The New Orleans Burlesque Festival
The burlesque dancing revival is more than a decade old, bringing back pasties, slowly peeled stockings and bump and grind music. While ever more performers take up feathered fans and boas, sometimes in theaters, sometimes in DIY-spirited rock club shows, top performers are again making a career of it and traveling the world.
"Burlesque has taken over my life," says New Orleans' own Nedra Naquan, who performs as Perle Noir. "I have been able to travel all over — to London, Paris, Toronto. In January, I am going to perform in Australia for a week."
Since getting into the striptease revival five years ago, Naquan has become a star in the new burlesque world. She's one of many headlining dancers performing at the New Orleans Burlesque Festival (Sept. 17-19), which in just its second year is becoming one of the top festival events, along with the Miss Exotic World Pageant and Striptease Reunion in Las Vegas and the New York Burlesque Festival.
Naquan was named best debut dancer at the Miss Exotic World Pageant in 2008 and was the first runner up in the event in 2009. After the debut, she was invited by dancer Immodesty Blaize to perform in a London showcase called The Tease Show, which was filmed for the documentary Burlesque Undressed. Naquan also caught the attention of the field's best-known celebrity, Dita Von Teese, who invited her to perform in a two-night engagement opening Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans in July. Like many artists or musicians who shed day jobs, she's made the leap and is focusing solely on her burlesque career.
New York dancer and author of The Burlesque Handbook, Jo "Boobs" Weldon credits the Internet for making the revival possible. The movement coalesced in the mid-1990s as disparate performers were able to easily find each other, share information and organize events. Naquan pursues bookings by emailing links to YouTube videos of her performances to talent bookers and producers around the world.
Josephine Baker inspires Naquan's stage name and work. She favors traditionally styled acts, but Baker predates the rise of burlesque. Baker was a chorus line dancer in vaudeville shows in the United States before she moved to France in the 1920s. There her act combined erotic dance and some singing. It wasn't a striptease, but Naquan has turned Baker's signature banana skirt act into a burlesque dance. She also has a routine in which she sings Baker's "Don't Touch My Tomatoes."
"For me, the reason burlesque is something I love is it's one of the oldest forms of theater," Naquan says. "It's dancing, acting and singing. ... I would love to have my own show with singers, dancers, comedians and novelty acts."
Naquan debuted with Bustout Burlesque, a monthly New Orleans show created by festival producer — and documentary filmmaker (Ruthie the Duck Girl) — Rick Delaup. Bustout favors the classic New Orleans format for shows, with dancers performing to live jazz bands plus other acts such as comedians, magicians and singers.
The festival includes several evening showcases at Harrah's New Orleans Casino and the House of Blues and a competition in which performers must dance to a live band. There also are workshops for dancers and panel discussions with former burlesque stars, including Kitty West, aka Evangeline the Oyster Girl, the Bourbon Street starlet who graced the pages of Life magazine for a publicity stunt in which she used an ax to smash the glass tank of a dancer performing a water act. Other veteran dancers include San Francisco's Satan's Angel and New Orleanians Bambi Brooks and Wild Cherry.
Top contemporary burlesque performers include Weldon, Kitten De Ville, former Miss Nude International Katherine D'Lish, Evie Lavelle and Michelle L'amour.
A native of Chicago, L'amour was always interested in dancing and being on stage, and she stumbled into burlesque when she was asked to be in a show. She liked the sexy side of burlesque and delved into it.
"I always used to pose in front of a mirror, going for sexy looks," she says. "I had been training for it my entire life, I just didn't know it."
L'amour made a name for herself quickly, won the Miss Exotic World title in 2005 and was asked to audition for the TV show America's Got Talent. She appeared on the program through several rounds of competition, finally doing a strip act with KITT the talking car from Knight Rider. Judge David Hasselhoff approved, but the rest of the panel panned striptease as a talent. Was she surprised at that response after the producers asked her to appear?
"They wanted me to be a stupid whore," she says, laughing. "But I am a smart lady. I wasn't going to play that."
L'amour earned a degree in finance at the University of Illinois and had always wanted to own her own business. Burlesque has become a platform for her to teach dance and do choreography at her Studio L'amour space. She runs the burlesque troupe Chicago Starlets, and another increasingly popular event, which has expanded to New York and Seattle, Naked Girls Reading. She's also got a book of nude photography, The Most Naked Woman. She has performed across the United States as well as Europe and Brazil.
"The problem is that I want everything," she says. "I want to expand the studio, have my own venue. The opportunities are endless."
Visit www.neworleansburlesquefest.com for a full list of performers and events.