It's All About the Tease
The Atomic Bombshells Tonight @ Glamour Bar - Aug 8th 08, by Myles in Nightlife
New Orleans burlesque dance troupe The Atomic Bombshells perform tonight through Tuesday night at Glamour Bar on the Bund. SmSh sat down with the the beautiful and intelligent star Bombshell, Susanna Welbourne to talk burlesque.
SmSh: What is burlesque?
Susanna: Burlesque is an art form that originated in the 1800s. And it's a general term used to describe a type of entertainment that encompasses many things: dancing, singing comedy, and strip-tease. We do a very New Orleans 1950s style of burlesque, but there are many different genres and eras to consider. We pay tribute to the ‘50s -- the Golden Age. Bourbon Street in New Orleans had a huge scene in the '40s and '50s, and that involves really campy, funny numbers with gorgeous costumes, sequins, feathers, rhinestones, and showgirls, you know. Very much "over the top" -- an outrageously sexy and funny show.
SmSh: How did you get interested in burlesque?
Susanna: We've all been dancers our whole lives -- ballet, tap, jazz, the whole thing. I got interested in burlesque because I was living in New Orleans, where I'm from, and there was a burlesque revival that started there in the late '90s: the "Shim Sham Revue."
I went to my first show, saw the show, and just fell in love with it mostly because I was already in love with old MGM musicals and old jazz. That's the inspiration for a lot of what we do.
SmSh: Is that how you met the Bombshells?
Susanna: No, I started the troupe. I was in the show [the Revue] in New Orleans, then I moved to Seattle and I started my own troupe there. I just auditioned girls and we've been performing together ever since.
SmSh: How do people react when you tell them you're a burlesque dancer?
Susanna: People who are familiar with burlesque, but who haven't seen what we do already, have a notion of what it's going to be like. And then they come to our shows and are just surprised because we really try to have a high production value. You know a lot of people think burlesque is really, really racy, and it is in a way, but there's something really innocent and sweet about it too -- it's very old-fashioned. Burlesque is all about what you're not showing as opposed to what you are showing -- it's all about the tease.
SmSh: So it's a classier way to be sexy?
Susanna: I think in this day and age at the very least, a far more interesting way to be sexy... We're so bombarded by explicit sexuality and nudity in our media that I think it's refreshing and interesting for people to see the female form presented in a glamorous, beautiful, and clever way. It's about female beauty: it celebrates female beauty in a really classy and old-school way.
SmSh: How does a show usually progress and where does the strip tease take place?
Susanna: We have a series of group numbers and solo numbers and the whole thing is co-ordinated by our MC (Jeff). He's sort of the tour director of The Atomic Bombshells tour. He sets up each number, and every number has a theme. There'll be a cowgirl number, or a kitty cat number or a jail-break number within different scenes. His job is to set those stories up. There's always a reason why you're taking off your clothes. You're not just prancing around.
And the way that it develops: Girls come out in their little costumes, there's a story line and then slowly, piece by piece... we always save our big reveal for the end.
SmSh: You flew in last night, have you formed an impression of Shanghai yet?
Susanna: We've just walked around this area today [the Bund] and it's just crazy, a whole other world.
SmSh: Do you realize that at a place like this – The Glamour Bar -- most of your audience will be western?
Susanna: Yes, but we're told this weekend will have a fairly mixed crowd.
SmSh: What reactions do you expect from the western audience versus the Chinese audience?
Susanna: Usually when we perform in the States the proper way to respond and participate in a burlesque show is to yell very loudly; hoot and holler clap and yell as your girl is on-stage dancing. We're not expecting that here. When you go to a place where people don't know what burlesque is, usually they just stand there with huge smiles on their faces looking surprised. When we first come out we're just in a cute costume. A girl dancing in a cute costume, and then all of a sudden the pieces start coming off! And then you see the recognition in their eyes like, "Wait! What's going on here?" And it's always a surprise. So I'm expecting delighted surprise.
SmSh: What kind of a reaction do you get from females?
Susanna: Oh, women are our biggest fans. I would say that the majority of our shows are 70-80% female. More than anyone women come up to us after the show and say, "That was so inspiring. That was so beautiful; I wish I could do that."
They're just really thrilled because, like I said, these days you are confronted with so many stereotypical images of what it is to be beautiful as a woman. You have to have this body, you have to look like this, and burlesque really celebrates the feminine form in all of its many different shapes. So there's a good message out there for those who feel insecure about their body. It's about celebrating your body and your beauty and shakin' what you've got.
SmSh: You mentioned before that a famous performer trained you -- who was she?
Susanna: Her name was Kitty West and her most famous number was the "Oyster Girl." I recently re-created it in Seattle. I have this giant oyster shell and the story is that this Evangeline Oyster Girl awakes from a deep slumber -- like the "Birth of Venus" but in swampy Louisiana! She crawls out of this giant oyster and dances with a giant pearl. That's the theme of her most famous act that I've appropriated. It's actually on YouTube and our MySpace page.
SmSh: How does being a burlesque dancer affect dating and relationships?
Susanna: It all depends on who you date! [Laughs.] I'll say this: we can all attest to the fact that it takes a confident man to deal with it. We do have a lot of fans and a lot of attention which can be difficult, but what we do is very classy. The one thing you have to be wary of is dating someone who met you for the first time when you are your on-stage persona. We all have stage-names, we all have a very different look when we're on stage -- the wigs, the make-up, the costumes. And you're playing with characters essentially, so you need to make sure the person wants to date you and not your on-stage persona...
SmSh: Strip-tease is intense... do you get stage-fright?
Susanna: Not any more. I used to. My very first time -- I always tell the story about my first burlesque show. It's a terrifying moment as you're taking it off and tossing it to the side. But after that first show it's totally liberating and thrilling.
SmSh: Can you talk about the differences between burlesque and straight stripping?
Susanna: [Laughs.] Oh yeah, I can go on and on. They're so different from each other!
SmSh: Have you tried straight stripping?
Susanna: No, I have not but there are several girls in burlesque who started in strip clubs and moved on to burlesque.
SmSh: Disillusioned with stripping?
Susanna: Exactly. The difference is most strip clubs aren't even about stripping anymore. It's just straight nudity. There's no production value and it's not a show -- no progression. Our shows are actual full theatre shows with props, in theme, there's singing, there's dancing.
All our girls are professional dancers and in burlesque, there's a certain sweetness -- a certain innocence and humor that is the most essential element.
Cleverness and humor -- you obviously don't find that at a regular strip club.
SmSh: Do you see potential for Chinese to do burlesque?
Susanna: I know that Shanghai itself has a history in the '30s of cabaret. But that was a colonial period. The Chinese themselves... obviously it's a more conservative culture.
SmSh: And yet there are brothels on every corner...
Susanna: Right, but it's hush hush -- such a double standard. Dirty money! [Laughs.]
SmSh: Does your obvious love of burlesque influence how you act in everyday life -- mannerism and clothing?
Susanna: Yes, absolutely. Being involved in burlesque helps you appreciate the fabulous details of everyday life. I think in this modern age -- and Americans are guilty of this in particular -- it has become all about comfort and convenience, and we are celebrating an era where it was about dressing up and enjoying a great cocktail, having a refined time, sitting down. That's what people at our shows do. They sit down, have a great cocktail and watch a show: they're entertained.
It's not like watching TV or whatever. It's a very old-fashioned night out. Back in the day when burlesque was huge it was a really classy thing to do, like couples would get really dressed up and go to a burlesque club and the ladies who were big stars in burlesque were really big stars. They'd do national tours and Kitty West my trainer was in Life Magazine and that was a big deal.
We're trying to bring that back.
SmSh: Did you have to make any concessions to the act to perform here?
Susanna: No, I would say the only concession had to do with streamlining in costuming and props. It's too difficult to travel with everything.
But we have rhinestone-encrusted toy guns that got pulled out at customs. We had a hell of a time convincing the officers they weren't real -- "We're going to a lot of costume parties!" They pulled them out of our bags, and we tried to demonstrate that they were just toys. At which point the officers started laughing.
But we definitely haven't tamed the show down or anything.
SmSh: What's next for The Atomic Bombshells?
Susanna: We are going to Portugal in a couple of months and touring Portugal and then we will be doing shows in Seattle. I feel like we're really having our 'big-picture' right now. It's a fairly underground art-form and we've definitely carved a pretty great niche for ourselves within that realm. We've made ourselves a name as one of the premiere burlesque troupes in the States.
The Atomic Bombshells will be performing tonight [Friday] at the Glamour Bar as part of their Olympic Opening Ceremony Party.
They will also be performing every night until Tuesday. No cover fee for any of the nights.
All images with this article are from The Atomic Bombshells' MySpace page.