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Every Woman Can: Backstage with Velvet Hammer

Photo by Ted Soqui

“Do you have a bobby pin?”

“I do, but I can’t give it to you now. I’m in a crucial Derma-blend moment.”

“Oh, now that’s a quotable quote. That’s almost as good as ‘Can I use your tweezers? Mind if I pluck my tit-hair with them?’”

The women backstage at Velvet Hammer, director/creator Michelle Carr’s cult-popular homage to the lost art of burlesque, are showing off. Kitten De Ville introduces herself around with a saucy wink; Pleasant Gehman, a.k.a. Farhanna, lead belly dancer in the “Flowers of the Desert,” announces several times that a cat fight (between her real, domestic cats) has transformed her kitchen into a crime scene. “It looks like the Manson-family house,” she declares dryly, drifting aimlessly among her primping cohorts (she glittered her eyes and shellacked her hair at home). Kitten and Ming Dynatease tell the story of how Kitten’s car broke down on the street. “There we were, two big, blond Velvet Hammer girls pushing a pink Cadillac, and no one would help us!”

The women are not, however, playing it up for me, the decidedly drab writer standing in the corner scribbling in her notebook. In fact, they keep forgetting I’m here.

“With the 30 grand I make from the show,” cracks one girl sarcastically (performers barely break even), “I’m going to Cuba with . . .” She finishes the sentence with a name of a local producer known for his scams. Three women shoot me a look. “You can’t print that,” says one. “Oh, right,” says another. “Should I be watching what I say?”

Onstage, the show might be for the screaming, adoring fans who fight for sightlines at the El Rey, but their performance in the dressing room is for each other. “The gals who make it into the show,” says associate producer Rita D’Albert, “are gals’ gals.”

Such Dixie Evans solidarity is a telling difference between these women and the originals they admire: While Evans so loved her fellow burlesque legends she created a shrine in the desert to honor them, Blaze Starr and Tempest Storm could afford only fleeting moments of camaraderie. Stories of burlesque dancers blacking each other’s eyes over stolen gimmicks are legion. “If you didn’t cut somebody’s throat,” burlesque dancer Flame Fury once said, “they’d cut yours.”

“There was a sense of sadness about them that we don’t have,” says Melissa Duke, who performs a cowgirl number as Bubbles La Rue. “They were doing it to make a living, and their lives were hard.” Dancing next-to-naked wasn’t much of a living then — even burlesque’s stars didn’t get rich — and it isn’t now: Strip.- pers in present-day clubs typically hand over half a night’s take to the club, and the price of a lap dance has not exact..ly risen with inflation. Yet there are no career strippers here. “Velvet Hammer,” says Duke, “is a great excuse to dress up and be sexy.”

But can burlesque thus reduced and fossilized — or elevated to religion — still be sexy? Blaze Starr may have danced with more nuance and artistry than the average girl in the pussy pit at Star Strip, but her moves were without question calculated to, frankly, make men wish they could fuck her. Her shadowy desperation was part of her currency in the burlesque world, however much she left to the imagination. By contrast, a significant majority of Velvet Hammer’s fans are heterosexual women who arrive more elaborately jeuged or gussied up than the dancers, and sashay about the lobby like objets d’art. The scene in the public bathroom at the El Rey on Friday night looked remarkably similar to the one I’d just left backstage — except that the women’s can was even more saturated with hairspray.

Lately, women in the developed industrial world have decided that glamour and titillation are liberating — it’s considered tragic, remember, that the Taliban prohibited women from wearing high heels. And if we can be sex objects without being skinny, all the better: The women of Velvet Hammer have bellies, stretch marks and flab; their breasts hang silicone-free, and they are not all under 30. One of them, Starlet O’Hara, stands somewhere under 4 feet tall; another, World Famous Bob, is clearly not within the insurance company’s weight charts. But her raunchy little number, in which her large and pendulous breasts fly, thrillingly, up and down in opposition, has her audience howling.

“You know you’re on to something when the girls in the crowd are just as excited as the men,” says D’Albert. “They’re like, ‘The girls are beautiful, and they’re great dancers. But it makes me feel like I could do this.’” Yeah, I tell her. Me too.

—Judith Lewis

Icons: Schmoozing Chuck

We’ve been promised Michael Bolton. Randy Travis. Bernie Kopell. Sheriff Lee Baca. And though everywhere I turn, I swear I see Bo Derek, tonight we’ve come for Chuck. We are, after all, schmoozing at the cocktail-party installment of “Salute to Chuck Norris,” a benefit in honor of Chuck’s retirement from CBS’s Walker, Texas Ranger. It’s a patio affair at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel. A loony mix of cucumber sushi, zinfandel, military servicemen in full-dress uniform and an all-female mariachi band. Tuxedo-clad sexagenarians and Nancy Reagan–esque women in sequined tunics work the room.

“Known him for 30 years,” growls a burly fellow at the bar. “Great man. Great man.” He hands over his business card: Bill Kolender, Sheriff, San Diego County. Mostly for lack of anything else to say, I admire the pin on his lapel. There is an art to flirting with men three times one’s age, an art that boils down to the time-honored tradition of a low-cut evening gown and indiscriminate giggling.

“You like it? It’s yours.” Undoing the clasp, he lurches forward and nabs the strap of my dress. He grins, wolflike. I’ve been deputized.

Chuck arrives to a fanfare of mariachi violins. His eyes glitter. His teeth sparkle. The crowd parts. A flotilla of couples follows in his wake. Deftly preserved women in red Versace gowns and control-top pantyhose strike poses on the arms of stately William Shatner lookalikes. Chuck, of course, is all smiles. One smile, actual- ly, that doesn’t leave his face the whole evening. There’s a Zen to Chuck that has to do with his black-on-black striped satin tux, the black cowboy epaulets stitched onto the jacket, the craggy cheeks. The grizzly, red beard.

The men swarm. They encircle Chuck and slap him on the back. They reminisce like old war buddies. They abandon their dates. Wives and nymphets alike drift at the edge of the whirl, clutching skinny cocktail glasses. The entire room swirls, kneaded by the great karate hand of Chuck.

There’s Chuck with General Hugh Shelton, retired chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. Chuck with the president of Monster Cable. Chuck with a captain from Edwards Air Force Base. Chuck with David “Joe Isuzu” Leisure. I edge into the receiving line to shake the sensei’s hand but am promptly bumped off by a large man in a USA-themed vest and matching boots. I catch a glimpse of Sheriff Kolender as he bear-hugs Chuck and reaches into his coat pocket for another star-shaped pin. Chuck’s circle of portly men collides with that of party host and former tennis star Vijay Amritraj. A momentary hush as Vijay and Chuck grasp arms like sumo wrestlers.

Out on the fringes, I’m introduced to blond Julie Benz from the WB’s Angel (mermaid-blue dress) and brunette Cerina Vincent of Not Another Teen Movie (pearls and rhinestones). They are two of the most gorgeous women I have ever met. That they have not been mobbed by throngs of salivating men and are parking it by the exit at a celebrity cocktail party is testament to the power of Chuck Chuck Chuck. This is no Britney mixer. Saluting, apparently, is a sport for men.

“I thought I was gonna have to crash this thing tonight,” Julie says.

I dutifully repeat my line for the evening: “So how do you know Chuck?”

“I don’t. But, gaaah!” she holds her arms away from her body and bends backward at the waist, “It’s Chuck Norris.” Spying the Chuckasaurus, she squeals, claps her hands and bounds away. And they call it Chuckie love.

Finally, I fight my way through the defense lines for 30 seconds with the master.

Chuck has soft hands. Never mind the tae kwan do, the tang soo do.

“Thanks for coming tonight,” he purrs.

My mind flashes to last night’s episode of Walker, Texas Ranger, “Rookie,” episode No. 524. Chuck’s protégé goes undercover on a drug bust.

“You didn’t get any action on Walker last night,” I offer.

“Hey, you gotta let me take a break sometime!” He does a little half karate-chop-kick. Two winks later, he’s gone.

Chuck may be the master, the justice enforcer, the stony-faced keeper of the realm, but I can’t help drifting toward the other end of the room where Bernie Kopell is making his entrance with a negative amount of pomp just as the band is launching into a chirpy rendition of “Baby, I’m Yours.” His Love Boat tan is gone, replaced by a thin flocking of ashy whiteness. Visions of golf shorts and Doc and Captain Stubing dance in my head. Kopell stands by himself. Serious. Mellow. No cowboy boots, just an elegant black tux and slim, silver-rimmed glasses.

“Excuse me, Mr. Kopell?” I touch his arm lightly. Two companions have joined him, both older men in their late 60s. They tilt their heads quizzically.

“Yes?”

“Can I just say that I’ve had the hugest crush on you ever since Love Boat.” For a heartbeat the four of us stare at each other. Oh crap. Should’ve stuck with Chuck.

He slaps his thigh and raises both eyebrows. “Whooo!” he cries, laughing, “Whoooo-hooo!” The night belongs to Chuck. But my heart belongs to Bernie.

—Gendy Alimurung

Art World: Do You Get the Dance of Darkness?

Five dancers swaddled in peasant rags moved across the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center’s stage in Little Tokyo last Friday with a painful slowness, doubling up on their own bodies, crawling snail-like on their hands and legs, contorting themselves like palsied rag dolls with bulging muscles. Less like The Nutcracker, quite unlike Swan Lake. More like yoga in slow motion, as amber set around the tableau. The soundtrack: clanging Buddhist prayer bowls, helicopters, white noise, church bells, the murmur of a crowd, rain and a familiar Spanish guitar piece that threatened to make the audience sing along, “Ay, ay, ay-ay . . .” (I remembered it from a commercial for salsa, or perhaps it was taco mix.)

“This is poopie,” my friend whispered in my ear about halfway through the performance by Tokason, a dance troupe formed by Min Tanaka, the greatest contemporary practitioner of Ankoku Butoh, the avant-garde “Dance of Darkness” established in Japan during the late 1950s.

Friday’s dance was supposedly based on Los Caprichos (trans. The Whims), a series of 80 etchings by Francisco de Goya, created in Spain in 1799 to savagely satirize the decadence of the church, the corruption of the monarchy and the brutality of the peasantry.

“If no one charged you $18 and told you this was art, you’d hate it,” my friend said. The guy next to me kept nodding off. The rest of us were rapt — or puzzled.

I think I got it, but then again, I had an inside track. For 10 days in September 1999, I visited Tanaka’s Body Weather Farm, a working farm in Hakushu, Japan, two and a half hours northwest of Tokyo. It was the last edition of a festival cheerfully known (or just mistranslated) as Art Camp, founded by Tanaka to further the work of Hijikata Tatsumi and Kazuo Ohno, the originators of Ankoku Butoh. Over the decade that it existed, more than 500 people took part in Tanaka’s workshops and learned a “way of being” while there. Or just a way of being there. It took some adjustment.

On a typical day you’d witness half-naked people in ashy white body paint dancing in rice paddies, through ponds and up trees. Or you’d kill, bleed and pluck a chicken that had been bitten in the ass by one of the farm’s dogs, and then make soup out of it. Or you’d drink vending- machine sake with an alcoholic Samoan choreographer who’d made a living in the ’80s working as a Japanese television personality, following in the footsteps of many fellow islanders. (Imagine a television culture of Stepin Fetchit and Sambo, only focused on assorted gaijen of considerable size.) Or you’d participate in the finale to the young person’s edition of Art Camp, which involved dozens of preteens trying to light a 25-foot torch by forming a ring around it, dipping rocks in fuel, setting them aflame and slinging them across the circle at one another. It was a place of opposites. Lots of scowls and laughter.

“We shake hands with the dead, who send us encouragement from beyond our body,” Tatsumi once said of the dance he co-created. “This is the unlimited power of Butoh.”

Friday’s program promised “a dramatic climax on the JACCC Plaza,” and outside all became clear(er). In the hour since we’d entered the theater, bamboo structures hung with unshucked rice had been erected in the courtyard. The ground was covered in broad stripes of blue and white tarp, and a red truck was parked at the corner of it. A spotlight on the truck’s flatbed shone a taut beam of light onto the moon; for a moment, though, it seemed as though that beam was being cast from the moon. The audience milled in confusion, tripped in depressions in the plaza and jockeyed for position. I smelled toothpaste. Was this a tribute to Aquafresh?

We were looking for answers. Tanaka was shaking hands with the dead. He appeared, dressed as an old soldier, and the music of a big band with a Japanese singer echoed in the night. The rest of Tokason emerged, stumbled about and handed out rice.

It made you angry or it made you think: At times like this, the lines between entertainers and artists are clearly drawn. Entertainers are drawn to tributes and charity events. Artists are prone to memorials. And, really my friends, those are not for you.

—Alec Hanley Bemis