Saturday, March 29, 2008

Every Now And Then...

I've been working since 8 am and I just decided to take a few minutes off from running, writing, and wriggling to do something utterly useless. Here it is:

My Burlesque Name is Jonquille Valdeon.
Take The Burlesque Name Generator today!
Created with Rum and Monkey's Name Generator Generator.

Actually, my other stage name is Fanny Fromage.

By Ted D'Ottavio

Basically, I'm all about the cheese.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Book Review: Minsky's Burlesque

Minsky's Burlesque: A Fast and Funny Look at America's Bawdiest Era. By Morton Minsky and Milt Machlin. Arbor House, New York, 1986.

minskys 001

From the first sentence:
"I was only fifteen and still wearing knickers when I got my first look at the bouncing, bawdy, and often stimulating world of burlesque..."
to the edifying appendices at the end, this book is completely engaging. It is such a favorite of mine. Sure, today's New York burlesque shows are as different from Minsky's as Lili St. Cyr's were from Lydia Thompson's, but a huge part of the attraction to burlesque has always been the fierce brazen energy of live enertainment made with adults in mind, and this book portrays it beautifully.

Each chapter is headed by a terrible joke, such as:
STRAIGHT MAN: (running his hand over the bald comic's head): Ya know, Charlie, your head feels exactly like my wife's backside!
COMIC: (running his hand over his own head): Ya know, you're right!

But of course my obsession is burlesque striptease, and this book is just packed with yummy details about all of that. His comment on Gypsy Rose Lee is priceless: "I didn't know anything really terrible about Gypsy....If you eliminated...the fact that she showed porno movies in her dressing room and encouraged her monkeys in their obscene antics...I guess she was okay."

He shares tips about what made great strippers that could still apply today, such as:
"Hair: The Stripper had to dye her hair a definite color. Red, yellow, or black. Theatrical lighting did strange things to ordinary natural shades of hair...."
"Timing: The stripper has to know when to take off what, how much to take off, what to leave on, and what to do for an encore."

Also irresistable to the historian in me are the descriptions of the troubles they had with authorities, including actual fragments of courtroom transcripts. Having spent a bit of time in courtrooms around the subject of strip joints, I'm always amazed at what the authorities consider not only risque but dangerous to the public good, and as I read Minsky's book I could tell that some things never change.

One of my favorite sections is in Chapter 6, where he compares what he says the more highbrow and uptown Zeigfeld Follies were able to get away with in comparison with Minsky's, who were harrassed more for their tone than for the content of their shows. This kind of cultural class war continues today in comparisons between high-end strip joints and dives. As a feature dancer in the 1990s I was always amused that the high-end clubs didn't want the feature dancers with our elaborate costumes and props and theatrical shows because we were associated with porn (most of us were centerfold models or porn stars or both), and the high-enders were very consciously trying to be disassociated from porn. So the fancy, more expensive strip joints denied the elaborate performances and had only table dancing, while the supposedly icky dives had what many would consider more artistic performances. Funny, that. And in Minsky's objection to Earl Carroll's girls being considered art no matter how naked they got, while his were considered dirty no matter how clothed they stayed, I sense a bit of the same frustration with the strange ways people associate sexual behavior with class.

The tone of this book is so forthright, and the presentation of stories is so entertaining, that I always forget how wonderful the pictures are. There is only a section in the middle of the book, but the juxtaposition of his selection of historical documents, hysterical comics, and hot dames is something every burlesque fan should see.

You can buy this book used on or on EBay, and I recommend you do!

minskys 002

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Blasphemy and Burlesque

'"We're all naked in the eyes of the Lord," says burlesque member Tanya Cheex, who's both Mary Magdalene and the Harlot of Babylon ("interchangeable in the view of some religious zealots").'
Getting saucy with scripture

Tanya just sent me some letters they have received since this article was published. Here is one of them:

'To Whom It May Concern,
I just read the Toronto Star article about the upcoming bible burlesque show. I find this is completely offensive. I'm not a prude, but this is downright tasteless. Isn't there anyone out there who is clever? Let me ask you this question, would you host a burlesque review that depicted Mohammed or Buddha in the same way Mary/Jesus are being characterized? Why not? So then, why do you think it is ok to present this show? Who are you afraid of offending? It's not harmless. It's not even funny. It's low-brow. How about our kids, teenagers, university students, ourselves -- is this something we want to "aspire" to intellectually or in any other way? Show some real courage - put your money where your BRAIN is - cancel the show - on principle. Stand for something or you'll fall for anything. Respectfully, Name Withheld '

As well as several other letters expressing disapproval.

Religious themes are hardly rare in burlesque. For instance, when I used to perform at the Blue Angel, people occasionally walked out on Sister Ammo's "Sister Christian" act.

Above: Ammo at the Blue Angel, 2002. Click the image for more from this show.

The Wau Wau Sisters have created a ruckus with their version of "Sister Christian."

Wau Wau Sisters

And, Tigger performed in one of my productions of the Follies Fromage as Cheezus Christ.

Above: Cheezus receives a Judas kiss. Photo by Dale Harris. Click to see more of the Follies Fromage.

In my case, I actually WENT to Jesus Camp (or, I should say, something pretty close to its 1970s equivalent), and look how I turned out. I have photos of one of my acts in which I'm dressed as the Virgin Mary and dancing to Tori Amos' "God" with Julie Atlas Muz, performing in Pinchbottom's "Blasphemy" show, and I can't freakin find the folder on my computer. So here is a link to some photos of Dita Von Teese evoking the Virgin Mary, or perhaps some other female saint:
Gaultier Show "A Dream Come True" For Dita

Keeping in mind that I feel no obligation to post any kind of anonymous remarks ('anonymous' meaning that you're unidentifiable and flame-ey, not that you're not using your legal name or that I might be offended by your comment--stand behind it or stand down), any comments about why blasphemy (if blasphemy is the right word) seems to be so popular in burlesque? Because I've often wondered, myself. I think it has something to do with this quote:

"Burlesque is the art of treating the frivolous seriously, and the serious frivolously."

I don't know the original source of this quote, but it was most recently said to me by Fisherman of Fisherman's Burlesque Orchestra. I do think that many performers who come from theater and performance art backgrounds follow this definition of burlesque.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Video Review: Beginning Fan Dance with Michelle L'Amour

Michelle L'Amour's Beginning Fan Dance

Michelle L'Amour performed a landmark tribute to Sally Rand at The Burlesque Hall of Fame Striptease Reunion in Las Vegas in 2007.

Who wouldn't want to learn fan dance techniques from Michelle?

She begins with a recommendation of types of fans to use, then clearly explains the theatrical definition of a reveal, and demonstrates how to hold the fans and how to think of them as an extension of yourself and as a costume. She breaks down a graceful walk and sprinkles the video with dos and don'ts that apply to any kind of dance performance. She talks about staging and what the audience can see as well as showing fan movement techniques.

Michelle's onstage charm translates beautifully into teaching. She has confidence and warmth as a teacher, and her voice is as easy on the ear as her body is on the eye (her posterior is known as "The Ass that Goes Pow!" for good reason). Technically, the video is well-staged, with gorgeous red and black tones, and with conversational clips of her cut in with the full-body movement framing.

Michelle L'Amour
Above: One of my favorite photos of Michelle, from her myspace.

I did my first ostrich feather fan dance onstage at the Cheetah III during the Battle of the Cheetah Girls in the early 1990s (somewhere between 1991 and 1994, I'm not sure), and I really could have used this video. There was no burlesque scene and I had nothing to go on except for having seen Venus DeLight and Vanna Lace do fan dances in other strip joints, exactly twice in my life. I'm so glad new performers today have a chance to get some game right away by learning directly from experienced performers!

Michelle L'Amour Teaching at the New York School of Burlesque
Above: From behind, Michelle teaching in New York.

One of the best parts of being a burlesque teacher has been collaborating with other burlesque teachers. I had the good fortune of taking fan dance classes with Dirty Martini and Miss Indigo Blue, and now, through this video, with Michelle L'Amour. In every instance I learned several things I could use. Michelle has been a spectacular pleasure to work with--I learned a lot about demonstrating the bump and grind using "The L'Amour Method" when she co-produced classes with me here in New York, and I learned a lot about finessing a fan dance from this video, even though I already knew quite a bit about fan dancing. When I see other dancers break down the fan dance in detail, it is surprising how differently various performers use fans! I recommend this as well as her Boa Technique video, for beginners, experienced performers, and, dare I say it, fans.

If you live in Paris, March is your lucky month! Michelle is teaching her fan and boa workshops at Agence Dancefloor, 10 rue de Valmy, Montreuil - Métro : St Mandé Tourelle Ligne 1.

Michelle's Website

Sunday, March 9, 2008

What's the Diff? Request Your Input!

'What is the difference between burlesque and striptease? I don't really like to say that burlesque and stripping are totally different. I know a lot of burlesque dancers like to make sure you know that they are not strippers, they are burlesque artists, but I don't really agree with that. I don't think the term stripper is a bad word. Gypsy Rose Lee called herself a stripper, so if it was good enough for her it is good enough for me.'
Dita Von Teese, the 'queen of burlesque', on fame, fortune and feminism

'"People want to see burlesque as classier than contemporary striptease, and that's absolutely not the case. That demonstrates a total lack of knowledge of the history of burlesque," Butler says. "Burlesque halls were tough places for the time. These were raunchy performances, and these were women transgressing the norm of their time, challenging norms about beauty and what a woman could do. These were tough, tough ladies."'
The meaning of burlesque

'Most of the time they know what burlesque is. But the ones that don’t just ask what it is and you have to explain that it’s not stripping. It’s more like Vaudeville entertainment. What you usually get is “What’s the difference?” Burlesque is more the whole tease, what’s coming off, what’s underneath? Strippers are just in it for the money.'

On March 12 I'll be giving a presentation on a panel at NYU titled 'What is Burlesque? Art or Erotica or Ars Erotica?' My discussion will concern the differences between strip joint stripping and burlesque, and that's what I often end up discussing, not just in the articles I publish and during the panels in which I participate, but every single time I'm interviewed. I'm interviewed for an article or documentary frequently, sometimes several times a week, and I have yet to experience an interview where that question doesn't arise.

Personally, I don't think I can answer it by myself. All of the perspectives reflected above, whether or not they suit me, have some meaning, they come from somewhere.

So I'd like to include some perspectives other than my own about the differences between burlesque and strip joint stripping. Feel free to post in the comments, or to email me personally at The panel is on Wednesday, so the sooner I get it the better I can apply it. A sentence or two would be very useful. Also, if you'd mention the basis of your perspective--such as whether you're a burlesque performer, producer, audience member, friend, etc., and where you've seen burlesque and where you've seen strip joint stripping, that would be great!

And if you worry about offending me, you might not give me the diversity I need, so let 'er rip.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Picture Post: Pasties

One of my favorite elements of burlesque costuming is the pastie. Pasties are, as an item consistently associated with the choreography of a particular form of dance, unique to burlesque. I never get tired of the way they simultaneously conceal and call attention to the nipple. I love it when performers make delicate jewelry of them.

Above: Pasties in a bowl on the table at Torchy Taboo's house.

I love it when someone uses pasties to continue the theme of a costume.
Nasty Canasta
Above: Nasty Canasta blasphemes with her nipples, as well as with everything else..

I also love when someone takes the idea of gluing things to breasts and just runs with it.
Whitney at the Mermaid Parade
Above: Whitney at the Mermaid Parade, an art parade in Coney Island, in which pasties (and burlesque performers) play a significant part.

And, I love that pasties are in a perfect position for tassel attachment.
Above: Me twirling at the Slipper Room. Photo by Delerium Tremens.
And yup, those are implants under those pasties. When I started performing in New York, it was interesting to go from strip joints, where implants are common and the motivations and risks involved are pretty well understood, to burlesque, where implants are fairly rare and sometimes verboten. A friend of mine with implants says that hers are like the Velveteen Rabbit--she loved them so much they became real. For myself, I'm just fascinated by the effect they have on my twirling style.

I sell a handbook with pastie-making diagrams, patterns, and instructions, plus tips on how to twirl in every direction. Click here to purchase or find out more about it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Interview: The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus

Bindlestiff Family Cirkus

In 2003 I had the extreme pleasure of performing in the Lucky Stiff show at the Pussycat Lounge in New York's Financial District. The Pussycat has a cabaret venue upstairs and a regular strip joint downstairs. I've worked in the strip joint and I have to say it was different from any other strip joint I've ever worked in: it was all stage, topless only, people handing dollars across the bar to us, very little mingling, and no drink sales, table dances, or VIP rooms. Next door is a pizza parlor where the waitresses do lap dances in the back. The only place I can think of that remotely compares to it is the Clermont Lounge in Atlanta--which also houses rock shows on occasion.

Upstairs, the Pussycat's stage features live bands and other performances, which was where Lucky Stiff came in. The show was the brainchild of Tyler Fyre and Keith Bindlestiff, and it fused uncensored circus, sideshow, and anarchic burlesque. New York burlesque has had a long association with circus and sideshow; Dick Zigun has been nurturing burlesque at Coney Island's Sideshows by the Seashore for over 15 years, and the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus--I love love love me some BFC--has been featuring burlesque performers as well as brilliant sideshow and circus acts in its adults-only productions for well over a decade. I did some of the most bizarre things I've ever done onstage with Lucky Stiff, and I miss it still.

When I found out that my favorite independent circus will be spending Sundays in March at my favorite theatre, the Zipper, I decided the time couldn't be better to interview some folks who've had a significant part in the development of the New York burlesque scene. My good Friend Keith Nelson, also known as Mr. Pennygaff, took time out from his busy rope-twirling, balloon-swallowing schedule to contribute to this blog.

First, the Bindlestiff Bio:

Bindlestiff Family Variety Arts, Inc. (BFVA) is a non-profit performing arts organization dedicated to increasing the knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the history of circus, sideshow, vaudeville, and related arts through activities including performances, lectures, and workshops. We pride our organization on being a successor to variety entertainment's long tradition of making American folk arts accessible to the public. Through performance, teaching, and outreach, BFVA preserves, contemporizes, and enriches the cultural heritage of the variety arts.
In 1994 Keith Nelson met Stephanie Monseu and formed Fireplay, a pyrotic fire manipulating duo. Fireplay performed throughout the late night and underground world of New York City in such legendary shows as Otter's Trip and Go Naked, Jennifer Blowdryers' Smutfest, Charles Gatewoods Deviant Playground, and the Blue Angel Cabaret. The next year Fireplay, with the addition of performers like Baby Dee and James Murphy, evolved into the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. Bindlestiff was founded in 1995 as a variety arts performance series, Bindlestiff has since evolved into a multifaceted performance and educational organization. We incorporated as a non-profit variety arts organization in 1999.
Bindlestiff’s activities, which have involved more than 330 artists in just the past five years, include an annual winter season exhibiting a vast array of artists from New York and around the world; a nationally touring summer show (the 2007 tour included 33 cities in 14 states); original theatrical productions, including 2005's From the Gutter to the Glitter, presented at the Theater for the New City as part of Bindlestiff's 10-year anniversary season; a youth program; school workshops and programs; and partnerships with various arts organizations and educational institutions. In 2004 Bindlestiff launched the Cavalcade of Youth, a youth program offering the opportunity to hone their skills with variety arts professionals and perform. The Cavalcade of Youth program continues to expand as it enters its fifth season. Bindlestiff has also taught circus arts to city youth and has lectured and performed at colleges and universities.
Bindlestiff continually develops partnerships to fulfill its mission. From 2002-2004, in association with chashama, Bindlestiff created and operated the Palace of Variety and Free Museum of Times Square, a contemporary vaudeville house and dime museum. In 2005, in association with Play Outside, BFVA presented a free outdoor season in New York City parks. In 2007, Bindlestiff directed a two-week summer circus camp at Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island. Bindlestiff has participated in New York festivals and events, such as the Lower East Side Arts Festival, Coney Island's Siren Musical Festival, and New York's annual juggling festival.

Bindlestiff Family Cirkus

And now, to interview my magical friends.

Bindlestiff Family CirkusBindlestiff Family Cirkus

What is your vision for the Cirkus?
The Cirkus provides a roller coaster ride of glitter, grit, sawdust, sweat, daring acts, and amazing feats of strength. My goal has always been to entertain "his majesty, the people," and when possible to get folks thinking, and possibly even learn something.
Through Cirkus, Bindlestiff brings together community. We have become a hub for the variety arts.
Bindlestiff started as a traveling family of entertainers taking live performance across America to an overly television based culture.

When did you add burlesque to the mix?
Burlesque has been an integral part of the Bindlestiff mix since day one. I would say that in a sense, we have been able to pave the way for many of the shows and performers that have become the NY Burlesque scene. When I started performing in NY there were not Burlesque shows happening in the same way they are today. We performed variety acts in strip clubs: Lap dancing, strippers, jugglers, fire eaters, magicians, etc all sharing the stage.

What made you think burlesque would be a good complement to your show?
Circus and sexy acts have always been together. In the hey day of burlesque, circus and variety acts were a norm on the bill.

What makes a burlesque act interesting to you?
Skill acts--Juggling, rope spinning, magic, acrobatics, aerial, and tassle twirling--are what really makes a burlesque act interesting to me. I always seek the acts that tear down walls and force you to contemplate. In the traditional sense the tease is the most intriguing aspect. I can go anywhere to see someone naked, but to see someone who really knows how to take off a glove.... Ah, that is art!

Who are some of your favorite burlesque performers, and why?
As far as the folks from the past, my heart goes out to all the baggy pants comedians and variety acts who filled the bill of the burlesque show. These are the unsung heros cuz one can only watch so many sexy ladies.
As far as the currently working folks, my favorites include:
Jo Boobs, she is real and has an amazing understanding of the many facets of the more risque entertainment. [As always, I tell people that if they don't say something nice about me, they'll never work in this town again.}
Julie Atlas Muz. I continue to be impressed by the creative genius that makes Julie.
Dirty Martini. She is the master of tassel twirling.
Little Brooklyn. Have been entertained by watching her develop into one of the current burlesque stars!
And in the gender bender realm, Scotty the Blue Bunny and Tigger are my favorites.

You do both a PG and an R-Rated show. Which version do you do most frequently? What mix would be a perfect balance for you?
I would say we present G, PG and R. In our youth we were a bit more extreme. But now that I near forty, I have less need to drop trouser on stage. These days we do mostly a PG sort of thing. I personally like an equal balance. Ever since Pee Wee Herman's career was destroyed, I have had to wrestle with the reality that America is not open minded enough to understand that an entertainer can do amazing work on many facets. In Pee Wee's case, his reputation was destroyed simply because he had healthy adult some of our more colorful urges.

Can you tell me a bit about what's in store for audiences at the Zipper shows in March?
We will continue to present the unique blend of Circus, Sideshow, Vaudeville, and Burlesque that has made Bindlestiff Family Cirkus a New York icon.

Bindlestiff Family Cirkus I went this past Sunday and got to see one amazing act after another, including a balloon-twisting dominatrix and few contortionist friends visiting from Seattle's Circus Contraption. The 'Stiffs know how to put on a show!

Be sure to check out the Bindlestiffs on Sundays in March! I'll be there for certain.

The Bindlestiff Website
I also HIGHLY recommend checking out their DVD and music CDs. The Bindlestiffs always have incredible live music!
Bindlestiff Family Cirkus