Dancing in Columbus: Burlesque

Jackie Mantey, Columbus Alive

One look at Viva Valezz ordering coffee at Clintonville's Cup O' Joe and I can tell she's something fierce.

She's wearing a cheetah print, faux fur coat with camouflage stiletto boots. A red streak like fire bursts down her long black hair. On her upper left arm is a tattoo of a religious icon topless and wearing tassels, a serious ode to her grandmother who loved the saint and to Valezz's life as a burlesque dancer.

Judging by her appearance, her softspokeness throws me off guard.

"I'm a pretty shy person, a little introverted," she said. "Sometimes you need to escape into another person.… Your character has confidence when you don't."

Viva Valezz is that character. She performs burlesque around the country and can be found leading her 26-member burlesque troupe the Velvet Hearts in local shows. Valezz won't reveal her real name and age, at least not on the record. Being a burlesque dancer comes with a unique set of concerns.

Valezz grew up in a family where "sex was not a taboo thing." For 10 years as an adult, she was a belly dancer for Habeeba's Dance of the Arts in Grandview.

"I loved it, but it was so traditional in its teachings," she said. "We had to play down that we were sexy."

The transition to burlesque seemed as natural to Valezz as being naked.

In 2007, when she began burlesquing, the Columbus scene was pretty sparse. There was a troupe or two, but the demand wasn't that high.

"I thought, I'm not getting any younger," Valezz said of her disappointment that she couldn't regularly burlesque for an audience at the time. "We were going to have to make this happen for ourselves."

Fast forward to today, and you can't throw a studded undergarment at local event posters without hitting one that includes a burlesque performance. Valezz performed more than 100 times last year, and 2012 is booking up fast.

The popularity of the local burlesque scene has its consequences, though. More burlesquers mean more competition, and Valezz finds her troupe pigeonholed to certain stages.

There's also the effect being a recognizable burlesque dancer has on her personal life. Valezz has a six-year-old son. Having a kid who knows what pasties are can, you know, cause some tension among other parents.

Her love for the art of the dance is what keeps her going. While other styles' big moments are power moves like leaps or flips, burlesque's is what's called "the reveal." It can literally be the reveal of a cleverly concealed body part or the reveal of the punch line. Confidence, she said, is what makes a good burlesque dancer.

"Doing this fills a void that I didn't realize I had," Valezz said. "I wish that feeling of wholeness for everyone."

Now that's fierce.

What is proper burlesque audience etiquette?

"Never be quiet. Quiet is the most confusing thing to us," Valezz said. "We like people who are really interactive. … It's interesting. We grew up not liking catcalling. But this is empowering for us. Show some love."

See her burlesque: