A touloulou tells all about the mysteries of carnival

Every year at carnival time in French Guiana, celebrated between January and March*, they are the most beautiful dancers. But who are “they”? The touloulous of course! The flamboyantly dressed masked women, who go incognito in their brightly coloured outfits. Every Saturday night, they lead the ball in the dancehalls of Cayenne and elsewhere. Ghislaine is one of them, and here she tells us about this typically French Guianan tradition. Let the ball commence!

Aged over 60, you still go to the masquerade balls dressed as a touloulou. When did this passion for the carnival in French Guiana start?

For me, it goes back to the year of my birth: 1949. It was a time when leprosy was still common in French Guiana. Local mothers wanted even the little girls who were disfigured by the symptoms of the disease to be able to go to the ball and find a partner. And that is how these elegant costumes were born, which conceal the whole body and face with hoods, wigs, and a mask. You can only see the eyes. You even have to disguise your voice. And remember: you aren’t allowed to reveal your face!

You are a dressmaker and make these outfits to order and for hire. Tell us about how they work.

The touloulous are the queens of the carnival. They have to be the most beautiful dancers, in costumes that hark back to the beautiful costumes worn by the ladies of the 18th and 19th centuries. I use wedding dress catalogues for inspiration, but these have to sparkle! So we use very colourful, sparkling fabrics, in satiny cotton with a lot of lace. There was a time when we stuffed the belly and hips with padding to change the outline of the body. That’s less fashionable today, but the petticoats still have eight or nine layers, and are worn with tights and bloomers. Of course they get very hot but we have to keep in with tradition!

"they are the ones who choose their dance partners, not the other way around. And the men aren’t allowed to say no!"

What are the traditions of the masquerade balls?

They take place every Saturday during carnival, from 10pm to 6am, in the dancehalls of French Guiana’s main towns. In Cayenne, the two best-known are Le Soleil Levant-Chez Nana, a real institution, and Polina, for the younger carnival-goers. 2000 to 3000 people might attend. There’s a “village” with stands in the courtyard and rows of seats inside around the dancefloor where people can sit down. It’s a real sight to behold. The Touloulous often arrive in groups, putting on a show in a little parade, showing off their outfits, and of course leading the dance: they are the ones who choose their dance partners, not the other way around. And the men aren’t allowed to say no!

Tell us about the dances and the music. Are they very lively?

Of course! A good time is guaranteed! Orchestras – some very famous – provide the music. For example, at Chez Nana there’s the orchestra led by Victor Clet, affectionately nicknamed Quéquette. With his band, the Blue Stars, he creates one hell of an atmosphere. All the more so because some of his songs offer a humorous take on local events from the past year. Some people get hauled over the coals! The beat is always at a frenzied pace, with mazurkas, polkas, beguines, and waltzes, always fast and spiced right up. The hips wriggle all night long, but it has to stay family friendly and tourists are welcome. Between ourselves we tease each other and try to guess who’s who without showing our faces. I love to dance like that for hours, dressed up and with a different outfit for every night. I even won a prize a few years ago for one of my outfits. I’m looking forward to carnival season already!

Getting to French Guiana