I find it fitting to begin the dive into the five hour plus Tournament of Tease marathon with the category of Best Debut. It is always bursting with the kind of fresh energy that immediately enchants the audience, with a diverse mixture of new talent ready to dazzle on that infamous stage in the Orleans showroom.
The Best Debut category tends to contain acts that cover a greater breadth of styles and influences than that of Miss Exotic World, and perhaps that is partly why it is always such a thrilling and unexpected watch. This year’s lineup featured nine performers, ranging from the US, Canada and Europe, all of whom proved that this category never lacks unique and dynamic new voices in burlesque.
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Best Debut’s opening act featured the powerhouse vocals of Kiki La Chanteuse (San Francisco, CA). With a booming a capella, Kiki delivered a soulful rendition of The House of the Rising Sun. Her voice soared through the auditorium, holding the entire crowd under her sway. Even when her voice wavered ever so slightly, Kiki herself never did. Her flowing costume reflected classic New Orleans themes and colours of purple, gold and green.
She sauntered downstage and remained at the edge for prolonged moments, projecting her energy deep into the showroom. The shining stars of the act were Kiki’s vocals and commanding stage presence. Both had me deeply engrossed, but wishing for more thoughtfulness in her striptease overall, which at times felt secondary in her approach to the act. Kiki ended her performance with the same level of intensity and heart as she began, and it earned her a rousing standing ovation from the crowd.
Next up was the limber Dahlia Fatale (Chicago, IL). Statuesquely posed at centre stage, she gleamed and sparkled in her shimmering black and gold mermaid gown when the lights came up. As the pulsing violins in her music began to build, she remained still, melting us all with her eyes. She began to work her way out of that beautiful gown as the music built faster and faster, and by the end my insides were screaming, “TAKE IT OFF NOW!”
Once out of her dress, Dahlia’s energy was dialed to ten as she began a fast-paced contortion routine. She worked her way downstage, slithering slowly in alternating side splits. While her contortion work was definitely impressive, this section felt slightly rushed; I yearned to regain the palpable connection she established during the act’s opening.
I believe the subtle trick with skill acts is to hold the balance of showing versus connecting, and Dahlia demonstrated this deft practice very well with her final removal. The music slowed to a simmer. From the floor, she arched her back to slowly undo her bra, twisting around to look at the audience, and finally allowed the bra to slide from her body, all whilst in a gorgeous forearm stand pose. It was the perfect marriage of her skill and the art of striptease, creating an ultra-satisfying reveal.
Following Dahlia was Pepper Grinds (Cape Cod, MA), with a delightfully campy cowgirl routine. Pepper started off her act in full western wear, moving energetically around the stage, obviously having all the fun in the world and inviting us to join her.
Her prop-gun shoot-out was creatively crafted to pop off bits of her costume, while she pantomimed a stage fight. This added great levity to the unique striptease moments and an extra layer of narrative to the act. However, given the current state of gun violence in the United States, I do feel it important to remind anyone to use great care and concern when choosing to incorporate prop weapons in an act. Traditionally, prop-guns should be tipped with orange and should never be pointed at an audience.
When her music transitioned to American Woman, Pepper continued to dial-up the energy, leaning into the audience’s familiarity with the music. While Pepper Grinds was having fun and was in the moment, I wanted to see more refinement in the second half of her act, considering its strong opening.
Transitioning us from camp to bawdy bump ‘n’ grind was Força (Toronto, ON), who reminded us that well-executed classic burlesque never goes out of style. Beginning her piece in a smoldering sapphire blue gown and matching Star boa, Força confidently strode across the stage, hitting her marks with traditional bumps and grinds, while blasting us all with grindhouse facial expressions for maximum GRRR impact.
Her smart musicality was strongly emphasised by her standard jazz music choices, and Força utilized her costume well. However, I did find myself disconnecting with her choice to turn full profile throughout her act. I desperately wanted to see more interaction with that delicious boa.
What I found particularly engaging was the humour she mixed in with the obvious sex appeal of her striptease. She didn’t merely perform a glove peel, but milked the moment by toying with a limp phallus. It was delightful to see a strip that not only oozed sex, but also brought us laughter, which is a much harder thing to accomplish.
Kitson Sass (Minneapolis, MN), brought the audience another skill-based routine with a bewitching lyra piece. Entering the stage in a dramatic black costume, she spent a few moments on the ground before taking to the air, spinning the fabric of her flowing skirt to create striking shapes that trailed behind her. Balancing her back on the lyra, she began beating her legs until finally the skirt softly slid from her body and fluttered to the ground below.
Kitson transitioned effortlessly into different poses on her lyra. She was liquid, slipping in and around her apparatus, precisely contorting into gorgeous poses while her dazzling encrusted crystal costuming refracted just about every light in the showroom. However, while she demonstrated impressive aerial skills, I wished there was a stronger harmony with burlesque because the skirt reveal was such a powerful moment earlier on in her act.
Bringing us back to the world of classic burlesque, Lady Lola LeStrange (Austin, TX), known as ‘The Rear and Present Danger’, served us a lively routine. Starting off with a big strut that dominated the stage, Lady Lola LeStrange opened with Shivas Regal, hitting every beat as she made her way from stage right to stage left. Twirling her mini pink and blue skirt, she effused joy as she sassed the audience with skirt flicks and glove tosses, never lingering too long in one place.
By the time her music morphed into a whimsical lounge cover of Baby Got Back, I was definitely buying what Lola was selling. Her character never wavered and even made corset unlacing fun and sharp with crisp timing.
With such a strong presence throughout, I felt her falter slightly as she went to the floor for the finale, and wondered if it was even necessary. Overall, though, it was such a joy to watch her deliver such a polished and fun act fused with so much charisma.
Next up, we saw Holly’s Good (Rome, Italy) take the stage, looking every bit the classic Las Vegas showgirl. With a luxurious mint ostrich boa bustle draped around her waist, coupled with bejeweled and fully embellished lingerie, she radiated grace as she walked and spun around the stage, slowly peeling away her feather-trimmed gloves, followed by her bustle.
Though I wanted her to emote and connect more throughout her piece, Holly brought a polished, classic act with a touch of naughty and old-school tongue-in-cheek vibe. Towards the middle of her act, she ever so slowly slid into a middle split. This created a fantastic moment of playfulness with the audience that carried on throughout her floorwork.
Gracing the penultimate spot in the Best Debut category was ‘The Them Fatale of Burlesque’, Moscato Extatique (Seattle, WA). They instantly caught my attention with their gorgeous pink structured circle-skirt. This was accentuated by the yellow detail in the bodice of the costume with a shifting black outline that reminded me of a butterfly’s wings. As their voluminous skirt twirled effortlessly around the stage, I was struck by the gorgeous lines it created.
Moscato began as a serious dancer, but as they stripped the layers down, they utilised key moments in the song to show both humour and heart. Though there were some parts where I felt that they were performing at us, those were fleeting, as Moscato made full use of the infamously large Orleans stage, and earned a spirited standing ovation upon the striking of their final pose.
Closing out the category was Emma D’Lemma (Dallas, TX), known as ‘The Pint Sized Powerhouse’. She appeared in sparkling black heels and cutoff denim shorts, creating poignancy before she moved to her aerial apparatus: a corde lisse (rope). I particularly enjoyed how she made the audience wait for the inevitable climb, choosing to linger on the ground teasingly and build tension. And finally, when she was in the air – in heels no less – her combination of grace and pure power paired well with the driving percussive beat of her music, Do I Wanna Know by the Arctic Monkeys.
There was a brief moment of struggle with her shorts while on the corde lisse, but otherwise Emma was unflappable. She deftly transitioned on the rope between reveals as the act progressed. Her delivery was smooth, with an emphasis on her incredible strength and expertise.
Once again, I was thrilled to see the diversity of style in each act, as fresh new talent and creativity was revealed on the Burlesque Hall of Fame stage. Many congratulations to the winner of Best Debut, Dahlia Fatale, and to Holly’s Good for taking home Most Classic!
Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.