The face of burlesque in Iowa
By Chad Taylor
America has always been a little weird when
it comes to nipples — female nipples, specifically.
We can’t show them on TV. We’re uncomfortable
around them in public. If you’re making a movie,
you can fill it with explosions and violence
and bad words and all the boy nipples you want,
but if you show a female breast, you’ve pretty
much sewn up your “R” rating. Justin Timberlake
can perform at the Super Bowl and sing a song
about getting a woman naked, and it’s all OK,
but actually get a boob out, and there’ll be
lawsuits, buddy, and right quick. So in a way,
it’s fitting that Phoenix L’Amour’s biggest
headlines have been the result of her nipple.
“I did a balloon pop routine where I have balloons
attached to my costume all around my body,”
said L’Amour (real name: Erin O’Grady). “I had
balloons attached to each pastie, and I wasn’t
going to pop those ones. Unfortunately, one
of my balloons came off during my performance,
so I quickly turned around and… we did an on-stage
costume change behind a sheet, and from where
(the police officers in attendance) were sitting
(they) could see behind the sheet.”
At the time of the alleged infraction at the
Ingersoll Theater, L’Amour and another performer
— Julia “Madam Jules” Mahlstadt — were both
issued citations by the Des Moines Police Department
for giving the crowd a larger helping of the
goods than allowed by law. For L’Amour, the
citation was a setback, but nothing she planned
on dwelling on. But, for various reasons, others
were happy to dwell for her.
“I figured we would just pay our fines and move
on,” she said. “(But) Monday morning The Des
Moines Register was knocking on our door at
8 a.m. KCCI was calling to do a story. It was
Two days after the incident, the Smoking Gun
got hold of the police report, and it made its
front page. Two days later, Jezebel.com grabbed
the story from Smoking Gun and ran with it.
The incident was even remarked upon in this
very publication’s “Good/Bad/Ugly” column (the
incident was deemed to be “Bad”). Most everyone,
it seemed, was chagrined by the notion of tax
dollars being spent to police nipples at a burlesque
Colby Cushman, known as Dannie Diesel, heads
up her own troupe: Burlesque le Moustache.
She is also a part of the show “American
Pickers.” Photo by joshuablackwilkins.com
Mahlstadt, in what would later be described
as a cost/benefit move, pleaded guilty to the
charge of prohibited acts. For her, the effort
and cost of disputing the citation weren’t worth
the trade-off for the misdemeanor fine. L’Amour
called her lawyer, Brandon Clark. Clark filed
a motion to see the video recorded by the DMPD.
Then, everybody kind of pumped the brakes.
“It took forever for the case to even be seen,”
said L’Amour. “I still have never seen the video.
My lawyer has never seen the video.”
The case was continued. And again. And again.
L’Amour’s attorney fell ill and was briefly
hospitalized. In January, nearly four months
after the incident, prosecutors dropped the
charges after the DMPD fumbled the video evidence.
The case was dismissed, clearing the way for
L’Amour to get back to doing what she loved.
What we commonly refer to as “burlesque” nowadays
is more accurately termed “American burlesque.”
While burlesque — like just about everything
else — originated in Europe, the burlesque shows
you’d see in London or Paris in the 1870s were
much more political and satirical. Think Monty
Python more than Moulin Rouge. It wasn’t until
the entertainment form came to the United States
that the striptease was fully incorporated.
While there was certainly a bawdy element to
the great burlesque shows of Europe, the true
masters of titillation were all-American. Sally
Rand, Gypsy Rose Lee and Margie Hart were all
larger-than-life stars who traveled the country
But in Iowa, the history of burlesque is not
a rich and vibrant one. During the art form’s
American heyday, spanning from the turn of the
20th century into the 1940s, large troupes were
formed in places like New York City and Chicago.
But, aside from the occasional whistle-stop
tour in river port towns like Davenport or Dubuque,
Iowa remained largely pastie-free. Nationally,
burlesque shuffled along through the now middle-aged
century, tent-poled by graceful, aging stars
like Rand and Lee. By the 1970s, the art form
had reached what writer Robert Clyde Allen called
“its final, shabby demise.”
But, as singer-songwriter Peter Allen tells
us, “Everything old is new again.” A neo-burlesque
movement picked up steam in the early ’90s,
thanks in no small part to promotion-savvy performers
like Dita Von Teese. Over the years, the art
form has been re-imagined, perfected and packaged
for a YouTube audience by a slew of neo-burlesque
performers including Dirty Martini, LouLou D’vil
and Little Brooklyn — which brings us home.
Burlesque in Iowa is now alive and well, thanks
in large part to Des Moines’ own Phoenix L’Amour
and her sisters in arms across the state.
The Lone Wolf
L’Amour has a background rooted in more traditional
dance, as both a student and an instructor,
and formed her own competitive tap group while
living in Chicago.
styled by Chanda Jones at Bombshell Bettys;
makeup by Angela Stensrud. “There are a
lot of stereotypes about what’s OK. I kind
of just ignore all that,” said Phoenix L’Amour.
Photo by Chad Taylor |
“I taught dance for many, many years,” she
said. “But there wasn’t a future for me in dance
because I’m 5-foot-3 and do not have a dancer
body type. So when I got hold of this art form,
I felt like it was something that I really fit
That feeling took hold for good in the early
part of 2008 when L’Amour and her friend Sarah
Johnson decided to start a troupe of their own.
“(We) kind of had an obsession with the ’40’s,”
said L’Amour. “We decided that we wanted to
start a burlesque troupe because we both had
an appreciation for it, and we both had a background
in dance. We held auditions in November of 2008
and created the group St Vitus and the Taxi
Dancers, which was the first burlesque troupe
in Des Moines.”
In addition to being the first group of its
type, St Vitus and the Taxi Dancers also marked
the point where Erin O’Grady officially started
performing as Phoenix L’Amour. The group allowed
L’Amour to get her first taste of burlesque
performance. It also was where she began to
receive recognition and support for her efforts
— instilling in her the drive and desire to
continue her growth as a performer and promoter.
“We performed all over,” she said. “We did 80/35.
So when we disbanded as a group, I made a promise
to myself that I wanted to continue doing burlesque
and educate myself as much as possible. So I
performed at the Windy City Burlesque Festival
in Chicago in 2010 and just started networking
and getting to know other burlesque dancers
around the Midwest. After that, it just kind
L’Amour spends a good chunk of her fall season
touring, but she also devotes a hefty portion
of her time to her Iowa School of Burlesque,
which she started last year. After her run in
at the Ingersoll, L’Amour moved her burlesque
classes to Ames, where her Sundays are spent
instructing 10-15 students in the finer points
of burlesque history, dance, makeup and hair.
In addition to giving prospective performers
all they need to know to get ready for a show,
she also teaches burlesque staples like tassel
twirling, stage presence and confidence. At
the end of the session, graduates perform a
live show, hosted and produced by L’Amour.
Most of her Iowa School of Burlesque students
are in it as a lark — women wanting to be more
confident in life or learning something fun
to do with boyfriends and husbands. But for
those more serious about the art of burlesque,
L’Amour also chooses five applicants as apprentices.
For six months, the chosen five receive their
Iowa School of Burlesque classes for free and
are invited to perform at all of L’Amour’s shows.
“I’m helping prep them and getting them ready
to be professional performers,” said L’Amour.
While she has no plans to stop any time soon,
and is regarded in larger circles as the name
to call when you want to do a show in Des Moines,
L’Amour is enjoying the role of mentor and is
happy to be keeping the traditions alive.
“This year I would like to really focus on my
students and creating more burlesque dancers,”
Almost in lockstep with St Vitus and the Taxi
Dancers, Dannie Diesel launched her own burlesque
troupe in the wilds of the Quad Cities in early
2009. Much like L’Amour, Diesel had a passion
for the style of the early burlesque stars and
was frustrated by the lack of an outlet in Iowa,
which prompted her to launch Burlesque le Moustache.
But Diesel also finds herself in the rather
unusual position of being one of the few burlesque
performers who’s actually better known by her
street name than her on-stage alter ego. When
she’s not titillating audiences as Dannie Diesel,
36-year-old Danielle Colby Cushman is watched
by millions as part of the show “American Pickers”
on the History Channel.
Stensrud of Bombshell Betty’s (pictured)
and Chandra Jones spend six hours styling
Phoenix L’Amour’s hair and applying make-up
for our photo shoot. Photo by Chad Taylor |
“History’s been great to work with,” she said.
“They’ve been extremely accommodating with my
schedule, and they understand that this is what
I love to do. And being nationally known — internationally
known — though the show has definitely helped
in getting visibility for the troupe.”
Starting with five girls and growing to about
10 in the first year, Burlesque le Moustache
is one of the few troupes in the Midwest that
puts a strong emphasis on the vaudeville shows
from which American Burlesque draws its roots.
“I will not let go of that,” said Diesel. “I
fought tooth and nail to include the variety,
and I lost half my troupe because of my passion
That passion is focused on a diverse, clever
show, featuring more than just the standard
“wink and strip” routines that are common to
the neo-burlesque movement. Burlesque le Moustache
accomplishes this with a show that harks back
to the heyday of vaudeville, with performers
who include “Human Blockhead” Chadillac, Birdie
Belleville (who pulls double (triple?) duty
as the bearded woman, and half man/half woman)
and Molly Tov, the troupe’s quick-witted emcee
and mistress of events who keeps crowds entertained
between acts. In addition to founder/producer
Diesel, the troupe is rounded out by Cheeky
Rood, who doubles as director/choreographer,
and propinatrix Pixie Pistol.
Diesel is adamant about the quality of her product,
and she demands a lot from her performers.
“Anyone can take their clothes off,” she said.
“That’s not hard. But not anybody can tell a
story. I expect my performers to be able to
come up with creative acts that are as mentally
stimulating as they are physically. They need
to be able to engage with the audience on more
than just one level. I want the audience to
find themselves saying ‘Yeah that’s pretty neat,
and oh my God she’s naked. When did that happen?’
Much like L’Amour, Diesel runs burlesque classes
for anyone from the beginner looking for a good
time, to people looking to become professional
“I have 10-15 girls in a class,” said Diesel.
“I have a ‘Burlesquersize’ class for people
who just want to move and have fun. There are
also self-confidence workshops and both beginner
and intermediate burlesque classes.”
But the unique fame and visibility that come
from “American Pickers” come with unique challenges,
“I have to run all of my shows through (The
History Channel) first,” she said. “They want
to be sure of what I’m doing. They’re a fairly
conservative channel after all, but they’ve
been really great about allowing me to do what
I want most of the time.
“Plus,” she added with a laugh, “they know I’m
hardheaded. Sometimes it’s easier just to give
The New Kids on the Block
Calling anyone “new” in a game that’s only
four years old may be a stretch, but Iowa City’s
Les Dames du Burlesque is the most recent addition
to the local burlesque scene, forming in early
2010. Inspired by L’Amour and St Vitus and the
Taxi Drivers, Nelle Dunlap formed Les Dames
more with an eye toward doing something collaborative
and fun than out of a specific passion for burlesque.
“I craved a chance to perform and to collaborate,”
she said. “I shopped a couple ideas around,
and burlesque got the most response.”
The result is a troupe that’s, as Dunlap puts
it, “on the edge between pure entertainment
and art-making,” with shows that emphasize the
playful nature of burlesque.
“We are more about spectacle and humor and fun
and glitter than we are about being sexual,”
Dunlap said. “We are more about dancing and
acting and playing music and wearing outfits
than we are about taking our clothes off.”
The Common Thread
For all of these performers, burlesque is as
much a means to an end as it is an art form.
At the turn of the last century, in an age before
women could even vote, burlesque was a way of
expressing confidence, intelligence and attitude.
It’s not a coincidence, or simple matter of
necessity, that both L’Amour and Diesel include
“Self Confidence” in the list of classes their
“Even after a couple days of me coaching them
through a stage presence and confidence class,
girls start to think about themselves differently,”
said L’Amour. “I think there are a lot of stereotypes
in our country about what is beautiful and what
should be accepted and what is OK. I kind of
just ignore all that.”
“Teaching yourself burlesque is a beautiful
thing,” added Diesel. “It’s amazing what the
confidence can do for you.”
“I’m 27. I’ve gone through all the things with
being uncomfortable with my body and uncomfortable
with my sexuality but this process was totally
a growing one for me,” said L’Amour. “When I
started burlesque, I was terrified and self-conscious.
But it really is a process of becoming comfortable
with yourself, and it’s the most rewarding thing
to see happen with someone who you’re teaching
to love themselves.” CV