I volunteered at the Texas Burlesque Festival this weekend as part of a writing project I’m working on (I love my job). TBF is a three night extravaganza of dancers from all over the nation and the pasties that keep their forbidden bits hidden. I haven’t interacted with the burlesque community in the past (write what you know… yeah, I don’t do that…), but I’d done basic research to get the story going. I knew that burlesque originally was a satirical song and dance comedy show, often ribald in nature, that over the 20th century morphed into the costumed striptease act we knowtoday. I’d watched videos of the “Queen of Buresque” Dita Von Teese, famous for her signature act involving a giant martini glass and of Catherine D’Lish, who’s famous for her act on a web. Long ago I’d seen Gypsy, the musical based on the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, one of the most famous burlesque dancers of the 20th century (you can see her in the video to the right doing a very clean and safe-for-work version of her routine “The Psychology of a Stripteaser”). For the book, though, I wanted to get a look backstage, talk to some dancers, and get a feel for bulesque community.
My first impression was how nice everybody is. I volunteered, so I was helping out – manning a slide projector, moving props, running errands for the Assistant Stage Manager, etc. But the coordinators were wonderful about giving me a different job every night so I could see different sides of the theater and work with different people. Everyone was welcoming, happy to talk about their work, and answered any and all questions I had. Other things that immediately impressed me were how tightly knit the community is and how much everyone cared about not just current trends, but the history of the dance and honoring past icons. The participants all had a genuine love for what they do as an art form.
Another thing that really struck me was the audience. Getting a view of and vibe off the audience were the other main reasons I wanted to see a live show. The audience was slightly more female than male. The age range was incredibly diverse (all adult of course!)* and people came dressed in everything from casual jeans to their corsets and costumes. The best part about the audience was how enthusiastic they were, without being, for lack of a better work, skanky about it.
The positivity coming from everyone – on stage, backstage, and audience – was the biggest thing I took away from the experience. The last night before the show I interviewed Coco Lectric, the founder of Austin’s Jigglewatts Burlesque Revue and the talent coordinator for the TBF, backstage in the dressing room. She said one of her favorite things about burlesque is that, unlike with her previous dance experiences in ballet and jazz, it was a non-competitive environment that encourages diversity of look and expression. She pointed around the changing room where there were dozens of women (and a few men) in various stages of costume change, and asked if I’d heard a single woman worry about how her ass looked. I had to think about it for a minute before I realized I hadn’t heard a single woman do that – or say anything else disparaging or even preoccupied with their looks. Over 100 performers, mostly women, mostly naked – in public – and not a single remark about body image. It was refreshingly healthy.
A theme of embracing your own beauty and sexuality ran throughout most of myinterviews. Many of the women talked about the liberation they felt the first time they performed and realized they could be (mostly) naked in front of a crowd and be proud of how they looked. Coco and Ray Gunn, a male burlesque performer** whose kick ass routine took the roof off the house, both talked about the burlesque fan base. Both said that their most supportive advocates were usually straight people of the same gender and gay people of the opposite gender – people who, by default, weren’t there to be turned on by the performer. Instead of there to ogle, people come because they feel empowered by the performance. As the night wore on, I agreed with that feeling. After viewing over 100 g-stringed butts of various proportions, I have come to the startling conclusion that what I have always considered the somewhat unfortunate shape of my derriere is not that unusual and can in fact be quite fetching when shaken with attitude. Burlesque dance is all about the notion that beautiful and sexy are what you do and what you project more than the shape you were born into. Everyone has the right to be beautiful and sexy if they embrace who they are.
This sex-positive attitude is something burlesque and Paganism have in common. Every Pagan religion I’ve ever looked at sees sex as a perfectly natural and positive part of being human, and we don’t have restrictions (other than the general life rule of “use good judgement”) regarding contraception, orientation, or waiting for marriage or other life events (other than being of a reasonable age) to become sexually active. Currently in our culture and in our politics we have a tension regarding the place for sex in society, which was recently highlighted in the fight over birth control and Rush Limbaugh’s atrocious comments. Though rarely in as tacky a fashion as Limbaugh, I find that often people equate a sex-positive ideology with over-sexualization, and they are not the same thing.
For an easy example in media, horror movies are infamous for this distinction. As Randy says in Scream, “Sex equals death, OK?” Sex scenes are often used to titillate, but the hot young things who have sex almost always get killed off in short order. That’s not sex-positive, that’s using sex as a selling point and then punishing characters for not adhering to conservative morals, pissing off both negative and sex-positive viewpoints respectively with one trope.
Sex-positive, on the other hand, takes pride in humans as sexual creatures. It treats men and women equally (as opposed to the “men are studs and women are sluts” double standard). Unlike much media today, it doesn’t tell us we should be having sex, but that we should take shame entirely out of the decision when choosing to or not to have it. In other words, sex-positive doesn’t prescribe sex, it banishes shame.
I had a wonderful time this weekend at the festival, and I want to give a shout out to Coco Lectric, Ray Gunn, Jolie Goodnight, Shannon Doah, and Kristen Nekyia for being so kind in talking to me.*** I highly recommend burlesque shows to anybody who’s got an interest.
Have any of y’all been to a burlesque show?
* The acts had age diversity, too! An audience favorite and winner of “Most Original” was The Stripping Granny, a 78-year-old woman with a hilarious song and tap shuffle about sex and growing old. She kept most of her clothes on, but she did remove a muumuu to reveal a flapper dress and and the end she turned around and flipped it up to show her bright red briefs.You go, Stripping Granny! May we all have that much spunk at 78!
** I’ve heard male burlesque referred to as “boylesque” before, but Ray said that among male performers it’s a controversial term. The issue he spoke about most fervently was the community ideal of creating an environment of gender equality, and to him that means going by the same name. That standard of equality is also why male burlesque dancers wear pasties as well. According to Ray, if the women had to do it, the men would to!
*** I also want to give a shout out to Jigglewatt Goldie Candela. She took one look at me, said she knew me from somewhere (she looked familiar to me, too, but I assumed I’d just seen her picture while I was researching burlesque). The next night she came back with it figured out – she was a student of mine the very first year I taught school. I’ve run into ex-students before, but seeing Goldie on stage in a g-string is easily the most memorable reunion I’ve had! It’s always good to see and hear from an ex-student and find out they’re happy and doing well – no matter what they’re doing. She’s a great dancer!
+ Featured Image: The Jigglewatts (DSC_0520) by Piratepenpen (Erica Kuschel). From left to right, that’s Coco Lectric, Pearl Lux, Ruby Joule, Ruby Lamb, and Jolie Ampere Goodnight.