“So I’m backstage, completely naked except for a G-string, and just before they open the curtain the costume lady whispers, ‘Stick your butt out!’ The curtain opens and a voice says, ‘Walk’.”
Today, lithe and vivacious dancers across the globe watch and wait for the legendary Parisian institution Crazy Horse Paris to announce auditions on Instagram. Before social media existed, Anna O’Keefe, a plucky teenager from New Zealand, walked in and asked for one. She would go on to become Roxy Tornado, arguably the most iconic, documented dancer in its 72 year history.
When the inexplicably titled Burlesque hit the big screen in 2010, Christina Aguilera performed one of Crazy Horse’s biggest hits, But I am a Good Girl, which attracted a generation of new fans keen to know its origin (much as Beyoncé’s Partition music video did, filmed at the club three years later). As always, the internet delivered. A captivating video rip of Roxy Tornado performing the number on a Crazy Horse DVD from the early 2000s went viral on YouTube, but the woman herself was nowhere to be found, elevated to mythological status.
I myself had watched the DVD countless times after seeing Crazy Horse’s Vegas residency La Femme at the MGM Grand in 2005, and found myself drawn to her in every scene. How often does a performer with that sort of god-given star quality come along, only to vanish into the ether?
In 2020, I finally tracked her down after a ten year search, and a Las Vegas to London late night call was arranged with mutual enthusiasm. I quickly discovered that Roxy Tornado was only the first act in a career beyond your wildest showgirl dreams…
Raised in a family of hairdressers, Anna started ballet at three and secured her first professional dance contract on a national tour at sixteen, swiftly followed by her first international engagement in Portugal.
“It was about the life of Fernando Pessoa, a famous Portuguese writer, and I played Ophelia, the love of his life,” she recalls fondly with spirited kiwi inflection.
“I just had too much spirit to be anything other than a soloist from day one. I couldn’t be a part of the friggin’ Rockettes, you know? A line of people on stage and they all look the same and do the same. It would kill me if I had to do that.”
It’s ironic that the production which really captured her imagination prides itself on just that, albeit with distinctive solo numbers.
“I know, I know, but I’d never, ever seen a show like that in my life. The first time I saw Crazy I told myself, ‘I’m going to be in this show.’” For the rest of her career, this simple affirmation would deliver whatever Anna set her sights on.
What of the infamous rituals and standards?
“At the audition they want to see you walk and improvise a little bit – see how your body moves, if you have sex appeal and personality. The costume lady was trying to help me out when I auditioned, making me adopt that iconic Crazy posture.
“All the girls had to be 100 percent natural – no implants. But when it came to your face, if they didn’t like it, you had to get your nose done. I knew a lot of girls that had their noses done because for Crazy it was really about the side profile on stage. Some also had their jaws done, just to make two faces more agreeable on stage, you know, but that was back when Alain Bernardin, the founder, was running things.” (This is not a requirement or expectation today, under the direction of Andrée Deissenberg.)
I question the body confidence required to perform nude on stage, even covered in the kaleidoscopic lighting.
“We had full body makeup on and painted triangles for modesty, with lights playing over our bodies, so I never felt vulnerable or naked. You felt like a piece of art on stage. But I’ve never had that ‘Oh, I wish my boobs were bigger, oh my God I wish my butt was bigger’ insecurity. I’m very lucky with that – maybe that’s just the way I was brought up. New Zealanders are really no-bullshit people. We’re comfortable in ourselves and can see through artifice.”
When Anna was hired, newcomers rehearsed individually before going on stage with seasoned dancers and rehearsing together. She quickly gained favour from the choreographer, Sofie, and was gifted the famous solo number that would define her career.
“I adored Sofie and she adored me, too, so that gave me a real chance to stand out. But I am a Good Girl had been created ten years before, and she told me she was bringing it back, just for me. She said I was a real dancer and had the feisty personality to pull it off. That’s how I got my name – Roxy Tornado.”
To this day, new dancers are given their Crazy Horse moniker before their first show begins as a ritual tradition. Before the days of Instagram and personal branding, dancers’ real names were a strict secret, adding to the intrigue and allure of the nymphs on Avenue George V.
“Crazy Horse was so protective of all of the girls. You had people writing to you and guys waiting to say ‘Hey, I’ve seen you on stage, marry me’. We each had a private taxi to take us home after the show, and we had to take our makeup off so no one could identify us. It kept us safe but added to the mystique too of course. We were heavenly creatures, you know, unattainable – we felt like that. We got treated with respect and so much prestige. And when someone came in to photograph or film us for something, no one was allowed to talk to us personally.”
Indeed, the press were eager to capture the enigmatic New Zealander on the hottest stage in Paris. Making use of her family profession, Anna eschewed the long hair and bangs typical of Crazy dancers and cut her hair into a pageboy bob, dying it wine red for good measure. As always, Anna couldn’t and wouldn’t blend into the chorus, and it made her iconic. Features in Vogue, Marie Claire and glossy coffee table books followed.
“We had such an awesome life,” Anna reminisces. “I had my apartment right by the Eiffel Tower and we had so many celebrities come to see us. Every Sunday, Prince had his own spot and would occasionally take us out after the show. I remember a few times going out with him in his limousine with the other girls, and we’d get to see his concert side stage before he drove us home. When we opened in Monaco, Prince Albert became quite a good friend of mine, too.”
The mentions of celebrity friends and guests never feels like affected name dropping, simply factual and fond, all in stride.
A Parisian in America
After residencies in Monaco, South America, Berlin and Brussels, a home at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas seemed a logical step for the showgirls of Crazy Horse, and Anna was one of the original cast.
For American audiences, though, there would have to be some changes.
“In Paris you have that intimate boxed stage with the curtain closed, then the music comes on and you see the trailer and the name of the first girl coming out. Your adrenaline builds, imagination runs wild. But they took these transitions out because the American audience didn’t have the attention span. It lost all of the unique things that I found so alluring about the show.”
Deciding she’d gone as far as she could with the Parisian cabaret, Anna auditioned for Ivan Kane’s Forty Deuce at Mandalay Bay – a popular club with professional dancers entertaining the crowd. She was promptly hired and offered what Anna calls “a pretty amazing salary” for one or two ten minute sets, four nights a week.
“I was a soloist again, totally in my element and creating my own thing. We had this amazing costume designer from Los Angeles designing all our costumes, and I actually got to perform in LA, for Sting and many other amazing people.”
The stint at Forty Deuce introduced Anna to the re-emerging world of Burlesque, through a Las Vegas lens at least.
“The first five minutes were slow; I’d take my beautiful costume off until I was down to my shaky pants, and then dance it up with a live, three piece jazz band. That’s the closest to a burlesque dancer I’ve ever been, and I loved it – I was really at my happiest there.”
I posit that if she decided to put a fully fledged burlesque act together and join the scene, she’d be an overnight sensation, but she’s clear that she’s never felt pulled in that direction.
Then elite circus powerhouse Cirque du Soleil came calling, impressed with her performance at Forty Deuce and hoping to recruit her for their erotic variety offering, Zumanity. Anna liked the number they wanted her for and agreed to a private audition.
“I actually got the job, but decided to turn it down. They came back to me and said, ‘What do you want? We’ll offer you more money.’ I actually turned them down again because I was so happy at Forty, but nightclubs have a lifespan, and eventually we got notice it would close.”
When the artistic director of Zumanity himself came to the club and offered her a contract on her terms, Anna found herself headed to Montreal for training.
Was she conscious of the fact she was signing on with another company which, like Crazy Horse, operates on mythology and ritual, not to mention a strict environment and uncompromising standards?
“Zumanity was definitely the closest Cirque ever got to a sexy cabaret of that kind, but it’s a whole other ballgame; I had to work my ass off to maintain the standard they demanded. At first I thought, oh awesome, I’m going to be in a Cirque du Soleil show with my own solos, wow! It quickly hit me how hard it was going to be.
“I was in the best condition I’d ever been in thanks to the rigorous training, though. You have to be top level.”
After nine years in the Cirque machine, Anna fell out of love.
“It was a brilliant experience and I learnt so much. But when you’re in a corporation, you can be replaced at any point, no matter who you are. They never let you forget that, but they expect you to give up your whole life to it all the same.
“You’re doing ten shows a week, dance classes on Monday, Pilates on Tuesdays, hours in hair and makeup. And on your days off, you just die. You can’t do anything else. I felt that in my body towards the end, and didn’t like the way they were treating people. It’s a corporate company, you’re the robots, and there’s always the underlying threat that if you get injured too often, you’ll get fired. I never felt that I was replaceable at Crazy. I always felt cherished and valued, even doing seven days a week and three shows on Saturday.”
Love and Yoga
Mind made up, Anna decided to pivot completely and undertake a two hundred hour yoga training with some other Cirque dancers who also wanted to transition.
“I found the yoga enthusiasts in the company quite snobby and superior and they couldn’t even touch their toes, so I thought they were just posturing and it would be so easy for me. In reality, holy fuck, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do! You really have to commit yourself.”
During the training she met her future husband, Mark Balfe-Taylor, an Olympic level instructor. When Covid came calling, their shared vision for the future materialised.
“Mark got tired of the corporate side of his work and the way people were treated, and he’s not the type of character to put up with all that for long. So like a lot of people in the pandemic we thought, ‘you know what, let’s start our own company’.”
After performing non-stop for over two decades, the Covid restrictions and subsequent dark stages were challenging.
“There were days when I just didn’t feel complete because I wasn’t on stage. People had plans for smaller shows in Vegas to build things up again – try to get them into casinos – but it all felt very uncertain. And I become an overnight stepmom to Mark’s young boys.
“It was hard at the start, especially as I’ve never wanted my own children, but I love them now. I’ve developed my own relationship with them.”
How can performers find or develop the extraordinary confidence and conviction that comes so naturally to her, I ask. Anna puts it down to nature, but with the opportunity to nurture a strong mindset.
“You can find the most amazing dancer on the planet, put them on stage, and they have no stage presence. That’s the most important thing. And in this genre you can have stage presence but not the sexuality or mystique that captures people. It’s a glow, an authenticity that just shines out of you that can’t be taught. I’ve tried to bring it out of people and sometimes you unlock something, but often it just isn’t there.
“That said, you’ll get a long way by just being yourself and doing things for you – not for other people. Get fit and strong by doing an activity you resonate with, be it fitness, yoga, or sport, and surround yourself with like-minded people.
“You’ll encounter a lot of negativity in this industry – jealous people who will find your confidence intimidating and challenge it. I’ve been around this my whole life. It may seem I’ve had everything handed to me on a plate, but I looked for it and asked for it, believed it would be mine without hesitation. So I’ve had everything pretty easy every step of the way by following my heart and intuition.”
As we wrap up almost three hours of conversation, Anna pauses and adds one final thought.
“Be an artist. Be original, break the rules, break out of the box. I don’t give a damn what people think of me – I simply don’t have time. And neither do you.”
Anna and Mark Balfe-Taylor open their studio, Insurgence Hot Yoga, in September 2024. They will host a retreat in Costa Rica at Bodhi Tree from October 28 – November 2nd 2023. You can follow Anna on her personal Instagram.