Southern Fried Burlesque Festival has curve appeal

Gals bare (almost) all over one titillating weekend

Do a burlesque dancer’s pasties obey the laws of physics? As the culmination of an old-school striptease number, pasties seemingly defy gravity — and the collective wishes of the men in the audience — to cling to a dancer’s naughty bits. The most adroit burlesque performer can even make her pasties’ tassels spin propeller-style in opposite directions. If pasty-power could only be harnessed, it could solve our nation’s renewable energy needs.

The construction of a performance-ready pasty is a fine art, Atlanta burlesque performer D’Lilah D’Lite teaches fledgling dancer Pearl. E. White one Sunday afternoon at Pera Dance Studio. Fishing line, for instance, can give tassels high-speed spin, while E600 Glue provides the all-purpose adhesive for glitter or rhinestones.

“We were just joking that I should get a tattoo of E600 Glue, surrounded by a halo. ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Stickiness,’” says red-headed vixen D’Lilah, the mischievous “pasty queen” of Syrens of the South, a 4-year-old Atlanta burlesque troupe. The way the Syrens joke around, they could just as easily be a quilting bee or ladies bowling league, except for the public nudity.

Pearl E. is putting the finishing touches on her Wonder Woman-meets-Rocky Balboa outfit for her Student Showcase performance at the Southern Fried Burlesque Festival. The inaugural regional event was organized by Syrens of the South performers/producers Katherine “Lashe” Neslund and Ursula Undress. The festival, which takes place March 10-13 at the Decatur Holiday Inn, will feature more than 60 performers from across the Southeast to showcase the breadth of neo-burlesque styles: from old-school gown-and-glove striptease to more comedic tattoo-and-rockabilly numbers to routines that wed titillation to pop culture in unpredictable ways.

“There aren’t any other major festivals in the Southeast besides the New Orleans Burlesque Festival, which focuses on classic burlesque,” says Neslund. Because Atlanta’s neo-burlesque community works closely with performers across the Southeast, Syrens of the South came up with Southern Fried Burlesque Festival to convey the community’s regional scope.

In a way it makes sense that Atlanta, with its reputation as the strip-club capital of the South, should also become a regional hub for the neo-burlesque movement. But where stripping sells flesh and club music, neo-burlesque emphasizes the allure and glamour of the old-fashioned striptease, winking at vaudeville-style antics with a contemporary edge.

Atlanta currently is home to multiple burlesque troupes, including Blast-Off Burlesque, Dames Aflame and Syrens of the South, which Neslund co-founded in 2007. Neslund estimates that nearly 100 Atlantans are involved in the local burlesque scene in some fashion. She credits dancer Torchy Taboo for almost single-handedly bringing the movement to Atlanta in the late ’90s.

“I’ve been stripping for 28 years, which is amazing, because I’m only 29 years old,” quips Torchy, who founded Dames Aflame. Also known as Eva Wynne-Warren, the petite pinup knew she wanted to be a burlesque dancer even before she knew what the job entailed.

“By age 10, I decided I wanted to be a stripper when I grew up. I thought it would be glamorous — I didn’t know it was just boring men’s clubs.” She says that as a “tragically bored” professional stripper, “On stage, I’d be in my happy place, playing as close to old music as they would let me get away with, daydreaming that I was Gypsy Rose Lee.”

When she performed a classic-style burlesque show at a Bettie Page look-alike contest for Dragon*Con, complete with a matador costume and the mariachi-style music of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, she was inspired to pursue new stagings of traditional striptease. She began putting on shows locally in 1995, frequently at the Star Bar, but had trouble finding performers to join her on stage.

“Strippers didn’t like to do the shows then, because I couldn’t guarantee them even a fifth of what they’d make on a Friday night. I’d pay them in high-end costumes,” she says. Professional dancers, on the other hand, balked at the idea. “Convincing girls that they needed to look like drag queens and strip — they’d say, ‘You’re nuts!’”

Torchy frequently teamed up with singer Mike Geier of Atlanta rockabilly band Kingsized and produced burlesque shows through the late ’90s as a labor of love. “I didn’t make any money, so bills would come due and I’d have to give my car away or sell something. I sacrificed big time to do these shows.”

When Torchy attended the first Tease-O-Rama convention in New Orleans in 2001, she realized that the neo-burlesque subculture was bigger and more established than she imagined. “Little did I know that there were single, headstrong women in a dozen other cities doing the same thing I was,” she says.

Torchy will headline the Southern Fried Burlesque Festival alongside a lineup of national performers, including Dirty Martini, Jo “Boobs” Weldon, Tiffany Carter and Gyna Rose Jewel. She’ll be performing twice and is preparing a new “very Southern, very Scarlett O’Hara” routine as well as a number from her repertoire, “Sandwichina the Sandwich Queena.”

Torchy finds that the scene she helped foster in Atlanta often values vaudeville-style comedy, but Neslund hopes the Southern Fried Burlesque Festival will emphasize the inclusivity of the South. “Some parts of the country mainly focus on classic burlesque, some are more politically motivated, and some lean more toward performance art,” she says. “But you can go to shows in the South and see everything in one show.”