It’s not often that a wonderful and strange mystery enters your lap. For any of us who have either picked up Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, one can’t but help wanting to answer a question once it’s been posed to us. This inherent need to solve riddles is one of the many things that separates us from the animals. Well, that, and algebra, bad lighting, the need to eat ‘fusion’ style foods and a host of other things. But as anyone who knows about me or my blog will tell you, I’m a self-professed Vancouver-o-phile, so any mystery that pertains to my city and my burlesque profession are bound to pique my interest. So when it came to my attention that there was such a wonderful enigma that was resting, stealth-like that has existed among us, I couldn’t help but obey the call of the hunt.
As part of my day-time alter-ego, I work in a wonderful shop just off of Main street called Lace Embrace. Home to authentic and historically accurate corsets, it’s where I can be found in the light of day. As a collector of antique corsets, and owner of the largest in the world, the designer Melanie is also a tango enthusiast (as am I and so is one of my other lady-bosses. Not surprising as all tango is a perfect five minute love affair). It was this love of the antique costume and the tango that set events unfolding before me. I was at the shop when Klaus, who is a long-time member of the Original Costume Museum Society came in and we began talking of an artist who’s show he had recently attended. He had said that she had been a burlesque dancer one upon a time in Vancouver, and she had a old promotional shot hung on her door with strategically placed jewels on it. He said it so carelessly that I almost missed it, since he talked about her as if I already knew her. I assumed that he meant Judith Stein, the only BC, and indeed, the only Canadian burlesque Legend that I knew about. For those unaware of terminology (since I appreciate that not everyone reading this is a burlesque dancer, past or present) the term “Legend” is applied to a dancer who came before the neo-burlesque movement and performed ‘back in the day’ as it were. When Klaus pointed out that it was not Judith, I was intrigued. Here was potentially a Vancouver Legend, who had performed in our own city in the first wave!
You could hear my toes curling so much that the nails etched out little grooves inside of my shoes.
So given my skills at online stalking, I was armed with her name and determined to track this lady of mystery down. I decided to cast a slightly wider net with my old stand-by: Google. As we know, it can be a help and a hindrance, but I Google’d her name and got the artist’s website. I figured that I’d gamble a chance to see if maybe I could contact her and see if she would be interested in talking to me about her experiences, as a dancer and what she could tell me about what it was like performing in Vancouver in her time. Failing that this was not she, I’d just have an awkward, ‘Oh well, sorry this was meant for someone else’ type message to answer. But luck was on my side, she did reply, and was curious about who had told me about her. I explained that I myself was a dancer of the same form and I wanted a connection of sorts to our past.
It’s difficult to convey that moment of hope. In the USA, they still have and celebrate many of their Legends. But as time wears on, people grow older and people pass away. I have the largest library of vintage books on burlesque in Western Canada (if not all of Canada) and in the books, especially the European ones, I often wonder where are the women pictured there now. Who are they? Do they still talk about their performances? For our history about our art form, it’s so important to us and where we come from as modern burlesque dancers that we have that connection. As we still sometimes struggle to get recognized as a legitimate art form, I can only imagine the strength of character our fore-bearers laid down for us. Our USA counterparts have a large collection of national treasures with their ladies, and at Burlesque Hall Of Fame every June in Las Vegas we all get a chance to sit at their feet and admire, love, and respect these ladies and their stories. In Canada, we don’t have as many of the ladies, and their identities and their experiences remain hidden and a secret. Every bit of memory, scrap of costume, and trace of prop that they are willing to share with us gives a sense of connection to our past, especially in Vancouver. Where we no longer have many of the venues that once existed: The Cave, The Smiling Buddha, The Pantages, and more. To have a chance to connect with that potential and get a perspective about the history of Vancouver from one of our own floored me.
This story does have a happy ending. Or beginning, deciding on your point of view. She agreed to meet with me and I have the delight of reporting that she is one of the most lovely ladies it’s been my pleasure to meet. While I am still gathering the right way to introduce her past and present in this digital medium, she is still a dancer (tango) and a writer and a painter. She took photographs of other dancers she performed with, and still has them and old photos of herself. She is living proof to me that we must not just get lost in the pursuit of our art, but celebrate it along with each other, and our chosen families. She has attended both Sweet Sip at the Keefer bar and Kitty Nights at the Biltmore. I can’t wait to take her to a few Guilt and Company Tuesday nights to see Pandora and the Locksmiths, Luciterra and Cabaret Du Passe. Not to mention the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival this year. Who knows? It may inspire her to take the stage there next year. And in turn continue to inspire the rest of us.
Finished, but still to be continued… Part 2 to come…
Little Miss Risk