To ward off the cold of the evening, Shakee Dixon pulled up the hood of his new, bright-red sweatshirt, purchased with his earnings from Bourbon Street.
“You like it?” the 12-year-old asked, flashing a million-dollar smile.
The Friday night felt chilly, but it was too early to knock off. So Shakee tied his hood tight, took a seat on one overturned 5-gallon bucket and made a second bucket his drum. A third pail stood ready nearby for tips.
Shakee is one of dozens of child performers on the streets of the French Quarter. It’s a century-old tradition that relies on a combination of youthful cuteness and the city’s deep jazz and African drumming heritage.
Still, many parents and teachers question whether kids should be hustling in the Quarter.
A new picture book by a highly regarded children’s author has prompted a new public conversation about the tradition. Earlier this month, the author, Rita Williams-Garcia, met Shakee during a visit to New Orleans to discuss the book, titled “Bottle Cap Boys Dancing on Royal Street.”
“You inspire me,” Williams-Garcia told Shakee as he tap danced his favorite hip-hop rhythm outside his school, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School in the Lower 9th Ward.
Glued to his tennis shoes were his preferred taps, the circular bottoms of cans of AriZona iced tea.
In Williams-Garcia’s book, two brothers joyfully compete against each other tap dancing in the Quarter, burning some energy and earning some spare change.
That joy is familiar to Perry Jones, 28, who, as a child, tapped in the Quarter with his cousins. Most of his earnings were squandered on candy, though some cousins had it rougher, he said.
Today, a new generation begs Jones to let them go to the Quarter. “It’s an old New Orleans tradition passed down,” Jones said as he watched his nephew, Sir Jones, 8, tap for a few hours alongside his two sons, D.D. and Robert, 11 and 9.
Other performers earn crucial income for struggling households.
“These kids need money, and they’re working for it,” said longtime dance instructor Janet Andrews, 65, who taught at the nearby Treme Community Center for 20 years. Recently, she brought Philadelphia hoofer Arthur Taylor to the Quarter to perform with the local tappers, who are unlikely to make it to dance classes, she said.
The youngsters’ artistry isn’t lost on children’s advocate Kathleen Whalen. But the children are too often alone, ignoring school and handling large sums of money, she said. “They’re in an adult world with adult money. It’s too much for kids too young,” she said.
Bartenders, doormen and police officers see how children who need the money to survive often work the hardest. But they need skilled instructors to build their skills, said drummer Luther Gray. “I admire what they do. But they need help getting to a place that they can’t go on their own,” he said.
After consulting with Andrews and talking with Bourbon Street kids, Gray is pondering ways to hire the performers through older musicians and places like the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, where he works. As he sees it, the payoff would extend beyond money to intensive lessons and informal mentorships to help ameliorate tough home situations.
That makes sense to Sir Jones’ father, Daynerotis Washington, whose childhood tips fed him and his siblings. Washington, now 24, would have welcomed a mentor, he said. “It would have taken a lot of stress off of me.”
Depicting happy children
In past novels, award-winning writer Williams-Garcia, 58, has told the story of the Black Panther movement through the eyes of children. She’s also focused on difficult topics such as body image and abuse. So she is not naive about the challenges street performers face in New Orleans.
“I understand that the tips are often much-needed money,” she said. “And if I were writing a story for teens or slightly older readers, I would include some of those details, to paint a more realistic picture.”
Yet she grew up hearing about this city through her mother, an ardent jazz fan who often second-line danced for her. For this book, she said, “I was really writing for the child in me, listening to my mother’s stories about New Orleans.”
As a result, Williams-Garcia put aside grim details and deliberately depicted some of the happy children she’s seen on trips here. “You can pick up on the syncopation. It’s drums on their feet,” she said. “They’re just going with what’s in their ears, just the soul of rhythm.”
Earlier this month, Williams-Garcia spoke with students at the King School and the Community Book Center as part of a decade-old visiting-writers program sponsored by the literary organization PEN and coordinated by fellow writer Fatima Shaik.
Shaik, 63, a 7th Ward native, appreciates the new book’s focus. “I think Rita has done something very special: taken a group of kids who might not have a spotlight on them and might be denigrated by certain people. You can see the dance spirit growing in these children,” Shaik said.
A century-old tradition
Child performers have long plied the streets of New Orleans. The Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band, a group of children playing makeshift instruments, was a fixture on the streets of Storyville around the turn of the 20th century. Louis Armstrong performed for tips during his childhood before World War I. So did future bass drummer “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, who, during the 1940s, worked days as a Bourbon Street porter, then changed into tap shoes and danced his way home to the Treme neighborhood, catching the coins people threw.
Many of today’s well-known performers tap danced as children, including drummer Shannon Powell, who has toured with Harry Connick Jr., and longtime Rebirth Brass Band trumpeter Derrick “Khabukey” Shezbie, whose tip box overflowed because he was cute and small for his age, said his uncle, Lee Shezbie, 55.
Lee Shezbie, too, tapped outside a Bourbon Street club as a teenager before picking up the snare drum and joining the street band led by Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen. “Everybody used to make a little dollar,” Lee Shezbie said.
Bucket drummer Darius Lindsley, 14, could barely drum when he started on Bourbon five years ago. “I got tips for being cute. It was a lot of tips,” he said. As he aged, his tips tapered off. “I knew I wouldn’t be cute forever,” said Lindsley, who joined the band at John Ehret High School and now draws large crowds that ooh and aah at his spinning sticks and intricate rhythms.
Dance instructor Andrews often sees street performers with good rhythm. “But they have no technique,” she said. “And they dance the same rhythms over and over again.”
Prompted by the need she saw, Andrews, who also is a trained social worker, founded the New Orleans Dance Collaborative to provide sliding-scale instruction for low-income students. But no street dancers have attended her classes, she said. They’re too busy working.
‘He makes good money’
Cmdr. Jeffrey Walls, of the New Orleans Police Department, is strict about enforcing a performance curfew of 7 p.m. on weekdays and 8 p.m. on weekends. Yet youngsters whose cellphones include a number for “Cmdr. Jeff” say they trust him. He lets them leave their buckets and boxes at the 8th District station before bicycling home, they say.
Walls also has asked a local nun, Sister Alison McCrary, to help place some of the children in performing arts programs. McCrary asked drummer Gray to help, and she’s spoken with some parents. But most performers say they can’t forgo tips for lessons, she said.
Shakee’s mother, Sharon Dixon, has seen her son’s passion for his work increase in recent years. She helped to resolve a spate of school absences, she said, but school is not his thing. “He can’t wait until he gets older, when he doesn’t have to go to school no more,” she said.
“He makes good money,” his mother said, describing how he and his older cousins bicycle home to the Desire area, only stopping to buy chicken wings or pizza rolls. He also uses his tips to buy school uniforms and tennis shoes.
Shakee said some parents force their children to perform. That’s not his situation. “I might give my mom a couple of dollars, but that’s because I want to,” he said. He loves his work, he said. “And I love money,” he added with a sweet grin, describing how heavy drinkers tip better.
Shakee sheepishly recalled a visit this fall to the principal’s office. “Ms. (Doris) Hicks said, ‘How can you make it to Bourbon Street, but you can’t make it to school?’ ” He took her criticism to heart and stepped up his attendance, he said.
Shakee and his cousins learned how to tap dance three years ago, when he was 9. They learned how to nail metal taps onto their shoes and staked out spots on Bourbon Street that include metal drain covers, which amplify the sound of the taps.
But Shakee rarely taps anymore. On a recent weekend, while his two cousins danced a half-block away, in front of Arnaud’s Restaurant, Shakee set up his drumming buckets and aspired to Lindsley’s earnings. “He gets a big ol’ crowd and makes $100 quick,” Shakee said, drumming outside the Royal Sonesta Hotel.
From the doorway of the nearest strip club, a doorman dressed in a moth-eaten Santa suit watched Shakee at work. “I worry about the kids like him all the time,” he said. “But if you listen to him, you see he’s got talent. And, honestly, I think he makes more than I do,” he said, as another $10 tip floated into Shakee’s open bucket.