Featured image – photo credit Bettina May
As I reach some of the most satisfying days of a “little career that could” I look back on all of the amazing people and situations that shaped the performer/person you see today. When I say the “little career that could” I refer to my lifelong passion for history, feminism, dance and performing that culminated in my fabulous cottage industry of burlesque here in New York City. My life here would not be possible without this city and the people in it that formed me from an unsure, young and impressionable dancer. What grew inside me is confidence toughness and so much passion for living. I hope you can all relate to this tale of my journey and the birth of the Neo-Burlesque.
I see my passion for it in students that I teach, in random women that I meet and in audiences that I perform for. I believe that this story is more universal than the small world of the New Burlesque. I moved to New York City because this is where Broadway is. I didn’t move here to be on Broadway, but in my limited experience I imagined New York to be where dancers go to find their way. I graduated from Purchase College with a degree in Dance. I studied academics, learned to be versatile in all performance forms and created an evening length show with four other graduates called “Shoeless and Clueless” with my good friends Andrea Shasgus-Parkinson, Connie Lustofin, Dawn Saxenmeyer, and Tami Tossey. The title felt appropriate for a bunch of misfits in a contemporary dance conservatory.
The poster image for this show was created by raiding my Mother’s attic full of dance costumes from my “Dolly Dinkle” dance days. “Dolly Dinkle” was the professional dancer’s pet name for the local dance schools that sprang up all over the country in people’s garages in the 1950’s and 1960’s – mainly women, of course, who either had something to offer or were capable and bored. My “Dolly Dinkle” was Miss Nan, who danced on television shows in Philadelphia in the 50’s. I imagine her as tap dancing cigarettes, but who really knows what she did. She was very sweet, had a beautiful brownish blond and graying bouffant and wore the traditional black nylon leotard and pink tights with a chiffon skirt. She taught a class that had one half hour each of ballet, jazz and tap in her converted garage once a week. I was hooked. A yearly recital was de rigueur along with all the wonderful brightly sequined mail order costumes that went along with it. Those costumes were both attractive and repulsive and thereby perfect for how I felt about the dance world, a world I was about to burst into.
The dance world would never have me on the Demand side of its Supply and Demand scales. When I moved to New York, Mark Morris left for Brussels, Bill T. Jones stopped using unusual looking people, and the dance landscape looked like a fitness model audition. I auditioned for one Broadway show in those days: Stomp!
Like every other audition in the contemporary dance world, I shined, I smiled, I wore leg warmers and I earnestly stomped. Stomp ditty stomp stomp stomp stomp… and the inevitable “Thank yoooooouuuuu”! All the auditions I went to were the same. I would show up bright and excited, knew mostly all the dancers there and socialized easily with them before being immediately cut after one movement phrase.
Eventually I found my tribe; an abstract puppetry company, who’s leader had a penchant for old Wink Magazines and vintage clothing, Debra Roth and The Stanley Love performance Group, a bunch of ridiculously talented dance misfits like myself. The latter were a group that had mostly all graduated from the Julliard school and were definitely the cool kids. I loved dancing with them. Stanley Love himself fostered a professional but wild and privileged atmosphere. I got the feeling that drilled into the Julliard curriculum was the feeling that if you survived to graduation, you were the chosen recipients of the entire history of dance and its contents. The reality however was, as always, paying the rent.
When I graduated there were only two options for the kind of fast rent cash that was necessary: waitressing or stripping. Both required a fake resume and my roommate, Matt Mohr, helpfully obliged. He had a really fabulous fake resume. His happened to be a restaurant C.V. so, I ran with that. I figured that a strip club also wasn’t the atmosphere that would quell my burgeoning feminist rage either. I was promptly fired from on average one restaurant a year before I landed a spot touring with Debra’s theater company, Pink Inc. They were about to embark on their first street performance tour. They put a show together called Royal Purple and the Fortunettes and the night before their first tour, one of the girls fell ill. Her misfortune was my Fortunette. I miraculously fit into her costumes, enjoyed my first meeting with Carter Boyajian and Debra Roth and all that was left to do was quit the restaurant job for which I had just been hired and leave the next morning at 6am on a plane with total strangers on a plane to Canada.
When I arrived at the Buskerfest Halifax, I was charged with learning a 45 minute street performance show that included three costume changes a few choreographed lip-synched girl group numbers and a whole lot of jumping around doing “The Pony” in a 3 foot tall foam Beehive Hairdo. I was thankful that I was such a 60’s music fanatic and big fan of Drag shows. I already knew the all the words and the backup parts and was a wiz at picking up and remembering choreography. That’s where the work began. Much like burlesque, street theater shows are a very audience based form and we all learned together how to gather a crowd, keep them there and get them to give us cash. Every day we studied other more experienced performers like Master Lee from New York and Gazo from London. We watched them draw huge crowds, string them along until they did their big trick, but just before that pass the hat and get the cash. Every evening after each of our performances, we chatted about what made those shows successful and we changed and tweaked our show until it was getting the right reactions in the right places. If people walked away, we talked about how to tighten it up and if we got a laugh we noted the reason and hit it again every time. By the end of that month on tour, we had a very tight show and knew each other very well. It was the beginning for me. I worked with Pink Inc. for 10 years.
In 1996, we got the opportunity to do an hour length show in Sarajevo. The Peace Accord was just signed in Dayton, Ohio a year before. I knew nothing about the Balkans. We were more concerned about turning our street show into a solid hour on a big stage than where in the world we were headed. I still don’t really understand how it all happened, but this is where we added a burlesque inspired section to our show. I had been entranced by the Irving Klaw films Tease-o-rama and Varietease. I had been for the past few years leading up to the show renting videos from Something Weird and fascinated by this form of dance that was so much in the undercurrent of American culture, but very underground and unknown.
Debra had a stack of girlie magazines that we flipped through for inspiration and every rehearsal I brought in a new Something Weird burlesque show. A set of red ostrich fans were made, a shadow effect was created and we made a 20 minute burlesque vignette. I was given Peggy Lee’s “Fever” to do a fan dance, Debra did a strip in shadow comically wriggling out of pantyhose and into a swimsuit and Carter lip-synched “I wanna be loved by you” with a dog puppet. Our male emcee character Chris Eaves performed to an Elvis song while we all changed for our group number. We performed “The Fortunettes go Abroad” in a children’s theater that looked like communist bunker and was covered in bullet holes. It was the most beautiful theater I had ever performed in. It had a mustard yellow velvet main curtain, a rotating platform that didn’t work center stage, and the lights were controlled by an old Russian computer that was the size of a walk in refrigerator. We performed there in the first Spring that the people of Sarajevo could safely come out of their basements after the war. The children screamed for our show so loud that it felt like we were in a rock concert. I remember that when I performed my fan dance, even though there was no nudity, (I wore what looked like a long line bra attached to a girdle panty for the over all affect of a one piece 50’s bathing suit) the nuns made a whole row of Catholic school girls walkout.
This show started a trajectory for me that I couldn’t have imagined at the time. The red feather fans sat on a shelf while I dreamed of burlesque. One day I was walking past a blanket of tchotkes for sale on the street and hanging on a nearby parking meter was my future embodied by a vintage gold sequin column gown clearly worn by a drag queen. It was $35 and I scooped it up. I found a pair of white sequin pasties in a novelty store, sewed in a pair of tassels and yards of matching fringe onto a pair of girdle panties and a bra. I put together a routine with the fans and asked Carter and Debra to give me some feedback. I wanted to have an olive green bouffant, but all I could find was a blond Marilyn wig. I went with it aspiring to gain the look of an atomic age blonde bombshell. My very good friend at the time was working with a woman named Trixie who was putting together a queer Vaudeville show. Oddly, we had gone to Purchase together and she had me perform in the show at Wow Cafe in New York’s East Village. My first show as
Dirty Martini was intoxicating. As soon as I started unzipping my gown the crowd erupted. There was a butch dyke in the front row screaming “take it off” as if a time machine had taken me back to 1952 and she was a drunk conventioneer. Only, now we were all able to have a laugh about it. It wasn’t the 50’s. I was playing at a version of sexuality from another time. I wasn’t at all serious about making people swoon and the audience was full of women cheering me on. I knew it was translating and I knew it was the right voice for that time. I didn’t feel confident then or at all comfortable in my skin. I had been made to feel lumpy and weird by the world of classical dance, but in that theater dancing and stripping, I felt alive and more myself than ever before. I was an uber me.
What a totally gorgeous story Dirty! Of course I already knew quite a lot of it – but nothing about that Sarajevo experience. My goodness what a rich and multi-textured performing life you’ve lived. Thanks so much for sharing some of your story here, in words. xxx