Burlesque craze sweeps Nelson

ALTER EGO: Jasmine Turner as Lilly La Rouge.
ALTER EGO: Jasmine Turner as Lilly La Rouge.

What is it about the new burlesque craze that's proving so popular with the women of Nelson? Naomi Arnold shimmies along to find out.

‘I'm a really shy person," Cheyenne says. This from the woman who's just spent the last half hour in the small, hot studio practising shimmying to the low purr of Henry Mancini's Pink Panther theme. But that's what burlesque can do to a girl.

On Tuesday night, two women joined their teacher Jasmine Turner in the studio, tucked into a semi-industrial area of Nelson near a sandwich shop, a costume shop, a chainsaw and lawnmower outlet, and a defunct escort agency.

The small room is the headquarters for 28-year-old Ms Turner, Nelson's longest-running burlesque performer. She's the brains and eyelashes behind Lilly La Rouge, a bedazzled vanguard of a neo-burlesque renaissance in Nelson. There's a picture of Johnny Depp stuck to the wall of the studio. He's there for inspiration. No-one pouts like Johnny.

Ms Turner has liquid brown eyes and a practised, confident strut. Her proteges today are 17-year-old Cheyenne: husky-voiced, green doe eyes, flawless skin; and 28-year-old Wendy: glossy black mohawk and friendly, even features. Both are in the last of their four-week class, and both will go on to Ms Turner's intermediate class.

Last night she held her studio's grand opening, with the carpark gussied up and some of her more advanced students performing. On January 5, she'll hold the inaugural Starlets of Nelson competition - for which registrations open on Monday.

But right now she's concentrating on getting these two women to shine.

"A cane and a hat is a really nice combo on stage," she says, bringing out a fedora and showing the girls how to hold it in one hand and flick it on to their heads with a theatrical flourish.

"Think of Michael Jackson; he used one to great effect," she says, running it along her body. "Just have a little play and see what the hat makes you feel like doing."

"Question," Cheyenne, a bartender, says, "Can you use bottles as props?"

"You can use anything," Ms Turner says. "Anything."

She shows them how to pull feather boas along their shoulders. "No, no no," she says, wagging a finger and chastising an imaginary audience. She demonstrates flinging up an arm and letting the boa float down, a classic move.

"It looks quite lovely," Ms Turner says, watching the red boa fall, reflected in the wall of mirrors.

"Bit itchy though," Cheyenne says.

They go through the Pink Panther routine. Wendy's first, and Ms Turner coaches her through the slinky opening bars. "Walk. Walk. Walk, walk, walk, and dowwwwn to the floor - and up." Remember: if you muck it up, just strike a pose or shimmy.

Business is growing for Ms Turner; in November she'll be running four beginners' classes a week, as well as her intermediate and advanced classes for those who've come through the first. Workshop topics include Costuming and Removal, Pasties/Tassle Twirling, and character development. Students will learn how to perform, awkward at first in front of the mirrors, before slowly gaining confidence. They'll learn how to walk, pose, laugh with the audience; how to bunch up a feather boa, hold it over their bottoms, and peek over their shoulders as they let the boa drop. Some are there to perform on stage; some just want to feel confident and sexy; others want a few tricks to take home to their husbands. On warm nights they'll brush past the studio's white lace curtain and practise their moves in the car park, the surrounding concrete yards quiet behind chain-link fences.

Modern burlesque, a spinoff of the movement that has been around since the late 19th century, but reached its heights of popularity in the first part of the 20th century. An international burlesque revival was pinpointed as early as the mid-1990s, and then later, with the release of the film Moulin Rouge. These days, it has a knowing, ironic edge. It has as many definitions as performers, but it combines the glamour of old Hollywood with a coquettish femininity, theatre, satire, a dash of '90s girl power, and the modern love-your-body movement.

It is stripping's smarter, funnier, university-educated older sister; much more tease than strip. Ms Turner is firm on that. There's no nakedness on stage, but pasties, tassels, and carefully placed props cover the illegal bits. "You do get newbie girls who get up there and want to go through the motions and get their boobs out," Ms Turner says. "You're like: ‘Actually it's not all about that. Maybe you want to go work in a strip club for a while and come back'."

Ms Turner has danced since she could walk, adores old movies and her grandmother's starlet books, and has a background in theatre, so moving into this world was a natural step.

"I've got a real passion for the really rich history of burlesque, so I make sure the girls who are performing know why they're up there and what came before them," she says. "You want to tell a story, you don't just want to be a stripper. I teach them historic moves, how to move their body to music. Facial expression is a big one. Strutting, poise, how to hold yourself, how to be comic, and a theatrical edge."

Red-lipped, raven-haired, milky-skinned American beauty Dita Von Teese is probably the most recognisable burlesque queen in the mainstream, and Ms Turner loved her at the beginning "as most girls do".

"But then you realise there's a whole crazy world of other burlesque performers out there that aren't just Dita Von Teese."

In New Zealand they include the stars who come out to play at the Miss Burlesque New Zealand competition, which started in April 2010 with seven contestants. This year there were nine, and next year they'll also put on a Mr Burlesque New Zealand. Contestants are judged on costumes, musicality, and their personality on stage. Past winners include Willow Noir and Busty LaBelle.

Founder, Wellington's Catherine Prescott, says the nationwide movement took off when a television programme covered the first pageant.

"Before that it was smaller shows, it wasn't out there." After it aired, burlesque teachers nationwide reported their class numbers had doubled, and it has slowly grown from there. Her home city has "lapped it up".

"The small towns are harder," she says. "I guess people feel more self-conscious."

Burlesque has filled an entertainment gap and the New Zealand stripping scene can't really compete, she says. "Strip clubs these days are relatively quite boring compared to, gosh, my heyday of 15 years ago where the girls did shows," she says. "These days people like the cheeky side where, yes, there is striptease, but it's quite tasteful down to pasties and panties. It doesn't go too far with the full nudity."

Not that there's anything wrong with nudity, she adds. But 70 per cent of her audience is female.

Ms Turner's a fan of the underground Wellington scene too, of which she first became aware in 2007.

She brought it to Nelson in 2008, when she was working at the legendary but now-lost Phat Club. Co-owners Dave White and Selena Coombes asked her to do a burlesque show, so she recruited a few friends and they became The Diamond Dolls.

It went so well that their original one-off show spawned four more over two years.

The run came to a natural end when Ms Turner and others fell pregnant or moved away.

But one day, Ms Turner checked the former Diamond Dolls' email account, finding screeds of messages from people asking if there were any more shows happening, or inviting them to perform at events and parties. Her baby boy, Jai, was eight weeks old when she did her first solo burlesque gig at a birthday party.

Word spread and there are now regular shows at Liquid Bar, Bar Berlin, and The Playhouse Cafe, and she estimates there are about 10 performers in Nelson now. It's an eclectic scene, embracing drag queens and kings, a few cabaret singers, and "a girl who does hula hoops". She's held BurlyQ Crafternoons where the women make their own props, sewing a few cheap feather boas together to make one big luscious one, sewing sequins and rows of beads on to their bras, and applying glitter to teetering heels. She bedazzles her own garments, gets corsets and bustles custom-made, or buys them on TradeMe or United States websites.

She keeps her expensive steel-boned corsets at home. "If anything happened to them I'd cry."

She prefers the term ‘mentor' over teacher. "It's not salsa dancing; there's not specific moves you can teach. It's more about mentoring the girls in what's appropriate and what's not." She likes to work with the woman's talents: individuality rules, and in the intermediate class she starts teaching them to develop a character. She doesn't mind the competition; she's backing away from performing herself now, enjoying the chance to teach new talent. "I can't be doing it all the time," she says. "What keeps the scene alive is more fresh stuff coming through."

One former student, Nelson's Mz Verona Vega, is into belly dancing, so has made her own Bellyesque show. Cheyenne, for example, is into rockabilly - think vampy pin-up, edgy 1950s, Elvis. Wendy's started to develop a character she'd already conceived of through some alternative modelling jobs. (Ms Turner advises that if you can't think of a character name, just go by New York School of Burlesque headmistress Jo "Boobs" Weldon's suggestion: think of a flower and a French cheese, and put them together.) Stoke's Vixen Delicious, 21, has come from a contemporary dance background in Christchurch. She heard there was a scene developing in Nelson, and dived right in. Her most recent show was September's musical/theatre/burlesque show Alice in Wanderlust at The Playhouse. She was the caterpillar.

"It's fun, empowering, it makes you feel amazing," she says. "It's just like the best feeling in the world."

But how do Nelson audiences respond? "Really mixed," she says. "You get people come along who've watched [2010 Cher musical] Burlesque and they think that's what it's like. It's not. Other people have no idea what to expect and think ‘That sounds a bit interesting', and they go along and have a look. Then there's quite a number of people who come along to all our shows." Burlesque groupies? "Yeah. It's quite weird." She says she answers more to ‘Vixen' than she does to her real name now.

Yet she thinks it's still an underground movement, despite its growing visibility. "I think a lot of people still don't understand exactly what it's about, and a lot of people who, as soon as you say the word ‘burlesque', think ‘stripper'. It's not like that."

On the other hand, she believes more people are opening up to the concept and finding it all good clean fun, with the audience connecting with the sensuous character on stage in a way that's become old-fashioned these days. As our culture has become more desensitised to sex, more used to seeing perfect, smooth, flawless bodies, physically removed on screens, there's something very human and immediate about burlesque.

"They're giving it a go and realising it's quite fun and entertaining, and there's quite a lot of audience interaction; they enjoy that. It's smaller numbers, smaller spaces, and you really don't miss out on anything."

Part of that audience engagement is old-fashioned storytelling. Ms Turner says she completely changes when she dresses up as her alter ego, Lilly La Rouge. "In burlesque, developing a character really helps you on stage," she says. "You're not yourself; I get Lilly's dress on, her hair done, her makeup on, and then once I'm at the venue I tell people to please refer to me as Lilly. When people call out ‘Hey Jasmine!' I'm like," - she puts on sweet, breathy voice - "Who's Jasmine?"

A character might be an amplified version of yourself, she says, "doing all the things you wouldn't do".

Indeed, Lilly has changed as Ms Turner has. "She started off as a total 1950s bombshell man-eater, and her tagline was ‘Lock up your husbands'. I guess it reflects what's going on in your life. Now that I've got a partner and a child Lilly's got a little bit darker in ways." Ms Turner loves old vampire movies ("Not Twilight"), and the most erotic thing she's done on stage lately was a fake-blood smeared vampire routine - biting, blindfolds, the whole bit. Lilly La Rouge is a character that she can shrug on and off as easily as her feather boa.

But for the women who take the classes, it's often not about performance at all; just feeling confident. Cheyenne says that although she's shy, burlesque suits her style. "It goes with the rest of me, so I thought it would be a really nice way to put it out there," she says. Many participants are older, and come along fearing that the classes are populated by 18-year-old nymphs wearing "not much", Ms Turner says. Not so. Her oldest student she estimates to be about 50. A few women come in wanting something to spice up their marriages. "I love that they can do that, it's really nice."

Above all, she wants them to relax and enjoy exploring their sensuality. "They're at a time in their life where they just want to make themselves feel good, feel a bit sexy, and have a laugh," Ms Turner says. "I am all about laughter and laughing at yourself. At the end of it they go: ‘That made me feel really, really good'.

"They see me, and I'm not old, but I'm not young. I'm a mum. I'm not a little girl, I've got curves and bumps and all sorts of things."

Sonia Townshend, 43, tried out Ms Turner's beginners' class in June, learning to shake her own hips to the Pink Panther theme. She's not planning to advance, but now she's got some new dance moves to break out at the next party.

"What else do you do in Nelson in the middle of winter?" she says. "TV's a bit boring so I thought I'd go out and move my body. I had no idea what it was about." Turned out she loved it. "There's no inhibitions, you can just give it a go in front of the mirror, and no-one's looking at you.

"It's more than just dancing; it's the glances, and the way that you look over your shoulder, the way you take off your gloves," she says. "Adds some spice to your life in Nelson."