Although most women take dance exercise classes as a means to an end (a fitter body, better cardiovascular endurance), a growing number of New Orleanians are signing up for classes as a means to access a stage.
"I was teaching (hip-hop) exercise classes first, and one of my students made a comment about taking our classes to the street to start doing performances in the community," says Marissa Joseph, who teaches hip-hop dance classes at Crescent Lotus Dance Studio (3143 Calhoun St., 382-5199; www.crescentlotus.com). "That's how our first performance last January came about."
Since then, the NOLA Hip Hop dance troupe has performed at Freret Street Gym's Friday Night Fights, the AllWays Lounge's Queerlesque show and at The Howlin' Wolf for a New Orleans Ladies' Arm Wrestling match. All the dancers were students of Joseph's. Some had dance and performance experience, others had none.
"The response is always, 'You put on a great show,'" says Joseph, who has 12 years of dance experience and writes her own choreography, fielding occasional input from her students. "We surprise many people because they expect us to come out and do something simple or something that doesn't have too much thought to it, when it is really hard work we put in."
Auditions are not required to join NOLA Hip Hop Dance Troupe, though Joseph suggests all her dancers start by taking the beginner hip-hop dance class. "Anyone is welcome," she says. "I ask them to start off by seeing how comfortable they are (in the beginner class), and if they want to kick it up a notch, come to one practice. It might be that this is the type of class that inspires you."
Burlesque performer Bella Blue has taught her Burlesque 101 class, which covers everything from stage presence to pastie making, since 2008. Though she originally intended the class to be a one-time workshop, it has become a sort of incubator for aspiring burlesque performers, many of whom have gone on to join troupes, including Storyville Starlettes and Reverend Spooky & Her Billion Dollar Baby Dolls, or start their own.
"When I first started doing this, I had this big dream of doing shows and having student showcases," Blue says. "I didn't really think of it as a stepping stone for girls to perform with other troupes. But I like being able to give them that platform and that exposure and letting them see if it is something they want to do."
The classes, which meet twice weekly at Crescent Lotus, culminate in student revues held at the AllWays Lounge. In addition to friends, family and titillated passers-by, Blue says the audience has included representatives from burlesque troupes like Fleur de Tease, Bustout Burlesque and Slow Burn who come to check out her new crop of talent.
"It is really fun for me to watch them grow into becoming these little performers, especially the ones who end up doing it really well," Blue says.
Among Blue's star pupils is Tulip Kiss, who prefers to go by her stage name. Kiss started taking Blue's class in the summer of 2009. "It sounded like a fun way to exercise, and I have always loved dance," Kiss says. "(At the time) I didn't know (Blue) was adding a performance aspect to class. I never thought I would perform burlesque — ever. But after seeing the girls in the class do their number, I totally changed my mind. The atmosphere just opened my mind up to a new side of myself."
After getting a few student showcases under her garter belt, Kiss started her own burlesque troupe, Crescent City Cupcakes, in January 2011. The six performers and the MC are all alumni of Burlesque 101, and they perform regularly at 3 Ring Circus' The Big Top Gallery and have been been featured at Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse's Burlesque Ballroom.
While Kiss has become a seasoned performer, other students see dancing on stage with a hip-hop or burlesque troupe as something to try once before crossing it off the bucket list. Though different students have different motives for attending, Blue and Joseph agree that many of them benefit from the experience of overcoming obstacles like stage fright and personal doubt.
"As soon as we hit the stage, the inhibitions go away," Joseph says. "They get over those hurdles and everyone just feeds off each other's energy, so the dance troupe is another way of overcoming your fears. And you can take those things and relate them to your everyday life."
A looming performance date also motivates some students to adhere more strictly to workout routines. For those who prefer to eschew the spotlight and take these dance classes purely for exercise, there's the benefit of a fun workout.
"Dancing, you definitely use a lot of muscles you don't normally use in cardio classes, especially when you have a routine," Joseph says. "A lot of times after we finish dancing, (students) say their thighs are on fire."
"You sweat, you work your body, you do a warm-up and cool-down. You know, it's a dance class," Blue says. "We don't just stand there. I make them work."