Ginger Valentine: Becoming the Oyster Girl
Ginger Valentine describes her journey as the new Evangeline the Oyster Girl…
I’d like to take you on a not so mythical trip, through the bayous of Louisiana…
I will never forget the day I met Kitty West – or as she’s more notoriously known, Evangeline the Oyster Girl – in person. As if meeting such an infamous living legend of burlesque wasn’t enough excitement, Hurricane Isaac was swirling away in the Gulf of Mexico, creeping closer to the Mississippi-Louisiana border each minute. You could feel the atmosphere changing that afternoon; people were just starting to fill up at gas stations, some preparing to leave, others planning to ‘ride it out’. After weeks of preparation, this was my chance to finally meet Kitty before I officially took over her infamous Oyster Girl act, and we weren’t going to be deterred by something as common as a little ol’ hurricane.
I had just performed in the Bustout Burlesque show the previous evening with my friend and fellow Texan Ruby Joule, and the producer, Rick Delaup, drove us from our hotel in the French Quarter down I-10 toward Waveland, Mississippi. We were buzzing with excitement from the storm and our trip to go and see Kitty. We crossed Lake Pontchartrain and drove through the lush, overgrown wetlands, where ‘deep in the mists’ lived Evangeline the Oyster Girl. I had been preparing for this moment for the majority of the summer and was anxious to meet her.
Evangeline the Oyster Girl became a famous attraction on Bourbon Street during the 1940’s and 50’s. Known for her sensual and high energy act, Kitty headlined the Casino Royale, attracting thousands of locals and tourists. After she retired, several other acts clearly inspired by Evangeline continued, but none captured the magic like The Oyster Girl. As the years passed and society changed, the demand for more explicit entertainment grew and burlesque acts like the Oyster Girl sadly faded away. With the revival (or continuation depending on your perspective) of burlesque, a few New Orleans dancers took interest in recreating Kitty’s show. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, burlesque performers Lady Jane and Lorelei Lane both worked with Kitty on the Oyster Girl act, each performing the act in their own way, but neither one carried the legacy on for very long.
I perform often for Bustout Burlesque in New Orleans and had considered the show my home away from home for the better part of a year, when the possibility of becoming the new Evangeline was first introduced to me. For many, many months it was something that Rick and I discussed without ever committing one way or the other. Eventually, with Kitty’s blessing, we decided at the beginning of the summer that the time was right to bring the Oyster Girl back for good. The big Bustout Burlesque premiere wouldn’t be until December, but I had just less than three months to learn the act, have the costume made and finish my research for the preview that we planned for the New Orleans Burlesque Festival in September.
Over the weeks, I spoke with Kitty on the phone several times and spent hours studying videos of her explaining the intention behind her bumps and grinds, her hand gestures and her style. Kitty is a very enthusiastic dancer, so she stressed to me the importance of physicality, rhythm and emotion. Every move, every look carries a huge significance with Kitty West. Evangeline must convey many different emotions from awe and wonder to ecstasy and even fear; it has depth and drama and it goes beyond a wink and a smile without excluding either one.
I took copious notes and listened to the music many times a day. In addition to my normal dance and yoga training, I also spent a lot of time meditating on the story of the Oyster Girl; I really took advantage of the time I had in New Orleans this summer to really get in the mood and find the inspiration I needed to connect with Evangeline. To say I became a bit obsessive would not be an understatement! I enjoyed the process because it took me back to my roots in classical ballet. I was no stranger to dancing as a mythical creature, emoting all about the place. I’d done plenty of that in Swan Lake, Les Sylphides and Gisele. Adding the sexual element was particularly delicious and fun, and I often refer to Oyster Girl as an erotic ballet. The studio hours flew by, my costume fitting came and went, and all of a sudden the time to go back to Nola and meet Kitty in person was upon me. It was then, in the dog days of summer and smack in the middle of Hurricane season, that Ruby and I found ourselves climbing up the stairs to Kitty’s home in Waveland, Mississippi.
Her small, coastal home was humming with activity. Family members were checking generators, boarding up windows and making the final arrangements to evacuate. Despite the storm, she still took plenty of time to chat with us and speak to me in more depth about Oyster Girl while managing to find time to spout off golden nuggets of stripper wisdom that Ruby and I jotted down in our notebooks. I performed my rough draft of the act for Kitty in her kitchen (one of my more memorable shows); she cried and so did I, but we dried our tears quickly and she began telling me what to do and what not to do, coaching me through the rest of the dance and teaching me some very physical and suggestive moves. We couldn’t stay long, so soon, after a few pictures were snapped, we headed back home to higher ground.
Just a couple of weeks after our first meeting, I found myself tucked away in the new oyster shell, snuggling up to my pearl while listening to Kitty introduce me as her successor to the audience at the New Orleans Burlesque Festival. As I waited to reveal myself to a whole new generation of Evangeline fans, I remember telling myself to be in the present moment and not to worry about my costume, my choreography or what anyone else would think. I wish I could say that it all came easily to me, but truth be told, I was still pretty nervous! I gave it all I could, and as I took my final bow I felt proud but determined to make the next show even better.
It is truly one of the greatest honours I’ve ever received to be able to carry on this beautiful legacy for Kitty West and fans of burlesque and striptease around the world. I am preparing just as hard as ever for my debut performance at Bustout Burlesque on December 15th and still feel like I have a lot of work to do. After all, that is one mighty big oyster shell I have to fill.