It's not a "best of," say the women of BellaDonna, Albuquerque's most traditional burlesque troupe. Best of’s are what you put out before you retire, and goodness knows Cookie Fortune, Henrietta LeCoup and Cherry Jubilee aren't going anywhere.
Instead, their next appearance at the Guild Cinema will be the greatest hits of puppet and host Haljalikakick's years. He's leaving, but the four-year-old troupe is here to stay. They've even picked up a gig as the city's cultural ambassadors. "We've had our pictures taken with every tourist in the city," Cookie laughs.
It was the funniest phone conversation Cherry ever had. AJ Carian called and introduced himself as the cultural deputy of the city. "At first, I was thinking, 'Uh oh. What did we do?'" Carian made his proposal to have BellaDonna act as representatives of the city. "I'm like, 'Sure,’" Cherry pauses. "Do you know what we do?"
Their work for the city mostly entails wearing saloon girl costumes and knowing lots of information about Albuquerque. Otherwise, traditional and relatively innocent though their act may be, shows are another story. They strut, they perform, they tease—and they strip. Not down to a g-string a la modern pole dancers, but everything except the ladybits and nips can be exposed during a night on the Guild's 10-by-10 stage.
Strut. Perform. Tease. Strip. Nothing is ever that simple.
These women have had to learn it all on their own, culling sources from obscure places, the lore of burlesque mostly unrecorded since it was considered low-brow popular entertainment in its initial heyday. Questions like: Which adhesive works best for pasties? Which stockings make your legs look longer? How do you get your underwear to lay nicely on your ass? (Answers: Spirit gum, thigh highs, hairspray).
"There's all this funny stuff you have to do. There's no manual," Henrietta says. For the ladies of BellaDonna, it's been a matter of trial and error, of finding out which kinds of costumes are the easiest to peel away and learning to take off a bra with your back to the crowd in case your pasties don't stick, "One time, I even had to hold my pasties on with my tassels hanging through my fingers," Henrietta laughs.
Rehearsals are informal affairs, the three burly-q dancers in pajamas and work clothes smoking and discussing promotions, money and shows, lounging on a plush couch with two big hound dogs. Cookie grabs her bag full of gear and begins sewing on stray sequins and pulling on hanging threads. Clearly comfortable with one another's nudity, they change quickly in the living room. Henrietta blows on Cookie’s breasts to help dry the eyelash glue, an experimental alternative to spirit gum, which causes problems for pierced nips.
"Your stereo's in the way," Henrietta shouts later as she prances her way across the living room, crossing in front of the entertainment system. Her sexy is a heavily choreographed sexy, says the lifelong dancer. "It's all about muscle memory. Once I have that, then I can be sensual." Her practice shirt doesn't unbutton properly, throwing off the timing of her piece. She waits through the songs intro again, ready to pick up where she left off, half-dressed. "I've been dancing since I was three. Who knew it was going to lead to this?"
It's fun to stake your claim on the fact that you're a sexual being, she says. Through all the details, the costume-making, the business end of it, it's easy to forget that it's about sexuality, Cherry adds. "But it so is about sexuality," Cookie chimes in. "And when you perform, it's so in our face."
Cookie knew she'd really achieved something when she realized she was helping women feel good about themselves. Women come up to her after the shows and tell her they're so glad to see a real woman in this kind of setting. "As a bigger girl, it's like, 'look at me! I'm not ashamed.' I'm basically out there shaking what my mama gave me."