Kool Kat of the Week: School of Va-Va-Voom: Ursula Undress Teaches Atlanta a Tassel or Two About Burlesque

Posted on: Sep 5th, 2013 By:

Photo courtesy of Ursula Undress. Credit: Derek Johnson.

Curious if you have what it takes to tease? This Saturday Sept. 7, the Atlanta School of Burlesque is offering a sneak peek behind its doors for a Grand Opening Launch Event Day with a chance from 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. to sample a variety of classes for just $5 each (see list of classes and times at the end of this article) followed by a party from 2:30-5 p.m. with refreshments, prizes, vendors and discounts on School merchandise. The burlesque revival has been thriving here for over 15 years now, but unlike other major cities, Atlanta has not had its own academy for this art form until Studio Burlesque opened last winter. Unofrtunately, it was shortlived but the demand was so great that The Atlanta School of Burlesque has quickly taken its place, and veteran performers have a place where they can share their techniques, both classic and contemporary, with aspiring dancers and anyone who just wants to spice up their love life or enjoy a fun, different exercise program.

ATLRetro wasn’t surprised to learn that the headmistress and founder was none other than the dynamic Ursula Undress, regular performer with Syrens of the South Productions and co-consprirator at the first Southern Fried Burlesque Festival, which will celebrate its fourth year next spring. We’ve been eyeing Ursula as a Kool Kat for a very long time, so this week seemed like the purr-fect time to check in with this self-proclaimed “naughty girl next door” to find out more about the school, as well as her own secret origin story and what else she has up her sexy sleeves.

What drew you personally to the burlesque revival and when/what was your first performance?

I was a performer in musical and dramatic theatre for about 15 years. Personally, I was trying to find my identity again after returning to school and sort of immersing myself in classes and projects, etc., not to mention finding friends I could connect with when I first moved here and didn’t know anyone. So, burlesque – something I was already excited about – seemed a good fit.

Did you have any early role models, either classic or contemporary, who helped shape your approach to the art form?

Yes – Dirty Martini. The first performance I saw of hers was a YouTube video of her performance at the HOWL festival in 2007. I could not take my eyes off of her. She was the one who gave me the confidence to get on stage. But as for my performances being shaped by something, I would have to say that it was the music that did it.

Photo courtesy of Ursula Undress. Credit: Nimh.

Some said that Atlanta just wasn’t suited to an annual burlesque festival, but you helped Katherine Lashe prove them wrong. How do you feel the Southern Fried Burlesque Festival (SFBF) has changed the burlesque community here and Atlanta’s burlesque reputation around the nation?

In some ways, SFBF has pulled down some walls that divided a lot of performers here in the city and showed performers that there is a fairly strong community here. I think nationally that it has put Atlanta and burlesque in the southeast on the map, and helped to inspire other cities around us to do the same. I am continually amazed at the talent and innovation that comes from Georgia and the surrounding states, and am so glad to have a place to bring it all together on one stage.

It seems like you’re now putting the bulk of your energy into the Atlanta School of Burlesque. Why are you so passionate that we need an actual school here?

Well, I was actually running the first full-time burlesque school that had a previous owner – Studio Burlesque – and the passion for this project comes from the hordes of emails and phone calls when it closed. It was apparent that we had created this community and this amazing place for women where they could come and explore other sides of themselves and just have fun. So, I pulled my resources and did what I had to do to re-open a school for not only these students, but for all of us performers to learn from each other and keep fuel on the creative fires we tend every day.

Photo courtesy of Ursula Undress.

I understand the School’s students are a mix of aspiring performers and ladies who just want to get more fit in a flirty way. Can you talk a little about that? 

It is amazing – we don’t have a real target audience. We have women of all shapes, sizes, ages, backgrounds. Of course, we have students that want to go all the way and be performers, but I think the common thread is that they all just love feeling glamorous and graceful and sexy, and most of all – CONFIDENT. I think all of the instructors provide an environment that really fosters all of those things.

Who’s teaching at the School and how do you select your instructors?

I am very adamant about people learning the art of burlesque from actual burlesque performers who have studied the history and actively tour, compete, and perform. I select performers to teach based on their love for constantly learning and working on their craft, along with their ability to lead a class and make it fun and interesting. I am very fortunate to have performers of the caliber of Talloolah Love, Lola LeSoleil, Katherine Lashe, The Chameleon Queen, Fonda Lingue, Rebecca DeShon [hula hoop] and Sadie Hawkins [aerialist]. I also love that I have the opportunity to bring in outside talent and their knowledge and expertise in with workshops and specialty classes.

What are you teaching personally this Fall?

I am teaching both Beginning Burlesque Choreography and a class called Slow and Steamy Bedroom Burlesque that is for intermediate students.

Is this Saturday’s event for current and aspiring students only? Who should come and why?

Anyone who is interested should come – it is going to be a blast! The first class – Burlesque Fundamentals is actually co-ed, so I do mean ANYONE.

I know you don’t want to play favorites, but is there one of your students who you’d especially recommend our readers to watch out for?

Wow – I think the awesome thing is that ALL of our previous graduates from the Spring are amazing on stage, and have continued to perform regularly. Greta Von Trollop is so charismatic. Nina Charrise and Roula Roulette are both competing at the Shakespeare Follies this weekend, and then Rena Rhinestone has some incredible stuff planned for her next number. Oh! And I am really looking forward to what A to Z does next; he seems to be this glue that keeps them all wanting to work together on fun stuff. So yeah,it is impossible to play favorites!

Photo courtesy of Ursula Undress.

Will you be involved with next year’s Southern Fried, and if yes, can you share anything about it?

I think I will always be involved in some capacity. I really enjoy working with the legends and being a sort of liason with them and the headliners. It takes a village, and I am proud to assist Katherine with that.

What’s next for Ursula Undress performance-wise?

Well, I recently took a workshop with [burlesque legend] Gabriella Maze and am seriously in love with the cape! I have one number where I work with a large duster, and I am now looking to expand on that with what I learned from her. Combine that with some secret talks with burlesque legend Satan’s Angel, and well, that is all I am going to say. Yep, even in interviews, I have to tease!

Finally, what’s one thing about the school or about you that readers might be most surprised to find out?

Hrm….I think that people find out in our classes exactly how non-intimidating burlesque actually is.

Grand Opening Day Class and Event Schedule:

10:30 – 11:20AM – Burlesque Fundamentals with Syrens of the South & Southern Fried Burlesque Fest Producer Katherine Lashe.

This CO-ED class is designed for absolute beginners! Learn how to walk, bump, grind, and shimmy in easy, broken down steps, and then perfect them in drills and short combinations.

11:30 – 12:20PM – Classic & Glamorous Burlesque with Southern Fried Burlesque Queen Lola LeSoleil

This beginner class will help you to learn the grace and elegance of the early Burlesque style from the 1930s and 40s. This class begins with a simple, graceful warm-up, and then switches into the sultry but elegant moves of a Burlesque Queen. This class will also help you be a little more graceful in your everyday life.

12:30 – 1:20PM – Beginning Burlesque Choreography with Studio Owner & Performer Ursula Undress

This is the perfect class to get a taste of what burlesque can do for your inner and outer self while learning fun choreography to boot! Learn the basic standing and walking movements to start your journey into burlesque along with bumps, grinds, shimmies, and arm movements.

1:30 – 2:20 PM – Dance like a Mermaid with Professional Bellydancer and Mermaid Karma Karmelita.

As a professional mermaid and aquatic entertainer, Karma has gained extensive knowledge and experience in working in the water. This has given her a unique perspective on three dimensional movement when on the stage. This class focuses heavily on her original and innovative technique and teaches part of a breathtaking choreography. Recommended for people with previous dance knowledge in belly dance, but not restricted to.

2:30 – 5PM – Open Shopping and Grand Opening Soiree!

Join us for light eats, drinks, shopping, and hobnobbing with other students and performers!

Note: Wear comfortable low heels or flexible dance shoes to any class. Prices will be $5 per class, and advance reservations are not required. Due to the dramatically reduced class price, social deals will not be honored on this day. The Atlanta School of Burlesque is located at 1745 Defoor Place, Ste. D Atlanta, GA 30318. For more information, visit www.atlantaburlesqueschool.com

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Kool Kat of the Week: Born to Tease: Retro Fatale Katherine Lashe Puts the Sizzle into Southern Fried Burlesque

Posted on: Jun 10th, 2013 By:

Katherine Lashe. Photo credit: PinUp Girl Cosmetics.

Atlanta’s burlesque scene right now is hot, hot, hot, and one lady is right at the sizzling heart of it – Kool Kat Katherine Neslund, aka Katherine Lashe. This week alone, Syrens of the South, her production company, is giving Atlanta a new monthly burlesque showcase with Tease Tuesdays at The Shelter on June 11 (specific Tuesdays will vary per month). She’s also a key player in the city’s first Debut-Tease Ball, featuring Katherine and a mix of experienced and new talent either teaching or taking classes at Studio Burlesque, Atlanta’s own burlesque school which launched just last winter.

Perhaps most of all, Katherine is the driving force behind the Southern Fried Burlesque Festival, which celebrated its third anniversary this year. Finally Atlanta has an annual event that brings together local, regional, national and even international burlesque revival stars and legends. Tease Tuesdays are fundraisers for SFBF. And that’s not even beginning to talk about Katherine’s own talents as a performer who has graced nationwide stages including the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.

ATLRetro caught up with Katherine recently to find out more about this week’s events; her own path to burlesque via theater; what else she has coming up, including a significant partnership between Syrens and 7 Stages theater in Little Five Points; and much more.

ATLRetro: What’s the one thing that happened to you during childhood that made it your destiny to be a burlesque performance artist?

Katherine Neslund/Lashe: When I was younger my Mom made costumes and clothing for drag queens in Knoxville, TN.  I ended up wanting to be a drag queen when I grew up because they had the best clothes! Later it was explained to me that, being a girl, I couldn’t technically be a drag queen. I was pretty disappointed  with this childhood realization. I’ve obviously since realized my passion and have been doing theater in some capacity my entire adult life. I’ve always felt pretty at home on the stage. Burlesque seemed to unite the whole drag queen dream with my theater experience.

I understand you kicked off your burlesque career in Atlanta by opening for Dita Von Teese. That’s a pretty exciting beginning. How did that happen and can you share something about that experience? Did Dita impart any words of wisdom that have stayed with you.

I used to be the head performer at The Chamber, and one day Howie, the manager, told us we were opening for Dita von Teese in two weeks and we should do something burlesquey.  I had no idea what that meant since I had very limited experience with burlesque having only seen The Doll Squad and Torchy Taboo perform a few times at that point.  We ended up putting together a Fosse-style group number that incorporated burlesque, dancing and a little bit of that Chamber touch.  It’s kind of funny that out of that group came myself, Renea’le Roux and Gia Nova as professional burlesque performers.

Katherine Lashe. Photo credit: PinUp Girl Cosmetics.

The Syrens of the South is a production company, not a troupe. A lot of people don’t know the difference, so can you clarify what this means in the burlesque world?

A troupe is traditionally a group of people that works together on a regular basis; going through routines and rehearsals, every member focused on a common vision of what the group should embody as a whole, and then also on what every member will perform exclusively.  Syrens of the South treats all of our performers as independent contractors, and I have always encouraged everyone to have their own identity – to perform whenever and with whomever they want.  Each performer creates their own personal vision of what they want to be, and they own and control their personal performance.  Syrens is like a playground on which these amazing folks can show their talent. Thanks to this freedom, performers can feel free to include everything from classic, to comedy, to just plain weird stuff.  I also try to make sure that we have a good variety of acts, including, of course, vaudeville type acts to break up the boobies, making it an interesting evening for everyone!

It’s been long overdue for Atlanta to have an annual burlesque festival, and Southern Fried really seems to be putting the city on the map. SFBF has made it to its third year and seems to be really hitting its stride. What did you personally enjoy the most at year’s festival and can you give us a little preliminary tease about your goals are for next year?

My favorite part each year is the Legends.  I have a passion for burlesque history, hence why I teach a very in-depth class on it, and have been collecting burlesque legend interviews for a very long time now.  My goal is to gather as much information as possible before the information is no longer available.  I was lucky enough to interview Tura Satana before she passed away, and I am so very grateful I was able to do so.

This particular year I was really excited with how many people from the local Atlanta burlesque community became involved.  In between volunteers, performers and even those that just showed up in the audience to come and see us, plus so many regular Syrens of the South performers, members of Hot Toddies Flaming Cabaret, The Imperial OPA Circus, Minette Magnifique and Musee du Coeur showed up both on stage and off.  The hope is that Southern Fried can help show Atlanta a taste of what goes on in the rest of the world, as well as showing the rest of the world the amazing talent we have here in Atlanta and the Southeast.  Many performers don’t travel, so this is a great way to show off all that we have to offer here!

Funding a festival must be challenging. Where does Tease Tuesday fit in?

The goal of Tease Tuesday is to help raise money so we can continue putting on this amazing festival.  It costs around $20,000 to put on each year, and we make less than half of that from ticket sales each year.  The rest of the money comes from our vendors, sponsors, application fees, Syrens of the South shows and out of my pocket.  We need approximately $2,500 to pay off the remaining bills from last year before we can start moving on to next year.  Tease Tuesday events, at 10 acts for only $10, gives us  a nice inexpensive monthly show to help us get the remaining bills paid off and then hopefully help us get the deposit for the hotel next year so we can continue going forward with the festival.

Another thing we love about Tease Tuesday is that it’s going to be monthly. In New York there are multiple monthly and even weekly burlesque events, but Atlanta audiences have had to wait several months between shows by the same troupe or producer. Can you tease our readers about the Syrens first Tease Tuesday and how you plan to keep a monthly show fresh and exciting? Will shows be themed and will you just feature local performers or regional and national performers as well?

Our first Tease Tuesday show was in May as a straight up fundraiser and test show.  We were lucky enough to have the current Southern Fried Queen, Lola le Soleiland two time SFBF winner Bourgeois Betty, Little 5 Points Rockstar Orchestra founder Rob Thompson doing an acoustic set, as well as Talloolah Love, Nipsy Tussle from Knoxville’s Salome Cabaret, Tora Torrid, Persephone Phoenix, Edie Akimbo, Tru Bliss, and my Wednesday night Beginning Burlesque class from Studio Burlesque.  Fritzengreuben was our Master of Ceremonies with Tupelo Honey as our stage kitten.

Our show on Tuesday, June 11, will have some amazing burlesque – Florida’s Tokyo Bell incorporates fire into her stripping, Atlanta favorite Ursula Undress will be there, Jed Drummond will be singing and playing his ukulele, there will be sexy juggling, some sultry singing and many more burlesque dancers.  Remember -10 acts for $10, so it’s a surprise as to who the other performers will be!  The next one on July 16 is so secret I can’t tell you anything other than it’s gonna be awesome!

Katherine Lashe. Photo credit: PinUp Girl Cosmetics.

Studio Burlesque is another milestone for the Atlanta burlesque community. How did that get started and what was your role in its fruition?

I have been teaching burlesque classes for almost six years in borrowed/rented spaces. It was really only a matter of time before someone realized the popularity of burlesque was on the rise and that there should be a studio dedicated to it.  An investor approached multiple members of the Atlanta burlesque community until he found the right fit which happened to be the valedictorian of the very first Syrens of the South graduating class: Ursula Undress.  She and I had a long talk about it after she was approached, and her mission statement was beautiful and her heart was in the right place, so I decided to move my regular classes to Studio Burlesque.  I’ve given a little advice just because of the six years of previous experience, but with the festival taking off, it’s really nice to get to just show up as a teacher rather than organizing all the classes like I used to.  Many of my former students became teachers in the Syrens of the South class series and now teach at Studio Burlesque.  I am very proud of all of them and love that there’s a home for everyone in Atlanta Burlesque to be able to come to learn and to teach.

Are classes just for aspiring burlesque performers? Could any of them be an alternative to a conventional boring exercise class?

The regular weekly classes are for anyone at any level of dance experience.  My Beginning Burlesque class on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. has people who have never danced before and a few seasoned performers, however, they all work great together in learning the new choreography we do each month.  For those who want to try performing, I’ve been offering a performance spot for that class at each of the Tease Tuesdays.  Students get a little firsthand taste of the performance experience and can then decide if it’s something they want to try.  The performance track classes are for those that are interested in becoming burlesque performers or at least getting a solo opportunity on stage.  It consists of three months of classes; we focus on getting them on stage for a student showcase at the end of the three months.  The next performance track series will be starting in July after July 4th.

Debut-Tease is coming up this Saturday. Some people might be reluctant to come to a beginners’ show. Tell us why they’re wrong.

I love student showcases!  There is that excitement of it being their first time, and you can see the nerves, the joy, the fear and the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment when they walk off the stage.  It’s like watching someone be born without all the gross parts!  However, even if you’re not a big fan of watching newbies, myself and many of the other teachers will be performing as in this show, so many professional performers will be gracing the stage as well as all the newbies.  Ursula Undress, Talloolah Love, Fonda Lingue and The Chameleon Queen will be performing, just to name a few!

Are any of your students performing? Any star student in particular to watch out for?

Every student that is debuting on the 15th is part of the Studio Burlesque Performance Track Classe Series so I have gotten to teach them all as I teach the History of Burlesque and Tassels and Gloves classes in that series.  Many of them also come to my Wednesday night class so I’ve gotten to know a few of them fairly well.  If I had to pick one to watch I’m going to have to say A to Zee as he is the only boy making his debut that night.  I’ve seen his work in progress, and I think everyone will have fun with it. Being the only guy, I think he’ll succeed in inspiring other gentlemen to come out and learn the art of boylesque!

Finally, burlesque is just one of your talents. You have a background in theater and were heavily involved with 7 Stages‘ hit DRACULA: THE ROCK OPERA. Anything you’d like to share about that experience and what’s next for that production? Or anything else you’re up to?

Yes, I was honored to be the stage manager for DRACULA: THE ROCK OPERA!  The finished recording of the awesome soundtrack from our show will be finalized and out for sale on CD sometime soon.  We’ll be doing a concert version in February so do keep your eyes peeled for that!  I went to school for musical theater and am now finishing up a degree in technical theater to balance out my onstage and off-stage experience, which is good since I was just the lighting designer for LADY LAY, a great play at 7 Stages Theater that closed out the 2012-13 season.  I’ve also been a stage manager for The Imperial OPA Circus for a few years, and look forward to continuing at 7 Stages in the 2013-14 season.  After Dracula, I really just found my home at 7 Stages as I love everyone who works there and what they are trying to do through art and community building.

Katherine Lashe. Photo credit: PinUp Girl Cosmetics.

I’ve recently been made a member of their fundraising committee and am helping to put together a brunch at Our Way Cafe on June 23.  Brunch will include a concert by the awesome local band Till Someone Loses an Eye, and benefits will go to 7 Stages.  Mark your calendars!  Also, our Syrens of the South 6th year anniversary show will be held on the main stage at 7 Stages on Aug 3.  I’m splitting the profits with the theater to help them with their fundraising goals.  As 7 Stages is now going to be our new home for our big shows, for instance our Anniversary, Tits for Toys for Tots (Nov 23) and our Vixen’s Valentease show, we want to make sure to start our new marriage by giving them a decent dowry!

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