Ms. Burgundy gives L.A. Weekly a behind-the-scenes look at burlesque.
Ms. Burgundy gives L.A. Weekly a behind-the-scenes look at burlesque.
Michelle Niellose

Behind the Burlesque Scene: What It's Like Trying Out for Dita Von Teese

Tremors of excitement tore through Los Angeles' dance/drag/performer community last week as burlesque icon Dita von Teese announced an open casting call for her latest project. It all began with a rather vague Instagram post on Monday, Aug. 20: Dancers of all genders and variety acts would be seen at the famed Hollywood Roosevelt's Blossom Ballroom between noon and 4 p.m.

Within a day, the post received nearly 7,500 likes and provoked multiple chat threads speculating about the new project. What is she looking for? Where will the new show take place? Am I good enough?

"We are seeing dancers of all abilities, from professional dancers, burlesquers, to strippers and variety acts," Von Teese wrote in a follow-up post after all the hoopla. "Not being able to follow choreography doesn't discount anyone for me. In fact, some of my favorite performers are not technical dancers. ... Truth be told, even at the height of my ballet dancing, I was just a flower or a snowflake in the back, trying to keep up! But where there's a will there's a way, and here I am, burlesque dancer."

This post generated 80,000-plus likes and more than 600 comments poured into her feed. Although the audition called for Los Angeles–based performers only, we saw frenzied hopefuls from all over the globe contemplating a last-minute plane ticket for a chance to perform in front of their idol. Her warm reassurance turned the idea of auditioning from fearful "what if" to a fun "why not"?

Which brought us back to our first burlesque audition, in 2002, for Los Angeles' pioneers of the burlesque revival, the Velvet Hammer. Those days were quite different. Pulling up to an unmarked loft downtown, we recall shooting some Jack Daniels and ascending a staircase into an opium den–like space, filled with more liquor and a "let's see what ya got, kid" attitude. We almost chickened out but for a little light coercing from founder Michelle Carr. We passed the DJ our music and gave the cue: "Just play the song until the clothes come off."

Vanessa Burgundy at Bootleg Bombshells
Vanessa Burgundy at Bootleg Bombshells
Marc Goldstein

There was a punk-rockness about it all, the only rules being no fake boobs; no professional strippers; no porn stars; and no bad attitudes. This has changed throughout the years, as physical alterations have become more prevalent and accepted in the burlesque scene. Body shaming of any kind is never tolerated, however. We ended up dancing and touring with the Velvet Hammer, and even performed onstage with Dita back then. Though Velvet Hammer disbanded in late 2004, we've since performed and produced burlesque shows on nearly every stage in SoCal and beyond.

But were we ready for Dita and whatever new spectacle she was planning? A recent leg injury was telling us no, but our lust to be part of the glitz wasn't going to let us miss out. Besides, we had a really cute outfit to show off ... and take off.

Monday was another gorgeous 86 degrees in Los Angeles, and by 11 a.m., Hollywood Boulevard was already abuzz with tourists and slacker actors in dirty Spider-Man onesies. Little did they know, just a few feet away, real Hollywood dreams were being made behind the landmark doors of the Roosevelt Hotel. The Blossom Ballroom was a romantic choice, as it was the site of Tinseltown's very first Academy Awards in 1929.

It was quarter-till by the time we arrived, and the butterflies sat trepid as we changed our shoes from comfy boulevard-walking flats into pinup-presentable rhinestone heels. Sparkle is the No. 1 confidence booster for would-be starlets. The lobby and surrounding areas were surprisingly quiet until a security guard escorted us to a private holding room, where the excitment was bubbling. The L.A. burlesque community represented proud and strong. There were also troupes and performers from San Diego, San Francisco and as far as Miami. Dita's name clearly brought out the will to relocate!

The room seemed an equal divide of technical and burlesque dancers, some focusing on their 1, 2, 3, 4s and others on their cha-cha-cha's. Age ranged from 21 (the casting cutoff) to mid-50s. The technical were mostly stretching, the hoochie-coochie gals looking for coffee, and the whole lot gossiping and speculating. We were shushed a few times as they were filming next door, begging the question of whether this was some sort of new reality show or documentary. At 12:09 p.m., we were told to line up and grab a number. It was time.

We got No. 101 out of approximately 130 attendees, a small number for such a huge online response. We're sure nerves and insecurity kept a few out of the running. Passing out the numbers was none other than our girl-crush and Dita's Copper Coupe cast member Ginger Valentine. Leading the audition and teaching choreography was Miss Donna Hood (Tease, If You Please!), who did an amazing job keeping the performers at ease with enthusiastic words and genuine smiles.

As we entered the famed ballroom, there was Dita herself, sitting perfectly poised in the front. As we soon found out, Von Follies is her latest venture into vaudeville-style entertainment at the Roosevelt Theater, inside the hotel.

After a short "walking" choreo lesson that included a little shake and shimmy, we were encouraged to relax but also throw in any extras we might have at the end to showcase personality. We were impressed by an alluring male dancer with shocking red hair and posture that could cut ice. Dita seemed impressed as well, as her eyes and smile followed him, and every other male in attendance. Boylesque is always fun to watch, and Von Teese has incorporated it into her past productions.

Local burlesque ladies who made the cut included Jessabelle Thunder and Egypt Blaque Knyle. There were also a handful of plus-sized powerhouses with prowess, and a few of the technically trained gals whose high kicks made our eyelashes flutter. Twenty dancers were chosen, but even the 100-plus who weren't seemed happy for the experience. It was the least "Hollywood" audition we've ever been to. And though we weren't among the chosen, we're excited to see the show, as it will surely be another example of burlesque at its best.

We wanted to know more, so we contacted Von Teese the next day, asking about her vision for the project and why she chose to cast it the way she did. "I was surprised at the massive turnout we had with such short notice. I didn't expect it, because I only sent the call out to my social media followers rather than to the dance agencies," she said via email. "I was happy to see professional dancers, established burlesque performers and non-dancers that just have fantastic presence because that's one of the most valuable assets a performer can have, that can't always be taught. It meant a lot to me to see burlesque dancers that are already stars in their own right coming out to do the choreography for us as well.

"The energy in the room was quite something," she continued. "We let everyone stay even if they were cut, because we wanted everyone to feel included and welcome, regardless of whether we chose them in the end or not. I always remember going to ballet auditions and trying things that were beyond my ability, and wishing I could stay and watch to see what I could maybe be doing better, so we wanted to let dancers stay and watch, and they were all cheering for each other, which I loved. It was hard not to become emotional about it. Honestly, it's one of the things I am most proud of in my career is bringing people together whether it's as performers or as audience members. Burlesque has become a place of acceptance and inspiration for people, and that's what keeps me going."

Although we didn't make the final cut, we still felt more than accomplished. The supportive energy in the room was nothing short of overwhelming, and being able to perform in front of the world's biggest burlesque superstar put an extra sparkle in our step that will remain wherever we perform next. Burlesque celebrates artists. Not a body type, not a gender, but art. This was clear in Dita's vision, and it's how most of us in this sexy world feel about entertaining.

You can see what came out of this unforgettable day at an intimate one-night-only show and party on Saturday, Sept. 15. Von Teese said she hopes to do something similar on a weekly basis in 2019, after her European tour dubbed The Art of the Teese. She's also working on another large-scale show in one of the historic downtown theaters for New Year's Eve.

Dita Von Teese Presents: The Von Follies at the Roosevelt Hotel, 7000 Hollywood Blvd. Sat., Sept. 15, 8 p.m. More info at thehollywoodroosevelt.com/about/happenings/dita-von-teese-presents-von-follies.

Vanessa Burgundy produces and performs the burlesque shows at the Mondo Hollywood Festival at Union, 4067 W. Pico Blvd.; Sun., Sept. 2. More info at facebook.com/events/187071125295298.

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