Millions of Marylanders were glued to their sets this past weekend as native son Michael Phelps splashed his name into the annals of Olympic history. Dripping Speedos notwithstanding, a smaller but no less enthusiastic crowd cheered on hometown hopefuls, as a dozen dancers competed in the Star Search tryouts for the New York Burlesque Festival.
The competition, which was staged at The Ottobar last Thursday, featured a variety of entertainers from the greater Baltimore/D.C. area and from several cities beyond. The top two winners of the event received cash and other prizes plus an invitation to appear in the New York Burlesque Festival in September.
The Ottobar audition was hilariously hosted by The World Famous Bob. The judges were burlesque superstars Angie and Helen Pontani, event co-founder Jen “Thirsty Girl” Gapay and burlesque legend, Gabriella Maze. Contestants were judged in the areas of overall performance, audience response, stage presence and costume.
The crowd of 100 or so which gathered to take in the competition was small by Ottobar standards, but was no less clamourous in its cheers for the Baltimore beauties.
Area performers who participated in the competition included Maria Bella, Marla Meringue, Petra Precocious, Sunny Sighed and her cohort Bal’d Lightning. South of towners included D.C. delights Morna Handful, Cherokee Rose, Crystal Swarovski, and Stache – the greying, lone boylesque entry, from Springfield, Va.
The audience at the Ottobar was a mix of the curious and true connoisseurs.
Lisa, an au pair from Annapolis who said she once moonlighted as a pole dancer, was attending her first burlesque show. Lisa said she attended “to see what burlesque was like.”
“With stripping, you know what’s coming. But with burlesque, you never know what to expect.”
Aaron, from Baltimore, was asked if he was a fan of burlesque. “Yeah” he replied, “You’d be hard pressed to find somebody who isn’t (a fan) if they really know what it is.”
Aaron’s wife, who appears locally under the moniker of Addie Pocere, is a burlesque dancer. Addie teams with another dancer named Holly Go Darkly. Both took a class with Gilded Lily Burlesque before striking out on their own. Addie contends that, “Baltimore is a great place to do (burlesque). There are more burlesque friendly venues here than there are in New York.”
The Star Search opened with a Star Wars theme as Crystal Swarovski shed her Darth Vader costume to reveal that Yoda was much closer to Princess Leia than anyone could ever imagine. Chicago native Raven Gemini came after her with an alluring number, followed by hometown honey Marla Meringue in her deliciously biting shark routine.
Brooklyn’s Poppy Tart had feathers flying as she left the crowd wondering which came first: the stripper or the egg? And Cherokee Rose offered a classic grind which had the audience begging for more.
Other acts featured Alexandria dancer Mourna Handful in a high powdered wig and tri-color hat, eschewing a certain trip to the guillotine while subtly suggesting to the starving crowd: “Let them eat cake.” Buxom beekeeper Petra Precocious did her own sort of stinging, and Maria Bella cast off her colorful costume – a brass Bundy trumpet in hand. Stache offered a comical social commentary as he went for broke with a roll of the dice and ended up literally losing his shirt, while New Orleans’ own Nona Narcisse offered an intoxicating poetic/steam punk dance.
Sunny Sighed and Bal’d, regulars with Baltimore’s Sticky Buns Burlesque, went all out with a rendition of, “I Can Cook” from the Broadway show, On the Town. Sunny, who now lives in Salisbury, Md., is a graduate of the Shenandoah Conservatory. After years of moving about, Sighed says she has found a home in burlesque. “The great thing about burlesque,” she exclaimed, “is it allows a woman to feel beautiful as you are.”
Each performer was allowed one routine, then the judges broke to decide the winners. Helen Pontani said the performers had “Inspired (her) to go home and get to work.”
The second act featured turns by the Pontani Sisters; each doing a show-stopping number. It was fascinating to watch the Pontanis work their magic. The energy of the aspiring auditioneers was undeniable but the Pontanis’ polished performances took the event to a whole other level.
After the Pontani Sisters closed the show, the contestants were called to the stage. Some in the audience appeared letdown as Meringue received a third place honorable mention. Considering the talent at the competition, bringing home an honorary bronze was no easy feat. Meringue said as much in a post on the Facebook event page, writing she, “had a wonderful time and was honored to perform for all the judges.” Other contestants expressed similar sentiments.
The silver went to saucy standout Maria Bella. Bella, who hit all the right notes with her take on, “You’ve Gotta Get a Gimmick” from the show, Gypsy, also won an invite to appear in the New York Burlesque Festival.
The winner of the Ottobar event was New Orleans dancer Nona Narcisse. Narcisse was phenomenal in her sinfully seductive strip. She and Bella will compete with some 150 other acts in New York on September 27-30.
For those who can not make the New York Burlesque Festival, but would like a taste of the tassels and tease, shows are slated here in the Baltimore area over the next couple of weeks. Glided Lily Burlesque is presenting Surrealesque at Ottobar on Aug. 10, while Sticky Buns Burlesque rocks the same stage with Strip Club Time Machine on Aug. 16. Tilted Torch, Baltimore Birdcage and Twisted Knickers also have shows in the works Check them out on Facebook or look for announcements in the Sun, the City Paper and the Baltimore Post-Examiner.
In the meantime, enjoy the Olympics and cheer on Michael Phelps or your favorite team. Just remember: weightlifting, badminton and synchronized swimming may be entertaining, but burlesque (and the lovely ladies who bump and bedazzle), by any measure, is a lot more fun.
Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A one-time newsboy for the Evening Sun and professional presence at the Washington Herald, Tony’s poetry, photography, humor, and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore!, Destination Maryland, Magic Octopus Magazine, Los Angeles Post-Examiner, Voice of Baltimore, SmartCEO, Alvarez Fiction, and Tales of Blood and Roses. If you notice that his work has been purloined, please let him know. As the Good Book says, “Thou shalt not steal.”