Julianna Curtis knows the power of a confidently sexy move, whether it’s the swing of the hips or a strut down a stage. Seductive dance doesn’t just entertain, it empowers those who do it, invigorating them with poise and assurance that translates off-stage, too. As co-founder and performer Lady Fontayne of Scandalesque, and co-founder of Vega Arts & Entertainment, Curtis has been entertaining Valley burlesque lovers for more than a decade, with highly polished choreographed shows and stunning dance moves at events around town and across the country.
Curtis, a 34-year-old Phoenix resident and massage therapist-by-day, disperses a roster of more than 50 performers to Valley events, with quarterly Scandalesque shows that command huge crowds. Scadalesque also offers classes, including burlesque, pole, aerial and stretch/dance conditioning.
Read on for what inspires this beauty to share her talents with the Valley, and scroll down to watch a video of her name her five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
I was born in Mesa, the seventh child in a family of eight. I went to Gilbert High School and attended Scottsdale Community College. I got into the modern dance company at SCC and two other modern dance companies there after. I have been a vocalist in several bands and started my companies here.
Now that I’m a mommy, and my daughter starts pre-school and my son starts kindergarten this August, I know Phoenix will be a home base for me for years to come.
How did you get into dancing and singing?
My play as a child was dancing and singing. I was always singing and dancing around the house to the radio with my sisters. Whitney Houston, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Maria Carey and lots of church music were my beginning influences.
My family sings, and my mom plays piano and taught us how to sing. I wrote my first song at age 10. We were raised Mormon, so in the Mormon church we would always sing in front of the congregation as a family. I rehearsed with my sisters, picking up harmonies.
I watched my mom do so many different kinds of performances in the arts. She directed church musicals, and co-directed and sang in a Hawaiian song and dance group, where all her daughters participated, so, I have technically been performing since I was 4. I was always in choir and dance in school. My junior and senior years of high school, I was a soloist in All-State Show Choir.
I finally started in a dance studio at age 16, because my family couldn’t afford to send me to class sooner. I was a very quick study and knew how to do a lot already — I just needed more technical instruction.
After high school, I got a scholarship to The Beginnings Workshop, a workshop for young performing artists, including actors, singers and dancers. We went to upstate New York for a camp of classes in the arts.
After that workshop, I stayed with the director of Beginnings in New York and did an internship for a year with a group of other young artists, taking vocal, acting and dance classes in New York City. I loved taking the train into the city. I have to say I was a bit sheltered in Mesa-Gilbert, and my experience in New York was tremendous for me. I learned so much about myself and about my craft. I learned how international dance was and loved hearing all the different accents in the lobby of Steps on Broadway dance studio.
I took a contemporary jazz class with (actor) Taye Diggs and loved seeing first-hand that even after success, famous people still take class with everyone else to keep learning. My acting class was called The Working Actor, which had the then-Beast from Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, as well as several actors doing NYPD Blue and national commercials. I did tech for the showcase because I started the session late, and afterwards we all ate out. I sat next to Tim Meadows from Saturday Night Live, since his wife was in class, too. He teased me about being from Arizona, asking if we had TVs there.
How did Scandalesque come about?
When I came back from New York, I went to SCC and was involved with the dance community there, which was known for its modern dance. I felt like I wanted to do more than just modern dance, and I felt stifled by it, especially coming from New York City, seeing what was going on with dance there and how many options there were. Coming back here, it was, you’re either a ballerina or a modern dancer – anything else didn’t quite exist yet for adults.
I knew I wasn’t a ballerina – I loved glitzier dance. I’m also a vocalist, so I wondered how I could incorporate my voice into my performances. I auditioned for Cabaret in Scottsdale with Desert Stages (Theater) a little more than 10 years ago, and (my Scandalesque co-founder) Christy (Zandlo) did, too. We both got parts, and we just hit it off.
After Cabaret wrapped, we stayed in touch, and she let me know of an audition for a Vegas-style show, with headpieces and glittery costumes. I was excited. We both got parts again. That show fizzled out, but we remained friends.
That show was called Extravagance, and the owner of the club we performed at pulled Christy and me aside and told us we were really good and that he was putting on a new show at the club next door, Palazzo in Phoenix. He asked us if we wanted to create it for the new space, and we agreed. Christy and I asked two other friends of ours to help start this new show. We called it Scandalesque, and that was the beginning.
Over the years, the two girls we started the show with pulled out, but Christy and I have maintained ownership of Scandalesque, and it’s expanded quite a bit. We started “doing business as” with the Scandalesque name, and four years later, we got our LLC and were in business together.
Things took on a whole different turn. While I was teaching dance in a gymnastics training facility, I ran into a beautiful gymnast named Oksana. I really wanted to add what she did to our show. She was an aerialist formerly of Ringling Bros., flying 40 feet in the air, and had this amazing history. She worked with us for four years, and because she brought that cirque element to the show, we started becoming known for having something cirque, as well as cabaret. It kind of exploded from there.
I love that we’ve retained a lot of singing and dancing roots, so it’s not solely a cirque show. You get a splash of these specialty acts in the show.
What draws you to the cabaret style?
At SCC, we did a little segment of dancing through the decades, and one of the early decades was burlesque. I really took to that dance style. It just felt good. I’ve done tap, ballet, modern and all kinds of other dance styles, and I just loved burlesque. It’s so feminine.
Over the years, I’ve found what happens is when you can move your hips and shoulders in a way that’s sensual, it’s like you take an elevator ride towards an inner self-confidence, as opposed to taking the stairs. There’s something special about using sensual movement to find confidence.
It’s really, really interesting. It’s like a power comes from deep inside, and it rises to the surface. It’s not like I go around town body-rolling and touching my silhouette, but the confidence I have found doing so stays with me — that’s what I take with me around town. Standing confident in my body in front of an audience, wearing a very small costume, cultivates power. And women need all the power they can get to thrive in this world. Burlesque is one way to access it.
I love that when we started teaching class, we were teaching other women how to feel confidence from doing sensual movement. I’m not talking about crude or distasteful movement, I’m talking about women dancing with their hips and not being afraid to touch the silhouette of their body.
It’s their body. It’s such a taboo – don’t do that, do be like that. No – do that, be like that, and watch what happens to your self-confidence. It’s very interesting what I’ve seen, not only in our artists, but also in our students.
What’s your typical week like?
When the season kicks in, in September, we do a quarterly show that’s self-produced. This means we dictate the themes, costumes, content and choreography.
We also take work from corporate and private parties. I juggle motherhood with booking myself and our array of artists out to all of the events where we perform around town. There are costumes to pull from the warehouse, contracts to negotiate and sign, choreography to create, and rehearsals to execute, etc.
The show has gone from a little cabaret show to a full-blown production company, where we have corporate and private clients who call on our performers to do all sorts of things. Just recently, we did an event for Audi, where I was wearing this bizarre sequined body suit we had made, covering my feet and my face. I blacked out my eyes and was just holding artistic poses between cars. It was really fun just to play with people.
The company has really given us an opportunity to perform in all sorts of ways. We have about 50 people in our talent bank, so if someone calls and says, “I want a 6-foot Latin man who can flamenco,” I can say, “Perfect, I have only one – let me see if he’s available.” Or, if someone calls and says, “I want six beautiful girls who will Can-can at my restaurant opening,” I can say, “Perfect,” and then I flip through and find my best dancers.
What kind of preparation goes into putting on one of your quarterly shows?
It’s so fun, because we’re getting more and more creative as the years go on. We just recently paired one of our top performers, La La Rue, a gymnast, with our flamenco dancer, Carlos, and they did a flamenco-aerial duo. We’re having so much fun taking these people with really different skillsets and mashing them up and coming up with something new and innovative.
As far as music, we mostly pull from iTunes. We have a general sense of our theme, and we listen to music while Christy and I brainstorm over iced tea. I’ve written a couple original songs for burlesque, and doing more of that is just a matter of finding the time.
We’ve also worked with bands that will play something live or something original. We recently did a show called Rhythms at Monarch Theatre, and the musician we worked with, a local percussionist, set up a drum kit and extra instruments and played live while the dancer improvised. That was really, really fun.
Christy and I will also call on our team to create unique and original props for us. We usually start with a super-grand idea of a show, and then after going over budget, have to scale down quite a bit on the over-the-top costume we are wanting for a less expensive version.
Also, we usually start with 20 people in the show and have to scale down to about half that to stay within budget. We have, on average, three meetings just editing our grand ideas down to what’s really possible with our time frame, budget and resources.
How would you characterize the burlesque scene in the nation?
There’s a beautiful burlesque scene going on in Seattle, San Francisco, New York and here in Phoenix because of Scandalesque. When we started, there were two solo burlesque artists in Phoenix. And, typically, that’s how burlesque is done, solo after solo. That’s also typically what you’ll see all over the nation.
But, Christy and I wanted to have a production value to our show, with a chorus of girls on stage, like (vintage theater production) Ziegfeld Follies. After we started our style of burlesque here in Phoenix, a crop of other companies began, as well, in the same fashion, many of them being our former students.
We were the first to teach burlesque here in Phoenix, as well. I’m not talking about stripper-cize, either. Burlesque legend Satan’s Angel mentored Christy and me. She is a dancer from the ’60s who taught us how to make pasties, how to really drag out the removal of any article of costume, perfect the art of the tease, and, lastly, how to have a gimmick. I would say we’ve been real trailblazers and would say we are the most authentic burlesque in town. When we perform with other burlesque shows in the U.S., I would also say we are stand-outs on stage.
How would you characterize the Valley’s burlesque scene?
What’s really difficult about doing burlesque in Phoenix is that because it’s such a conservative state, we found it’s not easy to get support for the show. We’ve had a lot of theaters not want us to perform there.
For example, the Tempe Center for the Arts board said absolutely not. What’s funny about that is we had just performed in a compilation show of dance companies of all kinds there, and we smashed it, with a standing ovation for the Scandalesque segment. We loved the venue and wanted to come back, so we sent in an application, and they wouldn’t have us.
Folks get so nervous here because of the name Scandalesque, but if you come to the show and see what’s going on and see it’s just so much fun and not as naughty as you might think, people wouldn’t have anything to worry about. We are extremely tasteful and artistic with our presentations.
Because of our name, we started Vega Arts & Entertainment in 2008. We found more corporate, conservative clients were outright afraid to hire us. They would love the website and the photos, but then not move forward with hiring us. Now, because of our expansion with Vega Arts & Entertainment, we’ve been able to perform for Make-A-Wish America, The Children’s Museum of Phoenix and the Fiesta Bowl Block Party.
What are your goals?
We’d love to be picked up on a national level with a long-term contract in a fabulous casino or theater. We’d love to work with more celebrities so our brand name has a higher profile. And, one day, if the price is right, have someone buy our company.
Ultimately, Christy and I know as dancers, we have an expiration date. Knees go out, and hips go out, and we know that. We found it really important for us to own our own company and own our work, so one day we can retire.
Why should people come see Scandalesque?
If you live in Phoenix, and you don’t know about us yet, you’re not cool. You need to crawl out from the rock you’ve been hiding under and get to a show, because we’ve been here for 10 years. People always ask where we’re from and don’t know we’re from Phoenix. If you’re a native, or if Phoenix is now your home, claim us — we are yours.
Christy is also a native, and we both feel a loyalty and a responsibility to continue making our city interesting. You can go to the symphony, and the ballet, and then you can go to Scandalesque, and they’re all wonderful.
What will your Sexy Sci-Fi show in September be like?
The sci-fi show killed last year, and we’re bringing it back because it was so successful. A lot of folks said, “How do you make science fiction sexy?” Boy, do we know how to do it. It’s like peanut butter and jelly – sexy and science fiction. Trust me, it works.
We’re going to celebrate femininity on stage like we always do and pull out our sexy female Darth Vader in a leotard, with thigh-high boots, the helmet, the cape and lightsaber.
Yoda is also a female in our show. She will save Princess Leia from our aerial chain apparatus to the song, ”I Need A Hero” from the ’80s. It’s hysterical.
You’ll also see our tributes to Star Trek, Flash Gordon and X-Men. It’s a really good time.