Pastels and pettiness are forbidden by the Tutu Live Krewe. To become part of this Galveston-based dance troupe comprising 96 mature women, you’ll need knee-high black boots, a corset and tutu in their signature black, purple, and turquoise color scheme, and a desire to have fun, learn the choreography, and entertain the crowds at holiday parades.
“It’s like a grown-up drill team,” says the krewe’s founder, Donna Joy Swartz. When not in tutu mode, she’s a program director and assistant professor of medical administration at Galveston College. Swartz started the group because she loved the camaraderie that performing in parades with other women her age brought to her life. “I would also look really silly dancing out there all by myself,” she says.
Back in 2012, Swartz and a few friends participated in Galveston’s Funky Uptown Umbrella Brigade—one of the city’s many Mardi Gras events—and won the design competition. Their umbrellas were bedazzled with purple, green, and gold foil garlands, glitter, and feathers, and the friends all wore tutus, of course. When they entered the umbrella contest again in 2013, they were trying to come up with a name for their group, and the Tutu Live Krewe was born. Krewes are the social groups that plan Mardi Gras festivities; Galveston is home to more than a dozen of them. The rest of the name was inspired by the late-1980s Miami hip-hop group 2 Live Crew, whose risqué lyrics enraged censors but thrilled spring breakers. Swartz’s crew keeps it clean, though, and every member pledges to adhere to a code of conduct that emphasizes integrity, inclusivity, kindness, and humor. “It’s an empowering group,” says Swartz. “Most of us are introverts, so it gives the introvert who wouldn’t normally go outside her comfort zone an opportunity to do this.”
One of those self-described introverts is Carrie Pulkinen Korts, who writes paranormal romance novels when she’s not selecting songs and creating moves as one of the krewe’s nine choreographers. “When you put on that corset and tutu, you’re somebody else,” she says. “You can be anybody you want to be. I think that’s what draws people.”
There’s no audition process to join the group, but there are yearly dues of $175, plus the cost of boots, wigs, corsets, and tutus. Members have to be 25 years or older. Swartz says that right now the youngest member is 38, and there are a few women in their seventies who she claims can dance circles around her. The rehearsal season is September through March, and it’s required that participants come to at least eight rehearsals a year in order to perform in the parades. The krewe has branched out from Mardi Gras and now marches in Galveston’s celebrations for the Fourth of July, St. Patrick’s Day, and Christmas, as well as in Houston’s Pride Parade. They added 26 new members in 2023, bringing the group to its highest enrollment yet.
Kirra Randolph is the president of the krewe, and she just joined in 2023. She’s a chiropractor in Pearland, and after years of “getting lost” in her career and being a mom, she’s found a new purpose and passion with the group. Her kids are grown, and since she grew up dancing and performing, this is a perfect fit for her. She found out about the krewe when a friend came to her office, asking her to help pick out a costume for one of the parades. When the friend showed Randolph the krewe’s Facebook page, she instantly wanted to sign up.
“I said, ‘There is no way you’re doing that without me,’ ” Randolph says. She signed up for one of the last five available spots of the season, and “the rest is history.” Randolph says being part of the group has boosted her mental and physical health, and it’s given her a group of friends who’ve uplifted her during a time in life when many women feel adrift. “I struggle during the off-season,” she says. “I need my tutu time.”
She has ample opportunity for it. This year, the krewe is dancing in five Mardi Gras parades in Galveston County and one in Texas City. Most members live on the Gulf Coast, but one woman makes the two-hour drive from Brenham, and another lives in Kansas and flies out for performances. They record the rehearsals so members who can’t make it can watch online. The music they choose is all over the map, from Bollywood tunes to cumbia, to disco, to Prince. If it’s upbeat and danceable, it has a shot.
The Friendswood-based Pulkinen Korts joined the group after seeing them dance in a Mardi Gras parade in 2020, just before pandemic lockdowns went into effect. “They looked so glamorous and so confident, and they were my age,” she says. As fate would have it, a handler placed one of the krewe’s beaded necklaces around Pulkinen Korts’s neck, and when she got home, she looked up Tutu Live Krewe and signed up on the spot.
To kick off the Mardi Gras season, the group hosted its first Epiphany Ball last month, and they hope to eventually expand and open that event—a fundraiser for the Resource and Crisis Center of Galveston County—to the public. The krewe has donated about $10,000 to various nonprofits over the years, according to Swartz. They also dance at assisted living facilities in the area, and plan to perform at a local Ronald McDonald House, since giving back to the community—while wearing tutus—is part of their mission. The main reason women like Swartz, Randolph and Pulkinen Korts are drawn to the group is the relationships they’ve formed. The words “empowering” and “confident” come up often when they talk about their time with the krewe.
“You’d think with ninety-six women there would be infighting and cliques and silos,” says Swartz. “I’m not saying none of that ever exists, but to a minimal extent. I like watching ladies like Carrie and Kirra, and seeing what it brings to their lives.”
For an introvert like Pulkinen Korts, the Tutu Live Krewe has been a lifeline. She’s a writer working at home, and before stepping into her tutu, she didn’t have a dedicated group of friends. Now that’s all changed. “It’s the most amazing group of women I’ve ever encountered,” she says. “It’s the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time.”
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