As big a personality as Deville has, and as much as she loves performing, she didn’t peel down to pasties for her first three shows.
“In the beginning, my parents went to every show, and I don’t think I was ready to do that yet. I’m over that stage fright now.”
The first time she did peel all the way down, it was during a Betty Boop act in which she wore a dress, a slip, a bra, and red-star pasties with black tassels. The experience, as she recalls it now, was less scary, more exhilarating.
“I was just, like, ‘Yeah! I did it!’” She raises her arms in the air.
Three years later, Deville still experiences firsts onstage. Although her mother attends the occasional show, she usually remains near the rear of the venue, but this past February, at the Drop Dead Dames Burlesque Review’s Valentine’s show, she sat in the front row.
“I could see her face the whole time,” Deville says, laughing. “Her face was just in shock.”
Not all dancers have the courage to share their burlesque lives with their parents or their bosses or their colleagues. “Closet” dancers are common within the burlesque community.
Martini Bombshell, of Hell on Heels, is one of those. The 30-year-old dancer lives with her parents and has to lie about where she’s going when she heads off to rehearsal or a show.
“When I first started doing burlesque, they were aware of what I was doing,” Bombshell says. But then, following a personal issue that she refuses to discuss, her parents were no longer onboard. “Bottom line, it still is taking your clothes off, no matter how glamorous or artistic it is. And, basically, my mom is, like, ‘You can be doing better things with your time and money.’”
Bombshell doesn’t hide or disguise herself in photos or videos. She’s fairly sure her parents won’t find out about her “other life.”
“We don’t run in the same circles,” she says.
Then there are the parents who, like Deville’s mother, tolerantly support their daughters’ burlesque dreams. Ginger N. Whiskey, co-owner of Drop Dead Dames and a friend of Deville’s, says her mom helps make her costumes and, although they live in Los Angeles, both parents come to every show they can.
“My dad will come down, but he doesn’t watch me,” she says. “He’s technically legally blind, so he’ll take off his glasses when I perform, so he doesn’t have to see me strip.”
Circus skills pay more than burlesque
These days, the word “burlesque” pops up on event fliers and class schedules at dance schools all over San Diego. During the week of Valentine’s Day, America’s Finest City saw an abundance of burlesque performances: Drop Dead Dames at Queen Bee’s, Lola Demure and her Blue Note Burlesque dancers at Jimmy Love’s, Hell on Heels at Brick by Brick, and Keyhole Cabaret at Quality Social. Burlesque classes abound, as well, at Ooh La La Dance Academy, Culture Shock Dance Center, and, yes, at Pole Sinsations.
At 9:30 p.m. on a Monday night, 27-year-old Valentina Martin and three other dancers don long satin skirts, heels, and tank tops to practice the can-can dance in Studio 1 at the Mission Valley YMCA. Eight or nine other dancers in yoga pants sit on the floor near a side wall of mirrors, talking and laughing.
Image by Howie Rosen
“Hey, girls,” Martin calls to them. “I need you to be a little quieter, so they can hear me.”
The talking quiets down some, and Martin returns to the task at hand: rehearsing (and overseeing the rehearsal of) a high-energy dance number that begins with corsets and these long skirts — and ends with panties and pasties. Some of the girls on the side wall have just finished rehearsing a space-y dance number involving hula hoops; the rest are awaiting their flapper number. It’s going to be a long night.
This is the final week before the Burlesque Circus, a two-night performance at Sunset Temple in North Park that involves trapezes, hoops, fire, sequins, G-strings, and lots of “peeling” (clothing removal). There will be 16 acts, performed by troupes and artists from San Diego, Los Angeles, and Paris. Martin is head honcho.
“The burlesque scene is blowing up in San Diego right now,” Martin tells me two days later. “I think it’s good and it’s bad.”
We’re sitting in her bedroom off the living room, in a clean-but-run-down house on El Cajon Boulevard that she shares with two other burlesque performers. I’m in a chair. Martin sits on the edge of a twin bed covered with a bright yellow, blue, and green comforter printed with giant butterflies. On the wall behind her hangs a tapestry featuring a belly dancer, men in turbans, a hookah, and palm fronds. A glass terrarium on the floor houses her pet snake Manasa, named after the Hindu goddess of snakes.
“People are coming out onto the burlesque scene saying they’re burlesque performers, but they’re not actually doing real burlesque. A lot of times, when people think of burlesque, they’re really just thinking about cabaret, which is, like, sexy dancing to jazz or blues with, like, lingerie on. Burlesque is all of that with clothing removal, but it also has a theatrical element and tells a story. It’s crazy, because it’s happening a lot now. There are all kinds of clubs downtown that are claiming they have burlesque performers, when it’s really just glorified go-go dancing.”
This video of Valentina Martin and her troupe won them acceptance to compete at the upcoming Burlesque Hall of Fame competition in Las Vegas.
On the plus side, as a dancer and producer of burlesque-themed shows herself, the popularity of the genre provides opportunities. Martin is primed to take advantage — her Burlesque Circus will sell out both nights.
She only does a couple of big shows a year because, she says, “It [requires] such a huge outpouring of energy.”
She has plenty of performance opportunities in between. In March and April, she’ll participate in two events produced by other local dancers: Breaking the Chains and the High Seas Tease. In addition, she teaches a series of six- to eight-week burlesque workshops for amateurs out of a studio she rents at Dance Place San Diego. This summer, she’s planning a three-month-long, cross-country workshop tour with her new beau, who happens to be “Male [Hula] Hooper of the Year.”