On most days, Erin Rolfs is a smart, responsible and effective marketing professional who talks, acts and dresses the part.
But on a few precious days every year during Mardi Gras season, she puts on the costume of her alter ego, Baby Ruthless Rolfs, and makes bringing the funk to the Spanish Town parade her No. 1 priority.
Rolfs and Aimee “Famous Amos” Spangenberg founded the Prancing Babycakes dance troupe in 2008 with a core group of good friends, Rolfs said. Spangenberg moved to New Orleans and is no longer an active member, Rolfs said, but is always with them in spirit.
Troupe members gathered Sunday morning for their annual dress rehearsal.
The women put together their own costumes based on their Babycakes nicknames, unified only by the colors — red and black — and their white majorette boots.
There are a couple of troupe members with dance experience, and they do the choreography for the marching dance numbers, which all the Babycakes spend a few weeks learning before parade season starts.
“It’s a way for us to go back to high school, dress up and dance in a way that would otherwise be totally inappropriate for adult professionals,” Rolfs said, but without the drama that comes with high school.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had any serious disagreements,” Chelsea “Charleston Chew” Harris said. “What are we going to do, go home and have hurt feelings because the girls didn’t pick your song?”
They add members very slowly and organically. Usually, someone from within the group brings a friend in.
But anyone with a little commitment to fun can start their own troupe, and that’s what Rolfs encourages other women to do.
You can bring the funk to the people, or you can teach the people to bring their own funk.
Friends and a big idea
If there is a birthplace, however unofficial, it is the Red Star, a bar in downtown Baton Rouge, where the core group that would become the Babycakes would hang out.
Robyn Belle, aka “The Digital Crawfish,” said she remembers the early discussions, probably over cocktails, about what they wanted to do with the dance troupe.
The concept was inspired by all-female marching troupes like the Pussyfooters based in New Orleans, Belle said. They wanted to start their own group, mainly because it looked like fun.
So they got together, picked a song and made up a dance routine.
The value of a good costume
Dressing the part is a big part of what helps Babycakes members step out of their “normal” lives and into the role of a sassy, outrageous, crowd-pleasing entertainer.
“I am not Erin Rolfs when I have this costume on,” she said. “I transform into Baby Ruthless and adopt that character,” Rolfs said.
Costumes include any number of sequined, bedazzled, jeweled, glittered and feathered pieces, both staples and accessories. There is no real collaboration here, and no rules, other than make sure it’s red, white and black, and don’t forget the white majorette boots.
“I think the main reason I wanted to start this group is to have an excuse to wear the boots,” Rolfs said.
Create a legend
Rolfs paid more this year to have her boots professionally resoled than she paid for the boots, she said, but they have sentimental value to Rolfs, and a story that has become part of Baby Ruthless lore.
“The story with the boots is that they were infused with special powers to make you dance because they were made from the fabric of Eddie Murphy’s couch after Rick James ruined the couch with his own dancing shoes,” Rolfs said.
The legend comes from a skit on the “Chappelle’s Show” called “Charlie Murphy’s Real Hollywood Stories.” Charlie Murphy, Eddie Murphy’s brother, tells stories of hanging out with his famous brother in Hollywood, and one story of the time Rick James smeared dirt from the bottoms of his shoes on Eddie Murphy’s new couch.
A lot of the Babycakes legends are inside jokes of inside jokes — all in good fun, and spun from a web of funny things that bear a grain of truth and much elaboration on that truth.
Pick a parade
Don’t be afraid to go too small, Belle said. “The first parade we marched in was the Art Car Parade,” she laughed. Eventually, the buzz spread and they started marching in the Spanish Town Mardi Gras Parade.
“We march rain or shine,” Harris said. “We were there in torrential rain one year, and my boots sloshed every time I took a step.”
This year, they’ve gotten invitations to other parades around south Louisiana, “and I feel like we are ambassadors for what Baton Rouge can bring to Mardi Gras,” Rolfs said, and that includes sass, style, killer moves and fantastic song choices.
Don’t forget support
Each Babycakes member needs someone out of uniform to provide crowd control, help with costume issues and hold her stuff. These designated helpers are called Men on March, or MOMs.
But they aren’t always men. “My mom is my MOM, actually,” Rolfs said.
“I think if we’ve learned anything, it’s that you have to keep moving forward,” Rolfs said. “No, literally. The dances have to be such that you move ahead, or you’ll hold up the whole parade, and you don’t want to be the dance group that holds up the parade.”
Maintain a bond
At the heart of the marching group is a group of friends.
“We’re mostly Type A personalities,” Harris said, “though not all.” She points out that there are members of the group who are reliably and fashionably late for almost everything. But everyone brings her own brand of Babycakes magic to the table, and that’s what makes it work, Harris said.
They also make an effort to stay in touch throughout the year at regular get-togethers.
The women have made a commitment to walk the fine line between putting on a good show and having fun with it. “We practice — we want it to look good, but we don’t want it to be stressful,” Rolfs said.
To learn more about the Prancing Babycakes, visit their Facebook page, facebook.com/PrancingBabycakes, or stop by the Red Star after the Spanish Town Mardi Gras Parade.