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.

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