Inspirational Instructors: Bella Blue, New Orleans School of Burlesque
As burlesque has grown, so has its educational base. The teachers of burlesque make a distinct mark on the development of burlesque in their respective regions, and often help students not just with performing basics but with an understanding of the history and business of burlesque.
New Orleans performer, instructor and entrepreneur Bella Blue began burlesque with the training of a ballerina, and it has served her offstage as well as onstage. She understand the value of persistence, of resilience in the face of critique, and of rehearsal. She also understands the value of discipline in everything she does. While she is an international headliner and is at the top of many people’s lists of favorite performers, she is passionate about her home and community in New Orleans, constantly working to contribute to the development of shows and venues, as well as New Orleans’ profile in the global scene.
JW: When and how did you get interested in burlesque?
BB: I saw my first burlesque show when I was 16 years old. I had snuck into a bar to see a swing band and they had burlesque performers performing to their music. I remember being very intrigued by these women and I didn’t know anything about what they were doing exactly, I just knew that I like it. Fast forward to the end of 2006, I was going through a huge shift in my life. I was perusing MySpace and, as the Universe would have it, through the aforementioned band’s MySpace page, I came across the profile of a person who was doing burlesque in New Orleans. We started up some chit chat over messaging and before I knew it, I had an audition lined up for the beginning of 2007. I did that audition and then a month later, I did my first show.
What was your performance experience before that?
My performance experience prior to that was all serious, all the time. I came up traditional dance forms from the age of 3. I spent most of my days growing up in the dance studio and preparing for performances. When I went to high school, I attended an arts high school which enabled me to study my regular subjects at my regular high school and then spend the other half of the day at the art school where I studied dance. As an adult, my performance opportunities became less and less. New Orleans doesn’t have a culture of supporting professional dancing outside of stripping. There are no dance companies here that you can audition for and make your living as a dancer. For me, moving to a city that does provide those opportunities was not an option because I have my kids. Burlesque started as something fun and liberating. It’s still fun and liberating but now; it’s my career. I always knew I wanted to be a dancer. But, I had no idea that this is how it would turn out!
How would you describe your style?
My style heavily incorporates my formal dance training. I have acts that run the gamut of classic to neo to performance art. But, the common thread in all of them is incorporating the foundations of ballet and modern into them.
When did you start teaching?
I started teaching burlesque in the summer of 2008. I had been teaching traditional dance since I was 15 so, I knew that I could teach people effectively in movement and musicality. And at the time when I decided to start teaching burlesque, I had only been performing for a year. I got a lot of criticism for deciding to teach. But, no one else (in New Orleans) was doing it and there was clearly a desire for it. So, I thought, “why not?” I knew I could get in there and teach women how to move their bodies, I could teach them the basics, and I could teach them as much as I knew up to that point.
What do you think it’s most important to bring to burlesque teaching?
I feel that the most important thing to bring to burlesque teaching would be reality. The reality of the moment, the reality of the industry, and the reality that these women are all in the class for their own reasons and in that moment, they are looking to you to guide them through an experience that pushes them, challenges them, changes their viewpoint about their bodies, and then sends them out in the world with a different perspective.
How many of your classes are geared to performance? How many of your students do you think come in with the goal of performing?
I do a quarterly 6-7 week workshop that are geared for performance. These students study with myself and other instructors from either New Orleans or surrounding areas. The end of the workshop culminates in a student showcase. I would say that our of the 15 women who join the workshop, maybe one or 2 of them will have their eyes set on performing past the showcase.
I know you do a lot of bachelorette parties. What is the difference between teaching those and teaching a scheduled class?
Teaching a bachelorette party is all about being flexible with the curriculum. I have a set class that I teach for bachelorettes but, if I feel the room and they give me a different energy where they would maybe love to focus more on butt tricks or chair dancing, I will shift into those lessons rather than sticking with my original curriculum. Those parties are so much fun. They are there to have a great time and create a memory. I always value those opportunities because it’s a real honor for me to be apart of a bride’s experience leading up to her wedding. In a way, it feels very sacred. So, the goal is to make the class about her and her friends and give them what they are needing from that time.
A scheduled class has a specific focus. So, people who are attending know exactly what they are signing up for. It’s specifically geared for a skill or a skill level and it stays on that track for the duration.
You run an actual school with multiple teachers. How do you find teachers?
My other instructors are performers in New Orleans. My goal with the school was to create diversity within the instructors so that people could possibly get a wider range of experience. Prior to moving to my own location, I taught every class and every bachelorette party up until 2014. I started getting busier and needed help. That’s when I started to incorporate other performers into the fold as instructors.
Do aspects of New Orleans burlesque specifically affect your teaching?
A lot of my beginner classes are rooted in classic burlesque movement. I always say that classic is the “ballet of burlesque.” I do unconsciously associate the phrase “New Orleans burlesque” as a reference to the past. I envision Bourbon Street in its heyday and the intense bumps and grinds that were happening on the stages. I like to talk to my students about what I know of the history of New Orleans burlesque. Moving beyond the history part of it, I like to teach things where I see room for improvement in my community. So, if I go to see a show and I see that every act in an improv and there is very little spatial awareness or musicality, I will make these things a focus in my classes. If I go to shows and see performers not wearing high heels because they are afraid of dancing in them, I will focus on effective dancing in high heels. I try to bring learning opportunities to class based on what I see as an audience member.
Who are some of your students who’ve gone on to perform?
I have a handful of ladies who have gone on to perform pretty regularly! Patsy Blue Ribbon is now located in Indianapolis and performs with The Rocket Doll Revue. May Hemmer is based in New Orleans and has gone on to perform and produce. Fleur le Rouge performed in a few showcases and then went on to grad school. She wrote her final paper on burlesque, moved back to New Orleans, and is now working as ballet teach at a local college (I don’t know if that counts but I think it’s a nice story!). Artemis Lark is located in Seattle now and is performing and producing. There are a few more students who are doing things sporadically as well from time to time.
What would you see as the future of your school?
I would like to see the school grow in a dedicated student base in the future. Right now, since having moved locations, it has been a slow trickle in building up that student base again. I would love to see the school continue to draw out of town instructors to New Orleans where they can teach and share their skills. I would love to see it grow into a bigger space when the time is right. And as long as there are people who want to learn, I just want to continue teaching.
Interview by Jo Weldon.
Jo Weldon, commonly known as Jo Boobs or Jo Boobs Weldon, is a performer, photographer, author, activist, educator, and essayist based in New York City. Weldon’s body of work centers around stripping and striptease. She established and runs the New York School of Burlesque and wrote The Burlesque Handbook, the first manual ever published on how to create classical and neo-burlesque routines. Weldon is active in the burlesque community, contributing her knowledge and experience to projects and collaborations. Though she now works in the theatrical world of burlesque Weldon has never lost the influence of, and inspiration from lap dancing and strip clubs. She continues to work as an advocate for sex worker rights and freedom of sexual expression.