Orchid Mei

Orchid Mei performs. Photo: Janis Anderson
Orchid Mei performs. Photo: Janis Anderson

Denver burlesque performer Orchid Mei talks traditional Chinese and Korean dance, changing goals, festivals and penguins.

Interview: Divertida Devotchka

Your stage name is taken from the Chinese “Mei Li de Lan Hua” meaning beautiful orchid. You’re known for your distinctive style of blending burlesque with traditional Chinese dancing. We’ll talk more specifically about your training in a moment, but what made you decide to blend the two arts? You’ve stated that you wanted to honor your Asian heritage, but were there other factors as well? From whom or what did you take your inspiration?

I decided to integrate both Chinese and Korean dance with classic burlesque because I wanted to do something that both embodied who I was, and wanted to become, with something that was unique.  I wanted to differentiate myself, to do something that would be noticed, and that would ultimately be associated with my name.

When I was growing up it was my dream to not only be Grace from Annie, but to also be one of the dancing girls in the scene where Mr. Warbucks rents out Radio City Music Hall for a night at the movies.  I really wanted to dance on that camera, and I still do!

When I started molding my character and persona, I took, and still take, my inspiration from classic films, old burlesque films and portraits, and any fabric, dress, movement, or piece of music that stops time for me.

You’re perhaps best known for your performances with chang biao shan, or ribbon fans, and I’m fascinated to hear more about your training experience, which began in 2005. You’re also well-versed in the art of daizi (ribbons), sui shou (long sleeve), panzi (plate) and ba jiao jing (octagonal scarf), and I’m sure our readers would like to know more about the process of learning those arts and the challenges presented by incorporating them into burlesque performance.

As I mentioned previously, I initially wanted to marry both Chinese and Korean dance with burlesque.  However, finding an instructor proved to be rather difficult.  I lucked out finding my Chinese dance teacher and had to woo her into teaching me.  She is very much involved in the Chinese community here in Denver and focuses on teaching adopted Chinese children.  When I approached her, she was hesitant.  Not only was I American, I was an adult.  I won her over by telling her my heritage and that I was obtaining a BA in Chinese language.  My first lesson, she spoke to me in Chinese.  When I responded and could take direction, our match was made.  She still teaches me in Chinese and pushes me to be more fluid in movement.  She knows that I want to excel so she meticulously works with my technicality and allows me to practice with other classes.  I’ve never had prior dance experience, so to be taken under the wing of someone who won best ribbon dancer in all of Taiwan, is a huge accomplishment for me!

I find that the most difficult aspect of attempting to intertwine Chinese dance with burlesque is to make the movements and dances more provocative without offending the culture.

Orchid Mei by Julia Kuzmenko
Orchid Mei by Julia Kuzmenko

You got started in burlesque in 2004 with Ooh La La Presents, and it seems you haven’t slowed down since. You made your solo debut opening for a sold out Dresden Dolls show in 2005 and you began accumulating titles at festivals just two years later. You now perform regularly at Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret.  What were your goals as a performer when you first started? How have those goals evolved over the years?

When I first started, my goal was to win Miss Exotic World and to successfully make and market myself as a business.  Now, I think that I have a bit more of a realistic view on the subject.  Though I still aspire to become a full time professional, I have chosen not to base my success on competitions but to try to look at the bigger picture, to look outside of the box.

It appears that you stay very busy on the festival circuit! I’d love to hear about your very first burlesque festival experience. Is there anything that you know now that you wish you’d known going into the first one?
My first festival experience was Tease O Rama in 2005.  I was fairly well traveled before coming into burlesque, so I was quite used to new cities and maneuvering travel and hotels (thanks to my sister – she was the captain of all of our road trips).  I was not, however, prepared for the onslaught of glitter and glamour that a festival delivers.  It was like stepping off the plane into Paris for the first time, a different culture.  The atmosphere was electric with everyone reconnecting, mingling, and performing.  It was all I could do to keep my head!  I got to see amazing performances, be in the same room with performers that I had read about and looked up to, and even meet some legends.   I will never forget it.

I feel that every step is a learning process and try to learn something from every event.  There is always something that I wish I knew.  Whether it be knowing train closures during the winter, that cabs prefer cash, or to be aware of the crime rings in certain neighborhoods, some things you just have to learn from experience.

Photo: Julia Kuzmenko
Photo: Julia Kuzmenko

What are some of your favorite memories from the festivals you’ve done so far?

The most poignant memories have been standing ovations, opportunities to perform on historic and amazing stages, getting to meet and learn from Legends and peers, and every tear cried from kind words that Legends and peers have said.  I never thought I would have those opportunities or graces, so I hold them very close to my heart.

There are also so many funny memories that make me giddy every time I think of them:  taking a cab a half a block in Boston, gallivanting around in New Orleans, missing my flight in Austin (I’ve missed a lot of flights), swooping in and out of St. Louis, and backstage antics and after parties.

Speaking of festivals, you’re competing for the World Female Crown at the World Burlesque Games (the 6th Annual London Burlesque Festival) in May! Tell us all about it!

This will be my second time performing in LBF and my first time on the main stage in the World Burlesque Games.  I feel that Chaz has worked very hard to create grandiose event to showcase performers from across the globe.  I’m tickled to be performing alongside such wonderful and truly talented women!  This festival is a fantastic opportunity to learn what else is out there and to see burlesque through different countries’ eyes.  I can only hope to do right by my foremothers and to have people enjoy my performance.  Maybe even get my name out there, even if it is a shiny piece of ticker tape amongst a sea of glitter.

I understand that you were featured in Jane Briggeman’s second burlesque book, “Burlesque: A Living History.” How did that come about? Could you share a little about your involvement?

Jane was toying around with the idea of highlighting a few “baby” dancers as a segue from the past to the present.  When she decided that it was something she wanted to do, she did her research and whittled down a list of performers to four.  When I was contacted, I was beside myself!  I was in complete and utter disbelief and half convinced it was a hoax.  After much communication with Jane throughout production, I knew that this was not only the real deal, but that it was a tremendous step for her to include “babies” in her book.  I’m still dumbfounded that I am written about within the same pages as the women that I model myself after.

I’m very happy that I’ve gotten to know Jane throughout the process.  She is a quintessential historian and I’m grateful for her efforts to preserve history.

I’d like to hear more about your love of penguins.

I’ve loved penguins ever since I can remember.  I suspect that it started with V.I.P. (the penguin from the Shirt Tales) and escalated from there.  I think he was my first and my best love, but don’t tell the other penguins that!   I appreciate that they are fluffy and cute yet dapper and majestic; that they are comics on land but graceful in the water.  Besides, who doesn’t love a well tailored suit or a chivalrous beau?

What’s next for Orchid Mei?

I am in process of courting a Korean dance instructor.  It’s taken a long time to find one locally and, now that have, I plan to finalize my plan to integrate both Chinese and Korean dances with burlesque.  I’m also striving to continue to better myself in hopes of progressing as a performer.  What’s next?  Only time will tell, but I hope it’s a good story!

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