Written by Tara Jill Ciccarone
Thursday, 04 December 2008 17:45
For years, I have skirted my way through conversations that involved the term “burlesque.” Earlier this year, I attended a performance in a suffocating warehouse.
“What are all the windows closed?” I asked a gutterpunk.
“It’s a burlesque show,” he answered before trying to sell me acid.
“What does that have to do with the windows?”
“It means there will be nudity,” he replied, rolling his eyes either at my weak vocabulary or my distaste for psychedelics, I didn’t know.
The definition of burlesque has lingered in the gray area of my mind that I haven’t spent much time investigating since the sixth grade when I wondered what the exact definition of “cock” was after Jason Newton told me to suck his as we threw our Styrofoam lunch trays away in the school cafeteria.
Before heading off to attend Bella Blue’s Burlesque 101 class, I consulted www.dictionary.com which described burlesque as “A humorous and provocative stage show featuring slapstick humor, comic skits, bawdy songs, striptease acts, and a scantily clad female chorus.”
When I contacted Bella about observing class, Bella explained that I was welcome to participate in the class or observe. “Whatever you feel more comfortable with,” she added. “There won’t be any nudity.”
Having arrived late at The Dragon’s Den for the NolaFugees Book Release party, I had missed Bella’s act, “Barely Legal Chicken,” that involved her, covered in plastic wrap, lying on a cushion while drunk people ate fried chicken off her body. “What the fuck am I doing with my life?” I’d responded when hearing about her gig.
Bella Blue’s class, Burlesque 101, takes place at Crescent Lotus Dance Studio at 3143 Calhoun Street every Thursday from 6:30 to 7:30. Around the back of the building (where the students enter) three girls chatted excitedly about the class. I remembered the ten years I spent as a student of tap dancing as Bella opened the door and her students, a group of five girls in their twenties, began to change into their Burlesque attire. Already the fishnet stockings and ruffled panties had me thinking about signing up for the class. I never miss an opportunity to parade around as scantily clad as possible; on the other hand, I run at the invitation to skinny dip.
The inside of Crescent Lotus Dance Studio is warmly lit; exotically patterned tapestries, red Japanese lanterns and colorful paintings compliment the shiny wood floor and wall-length mirror and add to the atmosphere of genuine fun that Bella cultivates.
“I have a new Burlesque name,” Sandy, who’s been taking the class for a month and a half, announced as Bella selected the warm up music. “Cheeky Cha-Cha!” she exclaimed before giggling. Her announcement was met with encouragement from Bella and her classmates. Each dancer has her own name, Bella later explained, and she encourages them to create a burlesque persona.
Sandy, a.k.a. Cheeky Cha-Cha was attracted to burlesque by the costumes, sequins, and lace along with the sensuality of the dance. After her first class, she wanted to come back immediately. A Pilates enthusiast, she gets the most out of her flexibility as she stretches and grooves in Burlesque 101. Her shoe fetish made it easy for her to acquire the appropriate footwear. Cheeky is also a full-time student, so at this point, the class serves as a fun release, and she’s only considered participating in a casual performance at this point.
Bella Blue originally chose the name “Jazzabella Blue” because of her appreciation for jazz but later shortened the name to “Bella Blue,” which she felt was more memorable. A classically trained ballerina, Bella studied at NOCCA where she got most of her training from Derek Reese. In Burlesque 101, Bella creates new choreography every week since different people attend.
The five students, ranging in height and body type, began to stretch as I admired their sequined tops and bustiers. The beginning exercises reminded me of the dance classes I’d taken through my teens as I noticed that the girls all displayed different levels of flexibility and coordination. Some of them had been taking the class consistently since August when it began while others were new to the class. Anyone can join at anytime, paying only ten dollars for each class. There’s no commitment involved, so one could try the class just for kicks (pardon the pun) or take it weekly. The girls were happy to see one another, and I was pleased to notice not even a trace of competitive spirit as the chatted about their costumes and stage names.
And then the shoes went on.
Each girl strapped on her own pair of high heeled shoes, some sequined and obviously selected for performing and others more like the simple heels I have in my own closet.
“We’re going to work on something new today,” Bella announced.
She explained to the newer students that part of burlesque is the tease, and arm movement plays a large role in that. On the petite side, Bella explained that she uses her arms to overcompensate while dancing and thus increases the space around her. “Creating this fluid motion with arms is not as easy as it looks,” she explained while demonstrating a graceful twirling that, of course, appeared effortless.
I recalled my own trouble with arm movements in tap dancing as I struggled to avoid the stiff, jerky movements of a beginner.
Bella encouraged each student, assuring them all that it would take practice, before moving on to kicks.
They completed a quick set of steps to “Roxie” from the Chicago soundtrack after Bella experimented with a series of arm movements that wouldn’t look too much like the “Macarena."
The young women’s heights spanned the full spectrum, and they lined up with the tallest girl in the center, the shortest on either end of what resembled a Can-Can line. Bella described the footwork, as “Walk, step, kick,” and to my delight I found I could almost imitate the steps as I lingered off to the side, wishing I’d worn my own high heeled shoes.
The trickiest part for the students involved them co-operating to keep those fancy shoes in a straight line, regardless of the dancer’s individual height, as they kicked in unison, and I watched as a straight line of legs evolved after a few practices.
At one point, the dancers placed their hands on their hips and gyrated before doing a little jump, something that I later learned is called a “Booty Bump.” I made a mental note to learn that move.
After they’d practiced the routine several times, the girls cooled down. I couldn’t help but notice how comfortable Bella made them feel throughout the lesson.
Natalie, who’s been taking Burlesque 101 since the course began in August, goes by the state name Ruby Royale. She chose that particular name after her original choice, Scarlet Spanks, seemed too “stripperish.” Both names reflect her love for the color red. Natalie took ballet and tap for years as a child. The first time she saw Bourbon Burlesque at the C.A.C., she was intrigued by the beauty of the dance. Natalie now attends burlesque shows around town. Her black glittery heels, she explained, attracted her because of the sparkle. “The class is a lot of fun,” she told me. “We’ve taken pasty making classes and made tassels for pasties.”
Bella’s involvement with the New Orleans Burlesque scene began when she met the director of Fleur de Tease on www.myspace.com and auditioned for a show in Baton Rouge. She also teaches Burlesque 101 in Chalmette on Wednesday nights.
When I asked Bella how the burlesque industry contributes to the city’s recovery, she explained that one doesn’t typically associate burlesque with the recovery of the city, but often people come into town with uncertain plans and wind up attending a burlesque show. The great thing is that she and other burlesque troupes can draw tourists in. As far as locals go, it’s an extremely important thing that all the burlesque troupes are making the dance so popular. Whether they know it or not, they’re all working together as a burlesque community. Bella’s troupe gets along with a lot of the girls on a one on one level, and each group brings something different to the table.
Bella explained that she incorporates the stretching into her lessons because it’s good for the body. “As far as health and well-being go, burlesque is more about what it provides mentally; it gives the dancers confidence, and that crosses over into their day to day lives.”
“So when does a burlesque dancer have to get naked?” I asked.
“Never,” Bella assured me. “Burlesque is about the art of tease, and that’s where it becomes an art. Stripping is completely different - it came from burlesque dancing. Some burlesque dancers get down to pasties and bottoms and there are tap dancers who never show their breasts, and that’s what the audience loves. It’s about the tease.”
Boas, scarves, fringe, gloves are typically used as props.
If one wants to try a Burlesque 101 class, she should show up at 6:30 on a Thursday or visit the Chalmette location on a Wednesday and pay the ten dollar fee. Bella explained that a shoe with a small heel and strap (so it won’t be kicked off) works best. The general attire ranges from fishnets to leggings, sequined bras to tank tops. The people that come every week are really interested and friendly, and anyone can attend one class. If she wants to incorporate the class into her weekly routine and get more involved in the burlesque community she can, but there’s no future commitment. Like Bella, it’s totally flexible.
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