As Richard tells it "there are thousands and thousands of people out there watching. You'll see people out there with lunches, and barbecue pits, and ladders for the kids to stand on. It's fabulous." She gets emotional discussing her favorite ride, which took place the year after Hurricane Katrina tore through the city in 2005. "We had signs that said 'thank you for coming to see us.' And the people in the streets were holding up signs that said 'thank you for parading.' It was a great, great blessing. Because everyone who was there was so appreciative to be there, and everyone in the street was so appreciative too."

So how have things changed since Danflous climbed into the captain's seat? Richard says "The floats and the costumes are pretty traditional. But Kristin is putting her special touches on this. She's really going to be a great captain. I really can't say enough about her - she's a very organized young lady."

Oswald concurs, saying that her granddaughter is doing "very well," and made the prediction that "she'll have 2,000 members before long." Danflous says affectionately of Oswald, "My grandma hated it if I deviated at all. She didn't want the website. She said 'we're word of mouth -- you're going to get your identity stolen.' I feel like I've aged her a bit since last year."

Of the group's future, Danflous says, "I feel so honored to say I am captain of this organization. The history goes back nearly a hundred years. And I want to keep it up for another hundred. Each year, I plan to make it just a little bit better."

The Krewe of Iris rolls on Saturday, February 18th, at 11AM. The parade starts at Napoleon Avenue and follows the traditional Uptown route down St. Charles Avenue, culminating at Gallier Hall.

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