The crowd began clapping, hooting, and hollering as the rev of motorcycles and Metallica filled the air. It was time.
I was at Denver’s Erico Motorsports, there because I was dating one of the mechanics. And on this night, there would be a grand reveal of Ducati’s new all-road model, a very big deal for motorcycle aficionados.
As the excitement grew, a burst of smoke blew into the air and out of a huge freight box that the crowd had gathered around. We were expecting a new, fire engine red Ducati to emerge. Instead, out of the box rose a vision in the form of a knockout blonde who looked like she had arrived from a glamorous era of yesteryear: long red gown with sexy slit up to here revealing two very shapely thighs, a mesmerizing bra of red baubles and sequins, red elbow-length gloves, and a majestic fan of red feathers that she held behind her, posing and winking mischievously to the crowd.
They went crazy, shouting out their approval. The new Ducati that one of the mechanics blasted into the middle of the warehouse was an afterthought, at least while this sparkly creature was on the scene. She smiled and winked to the crowd as she ran her hand up her thigh and languidly stretched her arm in greeting.
Vivienne Vavoom was the star of the show.
“My friend Danelle took a class from her,” whispered my girlfriend, Anika, who also stood in awe of Vivienne. “I went to her recital at Lannie’s Clocktower.”
“What? You mean she teaches this?” I asked, mesmerized by the way she moved the red fan in time to the music as she performed. I looked at Anika. “I think we should do it.”
That was how we found ourselves a few weeks later in the Vivienne Vavoom School of Burlesque, which shared space with a Tai Kwon Do studio off South Broadway, near the old rail yard in south Denver. Every Sunday, as I (Daisy Blooms) and Anika (Leona L’iscious) practiced our bumps and grinds, our graceful hands (“Don’t hold your fingers together like a Barbie doll,” Vivienne instructed), our sewing and bedazzling skills as we designed the sparkly costumes for our first group number, and, most importantly, our oh-shit-we’re-actually-going-to-strip-down-to pasties-and panties-in-front-of-a-crowd confidence before our debut.
In the years since, Vivienne Vavoom, aka Michelle Baldwin, has continued to make a name for herself as one of burlesque’s most admired performers, teachers, and writers, with the debut of two glittery new projects: a completely revamped School of Burlesque, and a new book set to publish in May of 2014. Tentatively titled Timeless Tassels: Vintage through Modern Burlesque, it will not only expand on Baldwin’s first book, 2004’s Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind, but will be a team effort, with much more in-depth history of the progression of burlesque before 1970 by co-author Jaye MacAskill, a writer and historian who was instrumental in moving the Burlesque Hall of Fame from the California desert to its present location in Las Vegas. Baldwin will be chronicling the post 1970s burlesque and neo-burlesque scene, with some new historical gems in store for readers.
For instance, not only was burlesque alive and well during the ‘70s and ‘80s, on the coasts it was flourishing, setting the stage for the neo-burlesque movement that would follow. “There were some amazing revivals,” said Baldwin. “There was the Pink Pussycat in L.A., which was in the old burlesque style, and in the 1980s there were stripper competitions where you had to really bring it; there were full-blown acts like Jo Boobs. You had Kitten Natividad in Russ Meyer films. And incredibly, you had Ann Corio’s This was Burlesque, which ran from 1962 to 1991.”
In addition to this new material chronicling the rich history of burlesque, Baldwin is especially excited about including many more first-person narratives from performers. “In the first book, I had to rely a lot on sources like magazines and interviews,” she said. “It was a while back, and so much has happened since.”
In true entrepreneurial style, Baldwin also plans to publish the new book herself. A veteran of the trade book publishing business as well as a burlesque performer, she sees self-publishing (her first book was published by Speck Press) as a better way to get the book into the hands of readers who want it most. “This is going to allow me to sell the book at performances, events, and in burlesque schools,” she said. “And I hear from people around the world who have heard about the first book and want to read it, but can’t find it.” With plans to promote the book through Kickstarter and with a coming book trailer on YouTube, as well as through more traditional venues like book signings, she also plans to reach out to overseas publishers for translations (Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind was translated into Finnish).
She also plans to promote it on her website www.viviennevavoom.com, which lists the many offerings of her popular School of Burlesque, recently relocated to a much larger space in Denver’s Baker neighborhood. These include her starlet and queen classes, as well as her newly designed one-on-one intensive classes. In addition to offerings like “How to Strip for Your Lover,” “The Appeal of Stocking Peels,” and “Hula Hands and Flirting Eyes, “ Baldwin is also planning new burlesque retreats, including the first in Cape Cod this summer.
Having been a student and a new performer myself under her tutelage, it’s obvious that teaching burlesque, which she has done since 2006, is her passion. “I love guiding people’s imaginations to a creation that’s uniquely them,” she said. “I love seeing a kernel grow to a fully fledged act up on stage. The best teachers I’ve had foster a vision inside of you, and that’s what I try to do. More than body issues or ageist issues in burlesque, which are important, what I see as most empowering is that you’re creating this thing and you’re the center of it. You’re the art that you’ve created from start to finish.”
For me, Baldwin’s guidance led to the creation of Old West good-girl-gone-bad Daisy Blooms, my alter ego in a short denim dress with crinoline, red cowboy hat, and boots, dancing to a black and white photo of Clint Eastwood in the bad boy days of the Outlaw Josey Wales. With her help, I decided on two songs and costuming that would tell a story on stage: Tammy Wynette’s Good Girl Gone Bad in pigtailed denim and gingham, followed by a bad-ass number by Devil Doll, “The Way You Do,” with a shiny red satin corset, red sparkly pasties, and quick slither on the stage floor.
When everything didn’t go according to plan and the music stopped mid-act, I had absorbed her teachings well enough (“when you’re walking across the stage, act like you’re at a glamorous cocktail party saying hello to everyone in the room and you’re fabulous,” which we actually did in her burlesque confidence class) that I decided, as I looked out in momentarily panicked silence: game on. I’m just going to act like I’m confident. And it worked.
In her years as a burlesque performer in Denver, Baldwin has spread the gospel of burlesque, with graduates of her School of Burlesque performing and forming their own troupes, such as Anabella Lafontaine, Frenchie Renard, and June Rodgers and Rose Manchester of Absinthe Menagerie. “It’s rewarding to see people I taught putting on their own shows,” she says of her former students.
One thing is for sure: burlesque is in Baldwin’s blood. Stylish with blonde ringlets, cute pin-up dress, and flats on a recent spring day, she takes the stage and embodies the confident glamour girl Vivienne Vavoom, whether it’s in the red-dressed glamour of the 1940s on the evening she shimmied out of the motorcycle box or in her brilliantly royal blue fan dance set to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”. As Dixie Evans says in the foreword to Baldwin’s first book, “the future of burlesque may not look exactly like its past.” But with Vivienne Vavoom, one of its most talented and multifaceted performers, helping to lead the way, burlesque’s glittery gospel will continue to shine on.