It is 11:50 p.m. on a Saturday at the Allways Lounge—10 minutes before cutting-edge burlesque spectacle the Dirty Dime Peep Show is set to begin—and producer/performer Bella Blue has just arrived from another show. As she enters the small dressing room with mirrors and posters quoting “Young hearts be free tonight” from Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks” on all four walls, a flurry of activity follows her. She is talking to her stagehand, distributing set lists, assigning tasks to performers, hosts, and guest comedians alike as she readies her own costumes, wardrobe and make-up. However, she still finds time for a “hands-on” moment with the cast before the show begins.
“Everyone kick ass tonight!” Bella Blue exclaims. The small group of eight performers promise to abide.
“Fuck ‘em in the heart,” she states, with some of the regulars helping her finish the command.
There is no shortage of talent in the room. Host Ben Wisdom and guest performer Paul Oswell are prominent local comedians. Lady Lucerne and Vin Santos are Dirty Dime staples. There are guest performers such as New York burlesque legend and recent New Orleans transplant Jo Weldon, author of The Burlesque Handbook. However, while everyone in the room is regarded as equals, it is obvious who brought this eclectic group together: one of the hardest-working women in New Orleans burlesque—producer, creator, artist, performer and teacher Bella Blue.
“Dirty Dime fills the need for extreme diversity in the New Orleans burlesque community,” says Blue. “It challenges people in their ideas of what burlesque can be and what is sexy to them.”
The Dirty Dime more than delivers on this promise. A far cry from more classic burlesque shows featuring performers dancing with large feather fans to live jazz, Dirty Dime is an artistic, high-concept show that uses an equal mix of comedy and raunchiness to push the limits of traditional burlesque, often living up to the “dirty” in its moniker.
Blue says the idea for the Dirty Dime came to her when she first performed in New York City. “I got there with my classic number and was blown away by the fact that they could do whatever they wanted on stage,” she says, “I was so inspired by that because I had all these ideas that I couldn’t use because of this unspoken stigma in New Orleans about doing anything weird or off-the-cuff.”
The desire to break free of such stigmas influences how the shows are put together, with Blue giving her fellow performers free reign when crafting their acts. “That’s what’s so beautiful about Dirty Dime,” says Blue. “Since the performers don’t have any creative restrictions, they just bring it to the stage.” Despite the laissez faire attitude toward show development, common themes do emerge among Dirty Dime performances. At a show in May, many acts centered around performers claiming ownership over their bodies: Lady Lucerne danced dressed as a fetus to Destiny Child’s “Survivor;” Artemis Lark erased derogatory female terms scrawled on her body with a marker (and wrote the word “mine” at the end); and Blue herself performed to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” a felicitous song for a show that triumphs creative freedom.
A Belle Chasse native who has studied ballet and modern dance since childhood, Blue is no stranger to doing things her way. Upon graduating from high school, she was determined to stay in the New Orleans area but struggled to find work in dance. “New Orleans is a difficult place to make a living as a dancer,” she explains. “There’s no market where you can plug into a dance company and make a living, so that really wasn’t an option.” However, a chance online interaction with Fleur de Tease founder and premiere local burlesque performer Trixie Minx quickly set Blue on a new path, with Blue auditioning for the troupe in January 2007 and debuting at the February show. “It started as a hobby,” she says. “I loved it and was having a really good time, and then it became something really popular.”
New Orleans burlesque having become “something really popular” may be a bit of an understatement. The heyday of New Orleans burlesque was in the ’40s and ’50s, with patrons wearing formal dress to enjoy shows in Bourbon Street clubs featuring artful dancers performing classic numbers with elaborate costumes and large feathered fans. Unfortunately, politicians led by then-District Attorney Jim Garrison looking to make a name for themselves in the early ’60s, brought legal crackdowns and tighter regulations on club owners, causing the scene to fade into obscurity. However, burlesque enjoyed a renaissance that began with the Shim Shamettes at the Shim Sham Club (once the Toulouse Theater, now One Eyed Jack’s) in the late ’90s and exploded post-Katrina with Fleur de Tease and Bustout! Burlesque. Other troupes followed in subsequent years, displaying elements of “neo-burlesque” that incorporated modern music and themes. Burlesque was once again thriving in New Orleans and fans could see acts virtually every night of the week.
It was in this revival of New Orleans burlesque where Blue saw her opportunity to quit her job and pursue her art full time. “If I’m at a day job, I just think of the emails I can’t respond to and all the opportunities I’m missing,” she says. “I’d rather have that time to make my business grow, perform and travel.” However, going full-time meant she had to fill her schedule with work. As a result, Blue eventually became creator and producer for two separate shows—the Dirty Dime and the Blue Book—as well as founding the New Orleans School of Burlesque. She accomplishes all of this along with being a full-time mother of two and having a fiancé who sporadically makes appearances in the Dirty Dime as “Big Fine.”
“After I get the kids to school or get them taken care of for the day,” says Blue. “It is a schedule of answering emails, fielding questions, and playing the Tetris game of arranging shows between who is available, who is sick, whether people have their music or not for the show.
“There’s also preparation for shows and keeping up with promotion,” she adds. “And then the school on top of that. If I can’t be there, who else is teaching? Are we promoting as much as we can? Did we get deposits? Where did they go? Did the students get their confirmation letter?”
Blue’s busy schedule is apparent – our interview was interrupted several times as she received business calls and emails, which allowed her youngest son an opportunity to show off his expansive knowledge of Sonic the Hedgehog characters. However, her work does not exempt her from the chores of everyday life as well as maintaining several rental properties with her fiancé. “In between getting everything together, there is regular life stuff,” she says. “Finding time to eat, clean, pay bills, sleep when I can.” As one could guess, Blue’s full-time burlesque life involves an endless list of tasks. “I don’t have a formula. I’m just crossing stuff off a list,” says Blue. “And the to-do list just keeps getting bigger.”
It is 9:15 p.m. on a Saturday in the stock room—which tonight has become a dressing room—at Lucky Pierre’s on Bourbon Street. The Blue Book burlesque show will start in roughly 45 minutes, and Bella Blue has just arrived. Mostly nude women and men are preparing for the show by helping each other apply pasties and sharing makeup from a large fisherman’s tackle box. Performers are pulling costumes out of lockers as bar backs weave through them to grab extra mixers. In the walkway between lockers, Blue sits on the ground with her computer resting on an upside-down five-gallon bucket.
She makes final set list adjustments, sends last-minute emails, and periodically runs off to coordinate with the house DJ. After posting a hand-written set list in the dressing room, Blue takes the long way down to the stage to greet fans in attendance and to pose for pictures. It is Pride weekend in New Orleans, and a strong LGBT presence is mixed in with the normal Bourbon Street crowd. Bartenders and waiters in Speedos serve drinks as loud club music plays and a belly dancer snakes through the tables. In other words, it’s a raucous audience.
“The Blue Book came together when the owner of Lucky Pierre’s called me and said he wanted burlesque back on Bourbon Street,” recalls Blue. “We had a meeting and put a concept together of a show that pays homage to the history of burlesque on Bourbon Street but is also all encompassing.” While burlesque on Bourbon Street is a nod to the past, the “all-encompassing” angle modernizes the show—and breaks traditional burlesque rules—by featuring male, drag and transgender performers along with more esoteric hosts and sideshow performers. “We wanted the show to have elements of all different styles of burlesque, from classic to neo to drag and circus arts,” says Blue. While the show shares Dirty Dime’s edginess, it also has a healthy dose of classic burlesque, offering a bridge between the artform’s past and present.
It is 7:20 p.m. on a Thursday at the Crescent Lotus Dance Studio—home of the New Orleans School of Burlesque—and Bella Blue has just arrived. She quickly drops her purse and instructs her students to put on their stilettos and meet her in the studio. She enters a large, mirrored room while throwing a laundry sack full of gloves—today’s lesson will be the “glove peel”—in a corner and zooms straight to the stereo. She hooks up her iPhone and informs the students it is time to start stretching. Music begins and, on Blue’s count, the students start a synchronized stretch routine. Afterwards, Blue informs them that since the next day is Independence Day, they will be performing to David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans.”
Blue begins the song and quickly shows the students the routine, piece by piece. Both students and teacher build up to the “glove peel.” Blue instructs them how to remove the right glove, and then encourages them to improvise in removing the left. The students—today a mix of twentysomething to fortysomething women—catch on remarkably fast, and 30 burlesque students simultaneously improvising glove removal is appropriately chaotic. All the while, Blue sits to the side and yells out over the music, encouraging students to embrace their sexuality, sensuality and confidence with equal parts attitude and grace.
So far, the New Orleans School of Burlesque has been helping the local burlesque scene thrive, training performers and production workers. Blue is also considering the long-term impact that educating the public will have on the future of her particular artform. “It’s just like anything else,” says Blue. “To keep something from dying out, you have to educate people about it. Period. The end. That’s why writing, music and art are still around. You teach others and then they go out and do it.”
However, Blue sees the school as something greater than simply providing new generations of burlesque workers. “Everybody comes for a different reason,” she explains. “Sometimes, they want to perform. Sometimes, it’s a bucket-list thing. Sometimes, it is their therapy. Sometimes, they don’t have the time to get out and socialize, but they can come here to a wonderful, nurturing and supportive environment.”
In many ways, Blue is thrilled about the future of the school, the crowning achievement in her notable seven-year career. “The New Orleans School of Burlesque will have its own full-time studio by the end of the year,” she says, “which will open up an entire world of availability for classes, burlesque and education.”
It is 1:15 p.m. on a Thursday in Bella Blue’s home, and we are near the end of our interview. I tell her it must be exhausting to be an active performer, producer, organizer, creator, promoter, teacher, mother and partner. “There are a lot of hats there,” she answers with a laugh. However, Blue is the first person to point out that her success is dependent on those around her. “I’m lucky in that when I have to be out of town, I have a great team here to keep shows going smoothly and report back to me,” she explains. “I couldn’t do all these things without the people around me.” It is an apt sentiment from a person who devotes her personal, professional and artistic life around creating an environment where people don’t feel threatened, so that they can let their guard down and reveal aspects of themselves that traditional society would reject.
Bella Blue’s work has not only pushed the New Orleans burlesque scene to new and exciting places, but has also provided a haven for those who need an outlet that traditional city and suburban life does not give—yes, even in New Orleans. What Blue is building is about more than burlesque; she’s creating avenues for self-expression, self-liberation and self-acceptance in others. At the end of the day, she can rest assured of a job well done.
“I love it and enjoy it,” says Blue. “I think if I died this afternoon, I would say, ‘You know what? That was good. I did everything I wanted to be doing.’”