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Street Smarts 

In the French Quarter, where street performers are a dime a dozen, Dante the magician is always on the money.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, my name is Dante. I travel the world and do magic on the street. This is my bread and butter. Any donation is greatly appreciated."

The magician doffs his hat to accept $1, $5 and $10 bills from the smiling passersby who approach him. His friendly, open demeanor bolsters the solicitation, and the bills pile high. Unlike the jaded hustler vibe of so many street performers, Dante's zeal for entertaining is sincere and comfortable to watch.

After this performance concludes, a drunken, sunburned college student sticks around to become a voluntary hawker, cajoling other Royal Street wanderers to witness his next show. "C'mon, you gotta check this out!," he insists. "This guy is actually good. No, really, he's incredible!" A small crowd collects around Dante's new biggest fan as the magician begins his next act. Half a block away, an intrepid, bearded musical duo -- one drumming on plastic buckets, the other strangling a woozy electric guitar through a small battery-powered amp -- kicks into a rickety version of Steve Miller's "The Joker" after thoroughly blanching AC/DC's "Back in Black."

Dante draws in the curious with a series of quick coin tricks. In his black pants and tank top, black stingy-brim Stetson straw hat, slightly curly shoulder-length locks and diabolical goatee, he has the look and carriage of a silent film star. His manner of speaking is that of a peaceably amusing sideshow barker -- think a Benny and Joonish Johnny Depp impersonating Groucho Marx.

He deftly tucks and shifts and distracts at the crucial moments, bewildering believers with masterful sleight-of-hand while amusing cynics with flippant humor as the act progresses. "Keep that, it'll be worthless someday," he advises an audience member, handing him a mangled Jack of Spades for assisting in a card routine. When a young boy volunteers for a cups-and-balls trick by holding two sponge balls, Dante warns, "Don't squeeze those, you'll go blind -- at least that's what my mother told me." He cracks open a can of butane before setting a $5 bill on fire, offering the vaporous can to a long-haired, hung-over looking man to his right who winces and shakes his head in refusal.

Off the street, Dante discusses how he developed his charisma and confidence as a performer. He says he honed his chops in the bigger towns of Scotland, Ireland, England and Australia, following European summertime festivals whenever possible. In the United States, he has performed from Key West to New York City, but New Orleans has become his favorite locale, where he loves the crowd but not so much the performer community.

"The energy here is great," Dante says. "Many people hate performing in New Orleans because it's difficult once you get here, but once you learn how to work these crowds, I think they're great crowds. Here in New Orleans, not to say that there's not some camaraderie, but there's more animosity -- people are very territorial and vicious, will try to run you off. People even call the cops on each other. The street performers I click with here are the musicians."

He has been confronted by the police, as all street performers do from time to time. "The greatest ally you can have is your audience," he says. "Once you win them over, they will stick up for you." One time in particular, his audience went as far as to boo an officer disturbing his act, risking arrest by shouting protests and flaunting their donations to show support. "As heartwarming as that was, to think that they are willing to risk themselves to defend me, after that experience, the rest of the year, I was constantly harassed by police because I was 'that guy.' But now I'm a regular fixture so they don't bother me."

Dante rarely has trouble with audience members -- partly, he believes, because he maintains a soft approach: "I'm very gentle for a street performer. I've had several street performers tell me I'm the gentlest street performer they've ever seen. So for that reason, people don't feel so much confrontation coming from me. The thing I really learned is that most hecklers don't really want to cause problems. They're just trying to have a good time. So I try not to think about them as hecklers. I'll think of them as a friend and try somehow to pull them in. It's better for everyone.

"There's nothing worse than a show that turns into this adversarial thing."

Despite such challenges, street magicians benefit from a lack of competition in their field, he says, and Dante has managed to become a standout in his four years plying his trade. "They're actually aren't that many street magicians in the world," he observes, while citing a fundamental difficulty: "Magic acts are one of the hardest to make work on the street because it's much easier to make [street acts] work with a large crowd than a small crowd, and magic acts work best with small crowds."

He's not impressed with other street magicians, partly because of what he perceives to be an awkwardness among some of his peers. Any stereotypes of the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing misfit, he says with a laugh, are earned. "The magic community is probably the worst group of performers of any performers out there. They tend to be socially inept because they spend all day playing with their deck. There are so many magicians who are so, so bad. That's why it's easy for me to make it."

He sculpts his shows over time, disposing certain tricks while editing others. "It's a constant process. It's starting to get to where I want it to be, but it still has a long way to go." Dante aspires to match some of the old vaudeville performers, who would be at it for 20 years until their act was condensed down to "the greatest 12-minute routine you've ever seen."

Dante has experienced minor celebrity in some locales where he performs, often becoming recognizable by citizens who treat him like a beloved guest, buying him dinner and drinks and offering lodging. He would like to try performing in small towns in South America in order to become fluent in Spanish and to get to know the people and culture better. The lack of disposable income in these types of places doesn't dissuade him. "Money is not such a motivating factor for me," he says, sporting a recent tattoo on his left bicep: the Japanese symbol for magic and sorcery. "If it was, I'd go to Wall Street. I'm more tempted by things that bring me pleasure. I love performing. That's why I do street magic. I love the energy. I love the freedom. It allows me to travel and just take care of myself. I never have to stop and save money, I just keep traveling."

In the middle of one of Dante's shows, a delighted audience member shrugs off the loss of his $20 bill when Dante pretends to have botched and subsequently burned the man's legal tender. "That's OK," the man says, "you're worth it." A few minutes later, at the finale of Dante's act, the money surfaces from the innards of an audience-selected orange, and the owner of the bill verifies its authenticity. Sticky with pulp, the man looks at his wife and laughs, shakes it off, and is the first to donate to the magician's upturned hat.

And then, it's on to the next trick.

click to enlarge Street magician Dante has performed all the way from Key West to New York City, but now calls New Orleans home. - RON BOCIAN
  • Ron Bocian
  • Street magician Dante has performed all the way from Key West to New York City, but now calls New Orleans home.
click to enlarge Bearing strange fruit: One of Dante's tricks involves pulling a lost $20 bill out of an orange. - RON BOCIAN
  • Ron Bocian
  • Bearing strange fruit: One of Dante's tricks involves pulling a lost $20 bill out of an orange.
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