The New Orleans School of Burlesque began not with a bang, but instead— as any good circa-2008 story should— with a Myspace.com public bulletin.
“Honestly, it was summertime, it was super slow, and I needed some extra money. And I had a studio,” chuckled founder and Headmistress Bella Blue. “So I posted it on the [Myspace] bulletins page for about two weeks, and I had thirteen people show up to the first class.”
Eight years, two studio location changes, and one hurricane later, this informal one-off workshop has grown into a fully functioning learning center for all things burlesque.
“I do a six-week beginner workshop called ‘Like A Virgin’ that’s for a lot of people who have never done [burlesque] before. It’s open to all levels and all genders and I’ve had a crossover of people who come from drag or come from theatre or people who have never taken [a] class before: grand-mamas, moms, like all across the board,” said Blue, adding that she also caters to working performers who are looking to, “get back to the basics and maybe hone down a particular number that they’re working on for a particular act.” The school also offers a weekly “Open Burlesque” class every Wednesday, one-off specialty workshops with visiting or guest performers, and private classes for special occasions, “Yeah, we do a lot of bachelorette parties and birthday parties. Divorce parties too.”
Before trying out burlesque for the first time in 2007, Bella’s focus had been on more traditional forms of dancing. “I studied predominantly in ballet and modern, and I started to take it really seriously around seven years old. I was moved into a different school where I met my dance mentor, Derek Reece, who still teaches, and he was a huge part of my dance training.”
“I was really lucky. I didn’t do a ton of traveling as a young person, but with what was available in New Orleans, I feel like I definitely got some of the best teachers. And a lot of them are still teaching. I still take classes sometimes when I can.”
This classical training has helped Blue be more grounded in her experimentation with performing. “What I came to discover about myself as a performer was that I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into any one certain thing. So I’m pretty fluid in my style depending on my mood.” She said, though it wasn’t always like that, “In the beginning, I was trying very hard to fit into this Pin-Up aesthetic— I had long, long black hair and I was trying to wear corsets. And then at one point I was like I’m gonna’ just do ‘Fan Dance!’”
“I tried all these different things. It was kind of like [my] teenage years— but for burlesque— where you’re really trying to figure out your identity. [Now], I can Fan Dance if I want to. I can do Weird. I can do Classic, because my dance background allows me to be a pretty well-rounded performer. I always like learning and trying to take class and trying to expand.”
This isn’t the case for everyone that gets involved in the scene. “I don’t take it for granted. I see a lot of people who it’s harder for because they don’t have a dance background, and so they face a lot more and really have to muster up even more confidence and find their legs. And I work with a lot of people who have never set foot in a dance studio.” She adds that inexperience does have its own merits and those trying for the first time, “…are so strong and they’re not afraid to try anything new and just get out there and do it.”
In Blue’s opinion, it would be ideal for those interested in learning the art form to know a few basic things. “I think from simply a movement standpoint, at a minimum you have to be able to know how to pose your body… to be able to get across the stage, move around, and be familiar and present enough in your body to know what kind of movement works and what poses work and what doesn’t,” she said. “A lot of times it takes getting over the fear of getting in the mirror and actually figuring out what that is.”
“Everybody brings so many different qualities to the stage,” said Blue, when asked what makes a good burlesque dancer. “They don’t have to be the best dancer. They don’t have to have the ‘perfect body’ [or be] ‘socially acceptable.’ But if they give me an experience through their act then I feel like that’s what a good burlesque performer does: [they] go on stage for the audience and their goal is to give the audience whatever they need.”
“The philosophy I teach everyone is: if you step on the stage and you give [them] what they need, then you will inherently get whatever it is that you need.”
To find out about classes and workshops at the New Orleans School of Burlesque, visit their website at nolaschoolofburlesque.com. Information about Bella Blue and her upcoming weekly and monthly performances can be found at her website, thebellalounge.com.