Busy with burlesque

Miss Jezebel Express left St. John’s for the Big Apple to pursue her dream

Published on August 13, 2011
New York-based burlesque performer Miss Jezebel Express is shown in a 2007 photo. Express, who moved from St. John’s four years ago, is back in town for a visit. She’ll hold two burlesque workshops at Wild Lily Dance Centre today and Thursday, and will perform at “Wheels and Heels,” a fundraiser for the 709 Derby Girls, Aug. 20. — Submitted photo by Terry Rice

She’s only got a few hours to pack her suitcase for Newfoundland and Miss Jezebel Express is having trouble. So far, she says, she’s got it narrowed down to a pair of jeans, two T-shirts and one pair of sneakers.

And 10 glitzy dresses, four pairs of heels and lots of fake eyelashes.

It’s Express’s first trip back to what she calls her home province since 2007, when — having single-handedly established a burlesque scene here — she left for New York in an attempt to realize her dream of becoming a full-time burlesque performer.

“The best of almost everything I love is here: the best writers, the best dancers, the best theatre. I love it. It’s hard and it’s really expensive and there’s a ton of competition, but I’m totally in love with the city. I wake up and go outside and someone rollerblades past me smoking a joint; I’m like, ‘Ah, it’s New York!’” Express said in a phone interview, laughing.

Express is a native of Iowa (whose parents are both Newfoundlanders), with university degrees in English and dance.

She moved to St. John’s after receiving a prestigious Fulbright grant, with the intent of writing fiction and poetry about this province. She did — and continues to freelance for various websites and publications — and in the meantime, kept up with her dancing.

Qualified to teach dance and realizing there wasn’t much around in the way of burlesque shows, Express started doing them as part of Neighbourhood Dance Works fundraising shows and conducting workshops to teach others.

In 2006, she formed the province’s first burlesque troupe, The Purity Girls. Lead by Express and with character names like Miss Kitty Page and KeiKei DeMurre, The Purity Girls hosted shows around downtown and released their own pinup calendar.

“People in Newfoundland really didn’t know burlesque, so there was a long process of getting them familiar with it,” Express explained. “The first time I ever did burlesque in Newfoundland, I got up and took my gloves off for three minutes.

“That was something I think Newfoundland and St. John’s needed because it wasn’t an art form people were familiar with there, and it was something I needed. I think the city and I worked our way up to proper body burlesque at the same pace.”

When Express left St. John’s for New York, her pace got even quicker. She realized everything in the city, which has a large burlesque community, is bigger, louder and more sparkly.

“It’s a theatre town, so people expect a bigger spectacle to be impressed,” she explained. “It’s important to do a big act and have a big persona for people to remember you. In Newfoundland, how many burlesque dancers are there? In New York there are hundreds, and there’s a show every night of the week; lots of nights there are three or four shows. You need to stand out, you need to be memorable and you have to make the audience pay attention.”

Express has made a name for herself in the crowded New York scene. She performs at venues around the city, and has become known for her old glamour-style burlesque, fan dancing and a number of signature performances, including her firefly act, in which she performs wearing an LED-lit insect “tail.”

She’s performed at the New York Burlesque Festival, where, in 2008, she was nominated for a Golden Pastie award for “best booty shaker,” and co-produces “Glitter and Gin” burlesque-theatre shows. She’s been featured in several episodes of the award-winning webseries “Gin Town” and starred in the short film “Miss Jezebel’s Feathers.”

Internationally, Express was chosen as one of 12 Best Debut contestants in 2007’s Miss Exotic World burlesque pageant.

Express is on the faculty at the New York School of Burlesque, where she teaches every week.

While in St. John’s over the next two weeks, Express is taking some of her most popular classes and condensing them into a two-hour intensive workshop, which she’s offering at Wild Lily Dance Centre on Duckworth Street this afternoon and Thursday evening.

The $25 workshop, which will be part movement, part choreography, is aimed at dancers of all levels and body shapes.

“We’re going to do some basic burlesque movement and learn some of the history of burlesque, learn how to build a sexy character, how to choreograph an act if you wanted to make up a burlesque routine and how to walk in high heels with confidence,” Express explain­ed.

She’s also planning to teach students how to look good onstage, even if they’re not trained dancers.

“There are lots of easy ways to look really professional and put-together onstage, and you don’t have to be a great dancer — you just have to know things like where to put your hands or how to do a confident, flirtatious face,” she said.

Express is also performing while she’s in town, at “Wheels and Heels,” a fundraising show for the 709 Derby Girls to be held at the Rock House on George Street Aug. 20.

Express said she’d love to be able to get back to Newfoundland more often, but would recommend New York to any aspiring performer.

“I think it takes a lot, but it’s been one of the more fun adventures in my life. I love New York and I wouldn’t take back all the opportunity it’s given me for the world,” she explained.

“It’s weird, though. I perform in New York, Vegas, Toronto, Los Angeles, San Fransisco, Washington, all over the place, and the place I miss most? Newfoundland.”

Spaces in Express’s workshops are limited, and participants must register in advance online at www.jezebelexpress.com.