Victoria Markovna sexifies everything. We’re warming up for class with ass-in-the-air pushups, and she encourages us to give ourselves come hither looks in the mirror while we do. Five minutes ago, when she arrived on the scene and stood in front of the room to explain the history of burlesque, I thought, Her? Burlesque? Her face looked too sweet, her hair too blond, her look too all-American to embody the dark-haired ’40s pinup girl I’d come to associate with San Diego burlesque. But when she gets on the floor to demonstrate what she calls the “burlesque pushup,” her sexy comes out full force, and because I’m here to embrace my sexy, I get on the floor and do it, too.
My fascination with burlesque started with Dottie Deville, a local dancer whose short-waisted, curvy body resembles my own, and whose You-wish-you-could-have-some-of-this manner (on- and off-stage) exemplifies the way I want to feel about myself. In one YouTube video from a December 2012 show at Bar Eleven, not only does Deville turn a bare and dimpled bottom to the audience, she also uses her fingers to wiggle it for their delight. I consider that performance a fist-in-the-air triumph for curvy, dimple-bottomed women everywhere. It was because of Deville that I decided to give up my exhausting desperation for a skinny, airbrushed butt and opt instead to love (and flaunt) what the good Lord gave me.
Besides her body confidence, the five-foot-tall former preschool teacher has a wild side that appeals to my inner bad girl. Even within the already-risqué world of burlesque dancing, Deville adds a touch more raunchiness with her signature bump-and-grind style. In each performance, just when the audience begins to settle in to her excruciatingly slow ladylike glove-peel, she’ll suddenly get down and dirty.
“I’m pretty sure I was a drag queen in my last life,” she tells me, letting loose a gleeful laugh. “I want my name to be in people’s minds.”
It’s a warm Thursday in April, weeks after my first burlesque class. Deville and I are sitting in the lushly landscaped backyard of her mother’s house, in that westernmost part of City Heights that some like to call East North Park. Deville has just returned from performing at a birthday party in Las Vegas. Two days from now, she’ll perform at the High Seas Tease fundraising event aboard the Hornblower yacht. Dressed in a summery denim jumpsuit and bearing her signature red lipstick and winged eyeliner, she sits curled up on a wooden bench.
“I have no filter,” she says. “It’s probably good for a journalist like you.”
Thus begins a conversation in which she schools me on all things burlesque. We start with pasties.
“Pasties are pretty much what we have to wear, or else we’ll get fined,” she says. “We are not exotic dancers.”
What Deville calls “exotic dancers” are defined by the San Diego Police Department as “Adult Entertainers” and “Outcall Nude Entertainers,” both of which provide nude entertainment. These entertainers must submit an application, sign a statement of understanding, get fingerprinted, provide identification, and pay up to $344 in fees.
“Sometimes we have to cover underboob, too,” says Deville. “If you’re at a venue that has windows, you have to cover your underboob. To do that, you just get an underwire bra and cut out the cup. Or you can wear a demi-bra.”
But pasties are necessary for any venue.
“They’re nipple covers, pretty much,” she says. “Most of the girls make them themselves. They’re super easy to make. You just kind of figure out your size. A lot of girls will take a [coffee cup or a juice glass] and felt or any fabric. You put the cup on the fabric, draw a circle around it, and cut that out. Then you cut a straight line to the middle [of the circle] and fold it over. And if you want to put a tassel on it, you hot-glue a tassel in the middle.”
Deville is ready and eager to answer my question about how to make the pasties stick. She leans forward, punctuating how amazing her simple trick is with a dramatic flat-palmed gesticulation.
“The best way,” she says with slow emphasis, “is with toupée tape.” Then her voice picks up speed. “Double-sided tape sometimes works. Carpet tape hurts really bad to get off, so don’t use that.”
Sometimes, things go wrong.
“On New Year’s Eve last year, I was upside down, tassel-twirling, and [one pastie] flew off. Luckily, it was at the end of the act. But I also had my boa on, and a piece of the boa, a feather, stuck to the tape. So, I was good to go.”
Deville sometimes buys rather than makes her pasties. The best place to go, she says, is Etsy, the one-stop online shop for all things crafty. (Later, a quick search for “pasties” on the Etsy website will yield 2203 results, and I’ll find everything from Hello Kitty pasties to “pot leaf Rasta” and “rhinestone penis” versions, ranging in price from $4 for self-adhesive glitter paper to $180 for Swarovski crystals).
The most Deville has paid is $50, for a pair decorated with rhinestones.
“I only use them for special occasions, because if [one does] come off, someone’s probably going to take it. Most people know the rule of a burlesque show is that, if an article comes flying off, you make sure you give it back to [the dancer], but sometimes that doesn’t happen.”
Don’t look, Dad
In 2010, Deville was working as a preschool teacher when a parent of one of her students told her she should audition with the Hell on Heels Burlesque Revue. She did, and landed the gig then and there. For her first year with the troupe, she kept the preschool job. She didn’t hide the side job; some of her classroom parents even came to her shows.
It has, Deville says, been her mission in life to push the envelope.
“I was always the rebel. My mom is a dean at a university. She wanted me to keep teaching, but she always knew I was going to be in the spotlight, doing something like this that would make her shake her head.”
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.”
And, yet, she informs me, “Burlesque doesn’t usually pay very much. So I’m not really doing burlesque for the money, to be honest.”
Unlike other local dancers I’ve met, Martin is able to pay the rent and feed herself without a full-time job outside her industry. She attributes this not to burlesque, but to her arsenal of other talents.
“A lot of times, other burlesque dancers ask me how I sustain myself, I tell them it’s because I’m so versatile with the skills I can provide. I make more money doing corporate gigs, but it’s usually not burlesque. It’s more fire-dancing or hooping or belly-dancing. I do the other art forms because I love them, as well, but that’s the stuff that actually pays.”
She makes money through these other talents not just in performance, but by teaching classes every night of the week at Mission Valley YMCA, Aerial Revolution, Dance Place, Cuyamaca College, and UCSD. She also makes hula hoops out of irrigation tubing and sparkly tape and sells them through her website.
“I also keep getting retirement-community gigs,” she says, laughing.
Even with a life built around performing, Martin claims that the most challenging aspect of what she does is “working really hard and not making that much money.”
Although she is able to sustain herself and her business, most of what she makes goes back into the business of running her business. Last week, she sent in two videos with her application to compete at the Burlesque Hall of Fame, an event that takes place in Las Vegas and that the London Daily Mirror called “the Striptease Olympics.” In preparation, she rehearsed an hour a day for nearly two months for her solo act, and two hours a day twice a week for the group-act submission. She paid $200 for a new costume for one of the videos and a $30 fee per video as part of the application process. At the end of May, she’ll also have the expense of getting to, and staying in, Las Vegas for the event.
Martin refuses to reveal how much money she spends or makes on large productions such as her Burlesque Circus, but she does say, “You sometimes spend as much on a costume as you make to do a show.”
Lola Demure, a former ballerina gone rogue who also produces burlesque shows, is a bit more forthcoming about the cost. She won’t say what Sunset Temple charges to host her annual Breaking the Chains fundraiser (which benefits autism research), but she estimates lighting at $100–$200, flier design and printing at $100 and $200, respectively. Then there are the costs for sound and for water, alcohol, and snacks for the dancers (who donate their time). Because this is a charity event, all expenses come out-of-pocket. This year, two small-scale fundraisers (a pinup-girl carwash that brought in $300 and a “mini VIP show” that brought in $1100) helped offset those costs. Demure’s 2012 autism event raised $3000. This year, she doubled that.
The growing market for performances in San Diego has proven, as Martin suggests, both a blessing and a burden within the burlesque community. This was evident in “the schism” of late 2012, when all but one of ten dancers sent their resignations in to the management of Hell on Heels Burlesque Revue, a local troupe that’s been around since 2004.
Martini Bombshell says of burlesque, “It still is taking your clothes off, no matter how glamorous or artistic it is.”
Image by Howie Rosen
Martini Bombshell, the troupe’s co-manager, tells me the story over a plate of hummus at, yes, Café Cabaret in Normal Heights. The hummus has caused the disappearance of much of her bright red lipstick — except for what had been painted on outside the official boundary of her lips — but the 30-year-old has come decked out in a leopard-print skirt and a black, fur-collared shirt with oversized 1940s victory rolls standing up stiffly from her crown. So, the better portion of her pinup-girl uniform remains intact.
When she first sat down, Bombshell was vague about the group’s split, citing “artistic differences,” but, eventually, she begins to offer more, explaining that some of the girls wanted to take advantage of the increase in performance opportunities.
Traditionally, Hell on Heels produces and performs three big shows each year, one on Valentine’s Day, one in the late spring, and one in the late summer/early fall.
“As a rule,” Bombshell says, “because this is not our full-time job and because we have personal lives and families and school or whatnot, after our big end-of-summer show, we take October, November, and December off [performance-wise]. It’s been that way since the  inception of Hell on Heels.”
During those winter months, the troupe would accept paid private gigs, but they would not produce any of their own shows. At the three-hour meeting, the dissenters had presented ideas and opportunities for the troupe to join up with emerging production companies. But management wasn’t interested.
“There were some things that sounded really awesome, artistically, but I’m too old to do it just for artistic purposes anymore. I’m not 23. I don’t have time for that. Time is money,” she says sharply. “And we all sat around and had a big discussion, and we thought we had it all worked out, so we started planning toward our February show, like usual. Then, a couple of weeks later, I received a letter of resignation.”
Although her voice takes on an indignant edge, she smiles as she pushes the hummus plate away from her, toward the edge of the table.
“I thought we’d all worked it out, so it did come as a surprise,” she says. “And then it came as even more of a surprise when I found out they’d started a new troupe. I thought maybe they just all wanted to go solo.”
Aside from the stage kitten (the “right-hand girl” in a burlesque troupe, responsible for, among other duties, tracking and retrieving every article of clothing that comes off during a show) and the owner, neither of whom dance in the shows, Bombshell was the only dancer not involved in the exodus.
But, as it must do, the show went on. The Hell on Heels Valentine’s Day performance featured Martini Bombshell and four new-to-the-troupe dancers.
Martini Bombshell discusses burlesque.
Drop Dead Dames
Onstage at the Burlesque Circus Friday-night show, Dottie Deville, Ginger N. Whiskey, and four other ladies cloaked in fur coats and wearing sheer black stockings, dance to the tune of “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” by Don Redman and his Orchestra. On a “hammock” suspended above them, a young “man” (it’s a girl) in shiny red tights and a striped shirt performs circus tricks. The dancers, bedazzled in 1920s-style hair and makeup, employ vaudevillian facial expressions and the hyper-dramatized movements of silent-movie performers while they dance and “peel.”
First, the coats come off to reveal high-waisted lacy-panty shorts, stockings held up with green lace garters, and black bras edged in the same green lace. Eventually, the bras come off, too, and the ladies flaunt and shake their shiny pasties at the audience.
These are the Drop Dead Dames, the troupe started by the former members of Hell on Heels.
“Hell on Heels has asked me to be part of their shows as a guest performer before,” Valentina Martin tells me. “Because of that, I really wanted to reciprocate and ask them to be part of my show [the Burlesque Circus], and I was planning on asking them, but then all of the performers left them. So then I ended up asking the new troupe to perform. It wasn’t the organizer of Hell on Heels that I wanted to be in my show, it was the performers. So now the Drop Dead Dames are in my show.”
While the schism wasn’t big news in the wide world, within San Diego’s burlesque community, it was a big deal that some are still shaking their heads over. For Deville, the impact was more than mere gossip or politics; it was personal.
When she first started with Hell on Heels, she says, “the girls instantly became my best friends.” But after the split, “it was really hard for me, because [Martini Bombshell] was my best friend, and she just stopped talking to me.”
For Ginger N. Whiskey, former co-owner of Hell on Heels and current co-owner of Drop Dead Dames, the split brought a new set of responsibilities.
For one, all the group numbers Whiskey created as the choreographer for Hell on Heels belong to her former troupe, so she’s had to start over with brand-new choreography. Fortunately, each girl owns her solo acts — usually two per show are done — so the group has had enough material to get started. Although Whiskey created a brief group finale for the Valentine’s Day show, the number they performed together at the Burlesque Circus was their first full-group act.
Because her former troupe produces all their shows at Brick by Brick in Linda Vista, Whiskey never had to deal with booking. These days, she’s finding it harder than she’d imagined. Although many burlesque shows can and do happen in dive bars, it’s not always a comfortable setting for the dancers.
“We love dive bars,” Whiskey says. “They can make for a fun night — if it’s the right crowd. But some people don’t want to stand, or they can’t stand all night, and they want an earlier show. We want to do shows that more people can attend, not just the 20-to-30-something crowd.”
The Valentine’s Day performance at Queen Bee’s was, she says, a luxury that the troupe wants more of. The stage is big enough and high enough that people in the back can see, but not too high. The Drop Dead Dames would love to make the place their home base.
“There’s a limited supply of theaters, and places that can serve alcohol through the show,” Whiskey says. “Right now, opportunities are greater. If there’s more interest, then there are going to be more people booking burlesque dancers, but as far as venues go, that’s still always a challenge, finding a good venue.”
My husband has a shotgun
“Up front, it looks like all we do is bathe in diamonds and glitter,” Deville tells me. “But we spend every dime we have on our costumes and we’re out pretty much every day rehearsing.”
I’m a little bummed to hear this, but I think I could handle it — I’m still engaged in fantasies of making my debut as a burlesque dancer and gracing the stage with Deville.
Then she mentions the prep time, which she estimates at five hours prior to shows.
“Drop Dead Dames is all about traditional-style burlesque, like the ’50s,” she says. “You need your hair set in the correct time period — victory rolls or whatever kind of vintage style. You have to use the right makeup, eyelashes, costumes, just prepping altogether, you know?”
Not ideal, I think, but I’m still game. Until she brings up the creep factor.
“It’s all Facebook stuff, like, crazy messages. I’ve had a guy ask me to fly to Russia with him and be his, pretty much a sex slave, and he would support me. That was a good one. I’ve had a lot of swingers, couples, message me about coming to their parties. Just weird things. I don’t respond to them.”
In person, she says, those kinds of people don’t tend to be at the shows, and if they are, they don’t make themselves known.
Lola Demure has received creepy messages on Facebook, requesting “casual encounters and ménage à trois.”
Lola Demure affirms this. She, too, has received creepy messages on Facebook, requesting “a casual encounter or a ménage à trois.” But the shows, she says, don’t draw that kind of ick factor.
“It’s not a strip club. It’s not vulgar. I feel like burlesque is more sensual than sexual. With a burlesque show, you’re going to get people that appreciate — ” She pauses. “Sure, they want to see the titties, but it’s not vulgar. Sure, you’ll get the occasional creepy guy. But if they’re being creepy, they’re going to get kicked out, and they’re going to get banned. And if that person’s ever seen again, they’re not going to be allowed in. But at a strip club, anybody can go in.”
And, she assures me, “We’re very well protected. Not many of us are single. Our husbands or boyfriends are at every show, and if there’s a problem, you can get any one of them and they will be there in a heartbeat.”
As for being afraid of someone following her home, she says, “They can try. My husband has a shotgun.”
My (very) short burlesque career
In the end, my burlesque dance class will turn out to be more Beyoncé than Gypsy Rose Lee. Our sexified pushups will lead to a lot of I’m-so-sexy hair-rubbing and I’m-so-fierce strong-walking across the studio. When I leave, I’ll go home and watch Burlesque, the movie, by which my instructor swears. But within a few days, Valentina Martin, Ginger N. Whiskey, and Lola Demure will all, at different times, tell me that the Christina Aguilera movie is responsible for the dilution of the art of burlesque.
“Burlesque is about the striptease,” Demure will say. “If they’re not taking their clothes off, it’s not burlesque.”
But for now, I’m oblivious to everything I’m about to learn, both in this room and out, having come only with the intention of learning to accept, embrace, and then flaunt this not-skinny, almost-40-year-old body. As of this moment, I have seen but not yet spoken to Deville, and I still believe I might spend the next few years of my life as a famous burlesque dancer bathing in diamonds and glitter.
And yet, already, the moment I begin performing ass-in-the-air pushups (clothed in yoga pants and an oversized shirt) and smirking at myself in the mirror, I ask myself what the hell made me think this was a good idea. There are, I’m sure, other ways I can learn to love what the good Lord (and donuts) gave me.
For more on this article, read author Elizabeth Salaam's Backstory