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March 11, 2005

Carnival culture examined

by Samantha Beres

Mardi Gras is a carnival replete with ritual. People dress in outrageous costumes, go door-to-door to sing begging songs, dance in their neighbors' yards and climb trees.

"It's part of the frivolity and turning the day upside down," said Sheryl St. Germain, director of the Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities. She has organized "Cultures of Carnival," a day-long campus symposium on March 25 that will explore the traditions and rituals of carnival celebrations worldwide.

"We'll look at festive cultures throughout the world and the relationship between place and culture," St. Germain said. "It's an interdisciplinary celebration of carnival. We have folklorists, as well as historians and creative writers."

Participants may attend the entire day's events or individual presentations. Two that St. Germain highly recommends are, "The Unbearable Lightness of Begging," a lecture on Cajun begging rituals, and "Gender Benders and Carnival Queens: The Homosexual Appropriation of Brazilian Carnival," a slide lecture that will be shown during lunch.

The symposium is part of the center's series, "Cultures in Contact/Cultures in Conflict." The series explores the power of culture, identity and relationships between the United States and cultures abroad, a particularly important topic since 9/11. St. Germain said that since much of the series has focused on conflict, it will be nice to end the series with a focus on celebration.

"I think it's important to think about the nature of our celebrations and how they reflect us as a people," she said. "Maybe carnival is an essential part of our psyche, given that it's celebrated so many different ways in so many parts of the world."

The "Cultures of Carnival" will be in the Memorial Union Cardinal Room. There is no charge for faculty, staff, and students. Registration and information is on the center's Web page at

Cultures of Carnival: A Symposium

Friday, March 25
8 a.m.-5 p.m.
Cardinal Room, Memorial Union

  • 8:15-8:45 a.m., Registration
  • 8:45-9 a.m., Welcome, Susan Carlson, ISU associate provost
  • 9-10 a.m., Keynote, "Atomizing the Festive Cycle: Can Carnival Survive?" Samuel Kinser, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb.
  • 10:15-11 a.m., "The Unbearable Lightness of Begging," Barry Jean Ancelet, University of Louisiana, Lafayette.
  • 11-11:20 a.m., "A Dialogue: The Cajun Mardi Gras," Barry Jean Ancelet and Mary Swander, ISU English.
  • 11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m, "Carnival Music and Customs in the Austrian and Italian Alps: Between Tradition and Innovation," Thomas Nussbaumer, University Mozarteum of Salzburg, Innsbruck, Austria.
  • 12:45-2 p.m., "Gender Benders and Carnival Queens: The Homosexual Appropriation of Brazilian Carnival" (slide lecture presentation during lunch), James Green, Brown University, Providence, R.I.
  • 2-3:15 p.m., "Mardi Gras and Politics in New Orleans," James Gill, New Orleans Times-Picayune, La.
  • 3:30-4:45 p.m., Break-out Sessions
    • "The Cultures of Carnival: A Roundtable," Samuel Kinser; Barry Jean Ancelet; Thomas Nussbaumer; James Green; James Gill; Paul Griffiths, ISU history; Susan Carlson; Jim Dow, ISU foreign languages and literatures (moderator).
    • "Creative Writing and Carnival," Lauren Alleyne, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.; Mary Swander; Catherine Taylor, Drake University.
  • 5-8 p.m., "Unmasking the Arts: An Evening of Fun and Fancy," samba dancing, festive hors d'oeuvres, costumed performers, student-designed costumes and masks.
Sheryl St. Germain in costume

Madri Gras is a time of ritual and celebration, says Sheryl St. Germain (shown above in a traditional Cajun costume). St. Germain, as director of the Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities, has organized a symposium on the "Cultures of Carnival," to be held March 25 in the Memorial Union Cardinal Room. Photo by Bob Elbert.