Burlesque artist Essence Revealed tells us all about her first trip to the Burlesque Hall of Fame weekend and meeting Ms Jean Idelle…
2012 marks the year of my first Burlesque Hall of Fame (BHOF) Weekend in Las Vegas. I’ve never had so many women show me their boobs over one weekend in my life! The Orleans Hotel & Casino was over run by feathers, crystals, creativity and glitz galore. I mostly wore jeans while watching it all unfold and disrobe. The absolute highlight of my weekend was being one of Ms. Jean Idelle’s volunteer escorts along with Chicava HoneyChild.
Ms. Idelle was inducted into the Burlesque Hall of Fame as a Legend during this year’s festivities. Taking to the stage for the first time since 1958 she was accompanied by her signature sized feather fans. Watching her work her fans and command the stage caused goose bumps. She was charming and a sweet delight to speak with. She shared stories about her experiences being one of the only burlesque dancers of colour on the Minsky circuit. She encouraged us to dance and travel.
Her tag line, The Sepia Sally Rand, was given to her when she was groomed to be a fan dancer for Minsky’s circuit in the 50s and 60s. The ladies of her day earned the equivalent of two to three hundred thousand dollars a year today. Though some burlesque dancers of the time travelled to Europe, Ms. Idelle did not, working throughout the US and Canada. Now in her 80s, she still dreams of seeing The City of Lights. She mentioned several times over the course of the weekend her desire to go to Paris. If anyone would like to host Ms. Idelle and her entourage to Paris, it would be such a treat to see her realize this dream.
I had the opportunity of first meeting her at my troupe’s, Brown Girl’s Burlesque (BGB), (www.browngirlsburlesque.com), BHOF’s Legend Challenge Fundraiser in New York this spring. BHOF holds fundraisers nationwide to assist legends in getting to BHOF each year. I was extremely nervous that a classical legend was going to be introduced to neo-burlesque by one of our generation’s most provocative performers, Tigger! He’s the manager of the BHOF Legend’s programme and BGB was thrilled to have him MC our fundraiser. But what would Ms. Idelle think of his Tawny act? This character is a hilarious and loveable hot steamy transvestite mess of show girl past. Needless to say, we started the show with an exciting bang. Do you know what? She loved it! She loved everything!!! The freedom and diversity we had to do so many different things as burlesque performers was a stark contrast to the many rules and guidelines of her day. Just look at what women can create with freedom, she quipped.
Having had this orientation she was ready for Burlesque-a-palooza 2012. Throughout the weekend she had entourage. Based on her stories this is something she is quite used to. The Minskys provided her with police escorts as one of their performers. This is especially true for a trail blazer like Ms. Idelle, a pioneer for performing in all white spaces. She said they took extra care to protect her. The legends all told us they were not allowed to go to after parties or have anyone in their hotel rooms. Both of her sons were with her every step of the way the entire BHOF weekend. In addition to her sons she had Chicava HoneyChild and I making sure she got to her appointments with ease. This lady had many appointments too! She was a delight to everyone she met and signed autographed photos for the entire weekend. She was informative and funny in her fan dance workshop. She demonstrated a way of holding fans I have never seen done before. During her tech rehearsal, it became abundantly clear that being onstage was indeed like riding a bike for her.
Getting her from one appointment to the next was sometimes a challenge. She was being stopped every few steps and took the time to talk to everyone. In addition to the usual BHOF events, she was also interviewed for NBC 3 Los Vegas television news programme (http://www.mynews3.com/mostpopular/story/Burlesque-dancer-82-takes-the-stage-one-more-time/ZUB8KN8zGEqFfyUH6fRK0A.cspx). Part of the interview was done in her dressing room as we helped her dress for her highly anticipated return to the stage. She was a study in humble wit and confidence.
It was a special treat to experience her backstage before and after her performance. Beforehand she chose to be backstage even though she was closing out the show. It was special to be able to see her work her fans with ease (http://youtu.be/wFG1MMuib6M) during impromptu interviews and photo ops. I thought that I learned that muscle memory fades after forty-eight hours. Clearly it is not so in this case.
The more things change the more things stay the same. A through line in the majority of the individual conversations I had with legends over the weekend was the isolation they felt as strippers. Imagine going from stage to room to transportation and repeat. Having been a club stripper before doing burlesque, I understood exactly what they meant. Burlesque dancers are more accepted in some circles than club strippers. Before burlesque, I experienced the somber isolation of a club stripper’s life. Ms. Idelle and the other legends expressed joy at being among people who understand their show girl lifestyle. They have no idea the joy their legacy and presence bring to us.
Finally, the moment comes for her to grace the stage. She danced to one song merging seamlessly into the second song. There was a huge standing ovation. I was not in the audience, I had a better seat – I watched thru the wings and backstage there was not a dry eye to be found. As we cried and thanked her, she expressed disbelief and gratitude for being “dug up” on the internet, as she puts it. She was so grateful for being so accepted, she said. We have the research of Dr. Ginger Snapz & Chicava HoneyChild to thank for this connection.
What I took away most from my first BHOF experience is the importance of having a kindred tribe to come home to. Being on the edges of society, (even while covered in plush feathers, dazzling crystals and shimmery trim), makes community even more important and appreciated. Ms. Idelle’s legacy is proof that we all are important parts of this community no matter what skin color. Ms. Idelle made me promise that I would travel, dance and not let anyone stop me. So, next time someone asks me when I’m going to quit dancing, I’ll tell them Ms. Jean Idelle says I’m not allowed to quit. As Ms.Idelle told us all weekend, “If you don’t use it, you loose it!”
To read more from Essence Revealed, visit her blog – www.essencerevealed.wordpress.com