My friend, who agreed to speak with me about burlesque on terms of anonymity, recently came back from Atlanta with stars in his eyes and a newfound passion for the South. None of us really got it until he told us about the Dames Aflame burlesque show that he had caught during his travels:
"You know I think New York women are hot. And New York burlesque dancers are really hot, just not, well... beauty queen hot. The Dames Aflame dancers are beauty queen hot. All of them. They appeal to men in the way that strippers do. Which is why, in New York, you go to see naked women at a strip club if you're a man. In Atlanta, you can go to a strip club — or you can go see a Dames Aflame show."
I was curious and so I contacted Shannon Newton, who runs the Dames Aflame Dancers in Atlanta. In a phone interview that felt more like a backstage pass, I got her to give me the inside scoop on why even mega-corporations think that her show is a stand-out.
Chicktellectual dot com: How did Dames Aflame begin and evolve into what it is now?
Shannon Newton: The nucleus started to form as far back as ‘95 when a bunch of local artists, performers and musicians got together to perform once a year. By 2002 we just got way more formal with things in terms of performing year round and doing corporate parties with a more regular troupe on a regular basis.
C.com: Is burlesque something that’s now an acceptable thing to do for corporations?
SN: Yeah, it’s hilarious because my husband Mike [Geier] and I have always been in a corporate environment with his band. Once he moved to Atlanta he formed a band called Kingsized and people wanted them at their wedding, and then the band went from being a wedding band to a corporate band for Coca-Cola and other companies. This became a natural tie-in to bringing in showgirls and go-go girls. Then these people became our fans and decided that they wanted to see our burlesque shows. It’s become mainstream enough where brides are asking for Marie Antoinette strip-teases at their weddings.
C.com: Do you have to tone it down for the corporate folk or can you do the same things that you would do at a typical show?
SN: At 90% of the corporate events we tone it down. We do what we call a PG striptease. The girls don’t get any more naked than a bikini. So the entertainment and flirtiness is still there, but it’s certainly not women in just a thong.
[Lots of background noise suddenly comes through the phone, then, a crashing sound.]
SN: I’m sorry, we’re actually at a gig right now. I actually have some showgirls dressed up for a corporate party that we’re doing for a video gaming company. Tonight they asked for a Moulin Rouge theme so we have Parisian showgirls greeting guests and handing out party favors. At 8:30 we’re going to do a cancan dance and then at 9:30 we’re going to do a short burlesque set for them.
C.com: That doesn’t exactly sound too PG.
SN: No, they want the rated R version.
C.com: How much do the corporate gigs pay, roughly?
SN: They really vary, it totally depends on the gig and fluctuates based on what they’re asking for. Sometimes they just want a little bit of everything – they want showgirl greeters, they want cancan acts, they want a little burlesque and T&A – that’s a $3,000 package. And it’s not the whole troupe. Some of the bigger shows that we do, like a private 50th birthday party that we did for this guy that his wife bought it for him, that was a little more high-end. So it all depends on the package.
C.com: So the customer can customize his or her own show?
SN: Exactly. Based on the budget or based on the facility and the timeline. Sometimes they want eye candy walking around handing out party favors and the Parisian showgirls are great for that. Sometimes it’s a go-go gig and they want a girl to show up and dance for the guests on the dance floor or on the stage. The "Marie Antoinette Cake Act" is great for birthday parties – the girl can do a 5 minute strip routine for a birthday party.
C.com: Does she pop out of the cake?
SN: She actually bakes the cake. She has an oven and it’s a trick oven. She mixes egg and milk in a bowl and puts it in the oven and while she’s dancing around and doing her strip the oven starts smoking, it’s getting really hot, she’s stripping, and then at the end of her strip tease she opens the oven door and the bowl she’s put in has disappeared, and in its place is an actual birthday cake for the birthday boy. It’s a surprise – you’re so busy watching the act that you don’t expect to see that.
C.com: How would you describe the style and aesthetic of the showgirls? Is Marie Antoinette a big influence?
SN: The biggest influence on our burlesque shows is the Parisian angle because we’ve always been a fan of the Crazy Horse and all the old shows from the 50’s and 60’s. I’ve seen the Crazy Horse in Paris and what I loved about it is the production quality. These showgirls are just phenomenal and the numbers are witty and tongue-in-cheek. We also love Betty Page and the vaudeville circuit but we’re coming at it from more of a Vegas or Parisian revue.
C.com: Can you describe how this differs from the more vaudevillian/slapstick style?
SN: Well, we definitely evoke that stuff – we do have lots of comedy and slapstick -- but we’ll have ensemble numbers where there are several sexy showgirls onstage at a time and they’re doing different formations and routines. It’s not so much about the five minute strip tease where they’re taking off clothes left and right. Instead they already show up on stage topless, they’re already scantily clad and they’re doing elegant dance routines. So it’s more about the display. We do have the element of tease but we also like to incorporate the grandeur of a glamorous, big show.
C.com: This seems very different than a lot of the performances I’ve seen in New York where the women get up onstage and that’s where they begin to disrobe.
SN: I’m friends with a lot of the girls up in New York and we’ve performed up there too. Often you don’t have a lot of storage place or a huge rehearsal hall. And often you need to carry stuff on a subway and set up in a tiny little bar. So part of the ingenuity is being able to set up a show with the most simple props you can. Atlanta is one of those great metropolises where you have larger stages available and therefore flexibility with what you can do on stage. I bet a lot of those girls up in New York are doing what they do out of necessity and they are amazing at what they are able to pull off.
C.com: Tell me about one of your favorite acts in your show.
SN: One that’s really great is with my husband Mike, who’s in a lot of our acts and provides a lot of the comedy. There’s this act called "Gone with the Whuh?" And it’s a parody of Gone with the Wind. He comes dressed up as Scarlett O’Hara with this giant skirt and sings the Elvis version of American Trilogy. A minute into the tune two confederate and union solider show girls – they are dressed scantily clad in these confederate and union solider outfits – come out from under his skirt and they have a swordfight and start to strip. And then they make up onstage. It’s basically nudity onstage while he’s singing American trilogy – and the whole point is, can’t we just get along? We actually did that at New York Burlesque festival a couple of years ago.
Ursula 1000 Video featuring Dames Aflame
C.com: I saw the Ursula 1000 video you guys did. What was going on there?
SN: Ursula 1000 actually lives in Brooklyn and one of the singles from his album is called Boop! He asked us if we could do a video for it and we got everyone together. It has show-girls, go-go girls and break dancers in it.
C.com: Do you do the choreography for the acts or is that something that the individual performers do?
SN: The crux of the acts start out with me, my husband Mike and Stephanie, our costume designer -- we would brainstorm the ideas. And I would start to map out the routines, but once you get a few girls in a room and we’re all in front of a mirror it ends up becoming this conglomeration where everyone chips in and someone says, “Well, what about this move?” Some of our girls are really good at choreographing and we let them take turns choreographing stuff. It’s great to have girls from all different influences – girls in ballet bringing out their angle, belly dancers bringing in their expertise – it becomes a great amalgam.
C.com: Why do you think burlesque holds such wide appeal lately?
SN: The weird thing about it is, I don’t think burlesque ever really went out of style. If you think about it, things like Carol Burnett and Saturday Night Live are forms of burlesque shows – they always have humor, they always have music, there’s always T&A in some respects. And there’s always been Vegas. And even back when I was growing up there were TV shows like Solid Gold where the Solid Gold dancers would come out with feather fans. But I first became aware of things in the early 90s, maybe the late 80s. Greg Theakston, he’s an artist up in New York, started The Betty Pages which was an ode to Betty Page and a fanzine, and from that he began to develop Tease Magazine. Greg helped spark the movement and that was a big kernel of influence, at least in terms of getting it back into the bars.
C.com: How would you describe the crowd of your show? What’s the typical breakdown in terms of men and women?
SN: Ours is actually very mixed. I would say we’re split right down the middle in terms of men and women, gay and straight, black and white. That’s what I love about it – you have people who are 20, people who are 80, and everyone’s laughing.
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