Travel Girl Tribute: Ronald Lewis of the House of Dance and Feathers

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NEW ORLEANS (WGNO) – Our city lost one of its pillars of the cultural community this week with the passing of Ronald Lewis of the House of Dance and Feathers museum in the lower 9th Ward.

Mayor Latoya Cantrell wrote, “Our hearts are heavy with the passing of Ronald Lewis. Ronald was the very definition of a culture bearer – as the founder of the Original Big Nine Social Aid & Pleasure Club, and the director of the House of Dance & Feathers in his beloved Lower 9th Ward. Talk about a survivor. Ronald survived Hurricane Betsy and wouldn’t bow down even after his house was consumed by 14 feet of water during Katrina. Over the years he told the world about the rich street culture of New Orleans, exhibiting at Jazz Fest and other spaces as he explained the complexities of the Black Indians of Mardi Gras. He survived so much, and gave us so much. May he rest in God’s perfect peace.”

Ronald Lewis of the House of Dance and Feathers (Pableaux Johnson photo)

I’m a big fan of small museums that might be overlooked by the average tourist. So, back in 2014 when I heard about the House of Dance and Feathers, I just had to check it out.

It’s in the Ninth Ward, behind a nondescript greenhouse at 1317 Tupelo Street, the home of Ronald Lewis.

It looks like a giant shed decorated with local flags and artwork. But inside, there’s a constantly expanding treasure trove.

Lewis created this living time capsule pre-Katrina. It links New Orleans’ past with New Orleans’ present.  The name House of Dance and Feathers refers to the culture of Mardi Gras Indians, social aid and pleasure clubs, skull and bone gangs, and parade krewes.  It’s a funky place to spend an hour or two and remind yourself of how much African and Caribbean influence we have right here in New Orleans.

Ronald Lewis parading with the Original Big Nine Social Aid & Pleasure Club (WGNO-TV)

Lewis is a former council chief of the Choctaw Hunters Mardi Gras Indian tribe and the current president of the Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Some of his amazing beadwork is on display along with Indian headdresses, second line umbrellas and all kinds of symbols from the rich dance culture of New Orleans.

But beyond the colorful plumes and the beautiful beadwork, there’s a history lesson on life in the lower 9th and how this community weathered the storm. A couple of tables hold newspaper clippings and NOLA-themed books, but Lewis himself is the ultimate storyteller.  The collector-turned-curator survived both Betsy and Katrina, but prefers to talk about the spirit of New Orleans today. He’s happy to answer any questions about his collection of eye-catching paraphernalia.

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