Lola LeSoleil

The Lady of Leg-itude

On the Wings of My Foremothers: Meeting Jean Idelle

My first year attending the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend in Las Vegas was 2012. Activities of the event included The Legends Finishing School which are workshops presented by BurlyCon and taught by burlesque Living Legends, the women and men of our art who were the stars of yesteryear.

I signed up for every class I could -  Beginner Burlesque with Judith Stein, Stocking Tease with Ellion Ness, Body Talk with Bambi Jones, and Burlesque on the Wild Side with Camille 2000. But the one I was most excited to join was The Art of Performing with Ostrich Feather Fans with Jean Idelle. Ms. Idelle is one of the few black burlesque performers still with us, and she was in her mid-80s at the time. I’d recently added a feather fan dance to my repertoire and I knew as burlesque progeny in many aspects, it was my delight, responsibility and honor to take her workshop.

Jean Idelle, burlesque fan dancer. In her prime, Jean Idelle was billed as the “Sepia Sally Rand”. She performed with gorgeous grand ostrich fans. Sepia is a shade of reddish brown, and decades ago was also used as an alluring alternative description to black or Negro/Negress.

Ms. Idelle was escorted into the workshop by one of her sons (a Marine, I believe), and he was brimming with pride. Students were given her brief history -  that she’d performed internationally in the 1950s and 1960s, had been a featured artist with Minsky’s Rialto Theater in Chicago. She was also instrumental in integrating whites only dance clubs in the U.S and Canada. In her 30s, life brought her to marriage and motherhood and away from the spotlight. It had been 60 years since she’d last performed and that night she would perform for the first time in decades as part of the Titans of Tease showcase at BHoF.

She smiled from ear to ear, delighted so many of us came to hear her speak and learn from her. I specifically recall someone asked about her costumes from those days. As so many of us now make our own, we wondered if she had also sewn her costumes. It turns out her gowns and feather fans were rented for performances. Then came her demonstration and we were all on the edge of our seats as our soft spoken grandmother guide effortlessly breathed life into the lofty white feather fans in her lap. We saw her transport to center stage as she referred to cradling the fans like babies while gliding across the floor. She’d make sure the eager audience appreciated the loveliness of her fans and gown before any garment removal - thus began the tease. She said one of the keys to working a gown and fan routine was having a dress that could be removed with one hand, usually with a zipper. Coyly slipping out of a dress while maintaining modesty with the fans was the trick and took practice. Audiences would be mesmerized.

That evening, tears and standing ovation cheers from 800+ lords and ladies of new school burlesque greeted her as she stepped on stage and brought the house down.  Though her steps were slightly slowed by time, there was no mistaking the presence of elegance and star power. By her words, she had a fortunate life and was glad to have the opportunity to share her life with this new generation of performers. 

My favorite part of the performance is when the music's tempo picks up and she starts shaking her little groove thing. The way she lights up and pours it on during the standing ovation makes my heart soar. She’s a lovely lady, and I’m so very proud I had a little time to tell her how she inspired me. And when I teach my fan dance classes, I always include this memory of learning from a Legend who looks like me, Jean Idelle. - Lola LeSoleil #blackburlesquehistory #blackburlesqueherstory #blackhistory.

 Jean Idelle, glamorous in her golden years.

Jean Idelle, glamorous in her golden years.

Smoky Mountain Burlesque Festival Afterglow!

As I teared up with laughter watching Mr. Gorgeous parade his parrot on stage, my tears suddenly welled from a reflective and grateful source.

To the burlesque, sideshow, cabaret and alt arts producers in Atlanta and beyond who take an interest, or invite me onto your stages or offer opportunities, I appreciate and thank you.  And as a suggestion to humans of all stripes, be glad for those who offer encouragement and support, and see something A-1 in you that you may be numb to. They may be the next recommendation, crucial contact, or lynchpin you need to take the next progressive step. 

When a hand is extended, accept it and remember to say "Thank you."

The Smoky Mountain Burlesque Festival in Knoxville, TN was aces - from the Concourse venue and the volunteer-staffed shuttles to the Vegas/BHoF calibre performances. American treasure, Blanche DeBris' high-haired rendition of Dolly Parton's 1980 workaday anthem "9-5" to open Saturday's show was a was a gift from the Aqua Net angels! 

And the performer-centric details from the festival were spot-on: bottled water and Advil in the goody bags, because that floorwork class taught by my Candybox sister, Flame Cynders was a wicked workout;  the Titty Talk hotline (staffed by volunteers) which provided answers to any and all festival related questions during the weekend; and the theme park field trip where 50+ ecdysiasts and their supporters descended upon Dollywood on Sunday like glittery locusts to flip our wigs on rollercoasters and feast on cinnamon bread and bask in the glory of Our Lady Dolly Parton.

I've been on both sides of different types of festivals as worker bee and participant, and I've seen how the sausage is made. Yeesh.

When so many moving parts of an event go off without a (noticeable) hitch, know that there have been copious spreadsheets, hundreds of volunteer hours, some cursing, and a disturbing amount of sleep depravation. It doesn't happen without massive effort. High-five to the entire Salome Cabaret squad because, damn! And for those of you who've never performed in or been aware of the antiquated Blue Laws of Tennessee at the intersection of nudity and alcohol sales, there are very specific parts of (female) anatomy from which the public must be "shielded", or a hefty fine is the penalty. A round of drinks to Tiger Tangerine for being Boobie and Butt monitor all weekend! 

Siren, Kisa, John, and Dustin, thank you, especially. Salome booked me for one of my first out of town gigs a few years back, and I was so excited. Headlining your inaugural event meant more than you know!

A special gold star to Mac Lawless as sound tech and Stephanie as spot operator. Without them we'd all have just been stumbling around undressing on stage in the dark to no music. 

Insert punchline.

And the Stripper Hustle award goes to Evangeline Cain and Tre Da Marc who traveled from Knoxvegas to the Big Easy to perform in two festivals last weekend, SMBF and The Roux Festival in New Orleans! Boom!

Mark your calendars. Smoky Mountain Burlesque Festival September 14-16, 2017 is go!

 

May The Fierce be with you.

In 2005, I was still mucking my way through online dating...with mixed results. On a first date with the surgeon, the proximity of DragonCon came into the conversation. Neither of us had ever attended and we agreed it would be a brilliant second date. Rather than creating the beast with two backs the night before the con (because wow, there was serious chemistry), we sprawled on the floor of his living room with printed copies of the DragonCon schedule and highlighters, methodically planning our weekend. He was fan of sci-fi author Robert Jordan, and wished to attend related panels. I was more interested in anime and vendors. We both were keen on the robot battles and decided to spend the final day of DragonCon rooting for the carnage of tiny remote controlled gadgets. It was glorious and I was hooked - on DragonCon and him.

He is now a fond part of my memory, but DragonCon is still with me. In 2009, I made a concerted effort to plan costumes. I made illuminated fairy wings from a Threadbanger tutorial and bought a Princess Leia costume and blaster from a local costume shop. In place of Leia's signature buns, I wore afro puffs in keeping with my hair texture. Somehow, my buddy talked me into entering the Star Wars costume contest. There were all manner of intricate handmade canon costumes, sculpted armor and authentic SW aficionados whose attention to costume detail bordered on manic. And there I was in my store bought Leia. When the announcer asked me for my intro, I was ready. My version of Leia was the embodiment of the Princess had she been created by film director Melvin Van Peebles, and modeled on Pam Grier. I told the announcer, "It's 'Princess Leia's Baaadasssss Revenge'". The gentleman, clearly familiar with quintessential blaxsploitation films, gave a knowing smile, nodded and replied,"I can dig it." There were 500+ SW nerds, geeks and fans in that ballroom, all having a hell of a time marveling over and critiquing the costumes. Each contestant had intro music as part of their presentation chosen by the emcee from his playlists of the various Star Wars soundtracks. Until he announced Princess Leia's Baaadasssss Revenge. For me he chose the Theme from Shaft and I was elated as he paced his description of Leia as a name taker, ass-kicker and babe to be reckoned with over the chickka-chickka of Isaac Hayes' masterpiece. The audience was whooping and cheering as I strolled onto the stage. With my back to the audience I marked my poses and made them wait for it. Bam! The room exploded and folks were on their feet! Sadly, I didn't win, or even place in the contest, but I gave the crowd a show...which sealed my glittered path to burlesque.

When the Leia costume was fresh from Costumes Etc, before layers of con dirt set in.

In 2012 I was extended the opportunity to open the DragonCon Glamour Geek Revue, the Saturday night burlesque show curated by Talloolah Love. I'd been performing burlesque two years and had landed the sweetest plum by dorky heart could've desired. For a few years I'd attended different incarnations of the DC burlesque show. I'd wistfully wish to eventually be on their stage. I even toyed with the idea of evolving my Leia costume into something glorious. It is said luck is when preparation meets opportunity. So to that luck I added Jimi Hendrix, The Isley Brothers and rhinestones and found myself thrilled to delight a ballroom of over 1,000 fans!

Photo Credit: Annalise Kaylor, 2015

"Foxy Leia", as she is now known, has traveled from New York (Nerdlesque Festival 2014) to Seattle (Bechdel Test Burlesque 2013), and become a Queen (Southern Fried Burlesque Fest 2013). And with Star Wars: The Force Awakens making new fans and and rekindling old flames, she'll be packed and on the road many more times to continue serving Rebel realness.

She's your Queeeeeeen at Great Southern Exposure!

YOU'RE KILLING ME, SMALLS is what I yelled at my computer after twice crafting posts about the Great Southern Exposure Burlesque and Variety Pageant last weekend, and them twice disappearing into netherspace.
Mayhaps a more reflective post will stick...

There are varying viewpoints about burlesque competitions and pageants. Some highlight the positive aspects of competition, some emphasize the negative and each depends on a person's perspective.
For me, vying for a title or crown at events has offered me introspection on my style and creative process. It's brought me friendships that cross time zones. It's showed how the best performers rise above chaos (costumes, music failures, etc) and still bring the house down. It's showed me a what a vile case of sour grapes looks like. But best of all, I've experienced how a visceral, captivating piece can transcend much and resonate with a tiny tender point in all of us.
True. I could just buy a ticket and sit in the audience to watch and still glean a lot, but being part of the performer's mix is unique. I've learned so much sitting in the green rooms, nervously waiting my turn but NOT hearing my name called.
This time, I wanted to be part of The Candybox Revue's first festival experience. Talloolah Love, Ariel Allegro, Sin Tillating, Bonnie Temps-Rouler, Roula Roulette, Ursula Undress, Candi Lecoeur and I were really excited to travel together and store the stage with our "Be Italian" showpiece. My attempt for queen was secondary to supporting them. But I was determined to represent my Atlanta Burlesque scene by giving GSE a piece I debuted with my Mayhem Femmes family in late March.
Never forget I am an original ATLien.
And for unpacking all of that and more on the stage in Charlotte, there's a new crown on my head.

So, yeah. Pageants and competitions. They're a thing. And because I was asked a few times:
2011-Southern Fried Burlesque Fest Best Costume
2011-Great Southern Exposure Mamma's Choice
2012-Southern Fried Burlesque Fest Most Humorous
2012-Great Southern Exposure Most Classic
2013-Southern Fried Burlesque Fest Queen
2013-Alabama Burlesque Fest Queen
2015-Great Southern Exposure Queen

And as far as I can tell, this is the first time a black Queen and King were crowned together in a burlesque pageant. Congratulations to my darling Tre Da Marc, 2015 Great Southern Exposure King! 

Want to know more about burlesque in Atlanta and beyond? Take a peek at the Atlanta Burlesque calendar or Facebook page.