No masquerading idea of celebrating the Caribbean

THE BALTIMORE SUN

To be crowned queen of the Baltimore Carnival, you've got to have more than just a pretty face.

Event spokeswoman Elaine Simon said contending masqueraders must have presence and an ability to exude the vibrance of the Caribbean nation they represent - and they have to be able to shake it, too.

"They have to work that costume," said Simon, who has led the Caribbean-American Carnival Association of Baltimore for the past three years.

During the judging, which takes place at Druid Hill Park, the candidates have to be coordinated enough to move their elaborate adornment to the beat of island music, she explained.

That can be hard when weighed down by a heavy get-up, a tassled, beaded, feathered and sometimes entirely massive creation that's made especially for the annual festivities.

The key to success, she said, is to create movements that correspond to the costume's theme.

A woman using "Blue Caribbean" as her subject might dress in an azure-toned, flowing outfit with "a lot of areas that look like waves," Simon said.

"You would not move really fast if you're depicting waves; you'll have to move according" to the motion of the seas, she said.

An experienced carnivalgoer, Simon believes that contestants who combine these interpretive dances with high-energy performances are more likely to win.

"Some people move more than others. A contestant can come out and hit the stage and do the natural thing. Then [another woman] can hit the stage and from the moment she gets up there, you think, 'That girl goin' to win tonight.'"

Watch this year's contenders at 6 p.m. tomorrow when they hope to wow the panel of judges with preternatural exuberance and piles of colorful plumage.

The queen (and king) will be crowned during the evening's celebration, which kicks off three days of festivities in the park.

On Saturday, the newly crowned royalty will march in the carnival's street parade, a noontime procession that begins on Park Heights Avenue.

Steel drum performers, 10 bands of costumed masqueraders and other groups will also entertain the crowds as they march toward Druid Hill Park, where the Image Band and Christol Paul will perform later in the day.

Besides the musical performances, festivalgoers can enjoy the cuisine and crafts of the Caribbean, which more than 55 vendors will provide throughout the weekend celebration.

By the time Sunday's "Carnival Explosion" event begins, the popular annual party will have attracted thousands of people from all over the East Coast.

Simon hopes the carnival's final day of festivities, which features local and nationally known musical acts such as The Oasis Band and Dexter Keane, will help to revitalize the 22-year-old event, which has recently seen weak attendance.

Last year's festival attracted about 20,000 people, down from past years, when the carnival brought in upward of 40,000 patrons, she said.

Whatever the outcome, Simon is confident that the festival will be an energetic display of all things Caribbean.

That's because islanders are all about preserving their culture for future generations, she said.

"Wherever there is a concentration of Caribbean people, we have to get together and demonstrate our culture. It's like an urge. It's creativity, it's an art, it is depicting what is a part of our heritage."

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