A lanky redhead dripping with glamour ambles onto the stage at the Capitol Theater in Olympia.
Her calves peak out from the slit of an ankle-length, navy gown as she approaches the lone prop on the stage: a retro, red vinyl chair.
To the slow grinding beat of Band of Skulls’ “Blood,” the dancer uses her teeth to pull off a glove stretched up to her elbow. She rhythmically flings off a stole, the dress, and the rest of her glittering costume till she’s down to sparkling pasties, a G-string and clouds of tattoos on the canvas of her skin.
The audience, which looks to be filled with more women than men, shows approval not by throwing cash onto the stage, but by hooting and calling out her stage name, Bettie Beelzebub.
Bettie, a member of the Tush! Burlesque troupe, raises her arms, triumphantly drinking in the applause.
This is burlesque in 2011.
Some people express themselves by writing poetry or memoirs, cooking a fabulous Thanksgiving spread, or painting abstract art.
The new women of burlesque express themselves with sequins and satin, stoplight-red lipstick and long, lush eyelashes. They seductively peel off nylons and dresses they’ve decorated themselves as they dance and role-play before cheering crowds.
“It’s classy. It’s entertainment. They make me want to do it,” said Tush! Burlesque fan Danielle Thompson of Tacoma. “It’s raunch with etiquette.”
The revival of burlesque – a fusion of dance, striptease, music, costuming, comedic satire and sisterhood – is entering its third year in Olympia. Tush! Burlesque started performing in 2009, and is the only burlesque troupe in Thurston County, though amateur burlesquers are popping up all over, said Tush! co-founder Frida Fondle of Olympia. Tush! now has eight dancers, a stage manager and emcee.
But in December, Tush! welcomed another troupe to the region, the Gritty City Sirens in Tacoma.
Both groups follow on the stiletto heels of numerous troupes in Seattle, where burlesque has been growing for at least a decade. The performance art is so popular in the Emerald City, it has spawned burlesque classes and the “BurlyCon Seattle” burlesque convention, inspiring women, and some men, from throughout the Northwest to take up the craft.
“Seattle is the second busiest burlesque city in the world, following New York,” said Lowa de Boom Boom, a member of Tush! and producer of burlesque shows in Olympia. In 2009, Lowa studied at the Academy of Burlesque in Seattle, then arranged for instructor Indigo Blue to teach her “Burlesque 101” course in Olympia.
Beyond acquiring the mechanics of dance moves or the skill to twirl tassels from various body parts, students learn to embrace the philosophy of burlesque. “In burlesque, there’s no perfect mold, there’s no perfect woman,” said Sirens’ member Rosie Cheexx, 29, of Tacoma. “Being able to accept who we are and recognize the beauty in us and other people is another big driving force behind the whole burlesque community.”
Added Frida Fondle: “We’re not doing it because we need male validation.
“We produce and direct and promote and book,” she said. “We do everything and it’s all women-based. We all have to agree on something or it doesn’t happen.”
The concept of “community” comes up a lot among the Tush! and Gritty City members.
“There’s an amazing sense of community among the performers nationally and regionally,” Frida Fondle said. “They really look out for each other, and strive to educate and support each other.”
BUILDING AN AUDIENCE
South Sound audiences are beginning to discover burlesque as well.
Tush! performers notice couples often dress up and come to the show for a date night.
Michelle and Todd Thomas of Hoodsport looked online for local events and decided to see Tush! and New York City’s Dangerous Curves troupe perform at the Capitol Theater last month.
“We’re really enjoying it,” said Michelle Thomas, 43. “I think they’re having a lot of fun up there. ... Nobody’s looking to see, you know, everything. That’s what’s fun with burlesque. There’s a little left to the imagination. It’s a real show.”
At a recent Gritty City Sirens show in Tacoma, Sean Holmquist, 29, said he didn’t think the men in the audience were lured there just because of the scantily clad women. “We all know they’re not going to get naked,” the Tacoma man said. “They’re definitely cool. ... They had some great ideas. You don’t see a girl dressed like a chick in the typical burlesque show and still look sexy.”
Burlesque dates to at least the 19th century when it described a range of comic musicals and plays that made fun of the upper classes. It evolved to focus on bawdy humor and “underdressed women,” according to John Kenrick at www.musicals101.com
Contemporary burlesque, also known as neo-burlesque, is “a theatrical, humorous parody that involves striptease,” Frida Fondle said. “It is always to music, but there are some burlesque performers who sing as they perform. ... There are women, and sometimes men, taking off their clothes, so it has to be somewhat sexual, but it’s not dirty, gross or pornographic.”
Just how much skin do burlesquers show?
If the performance is in a night club, state liquor control rules require nipple covers and a thong at least 1 inch wide in the back, Frida Fondle said. “However, even outside of venues that serve alcohol, it’s a standard in the burlesque world that we wear pasties and G-strings. It’s up to the individual performer how much they want to reveal.”
After all, tease and surprise play a starring role in burlesque. It’s not guaranteed that performers will always strip down to the pasties level.
Rosie Cheexx, for instance, recently danced at Hell’s Kitchen wearing a costume of blown-up rubber gloves attached to her torso. Popping the gloves in time to The Cure’s “Hot, hot, hot,” she revealed a black bustier, nylons and garter belt ensemble. The number was inspired by a classic balloon dance made famous by 1950s burlesque star Bettie Page.
“I had never seen rubber gloves used,” Rosie said. “I thought it was funny to do a little twist on it.”
Performers say baring the greater part of their bodies in public is empowering. Still, though they appear self-assured on stage, the dancers admitted that they struggle with insecurities about their bodies, the same as every other woman.
“It’s relatable,” said Pistolita, a leggy, 6-foot-tall brunette who at times has wanted to be a size 2 blond. “It puts other people at ease that you’re not perfect, that you’re up there, you’re shaking your booty and they see a little dimple. (They think) ‘I have that, too. You go, girl!”
And burlesquers do cover a range of body types and ethnicities.
Frida Fondle is a Peruvian native. Ava D Jor, in the Gritty City Sirens, is African American, and Lowa de Boom Boom is a mix of European, Middle Eastern and African American heritage.
“For me it’s not just about the glamour, it’s more about feeling feminine,” said Ava, 30, of Tacoma. “There’s this ideal stance that America has for black women. I feel that they don’t see us as people ... they see us as someone on the dance floor. I want to break that barrier and have women see women as women – period – no matter what color they are.”
Body size can be a statement, too.
At Tush’s performance at the Capitol Theater last month, plus-size burlesquer Lowa de Boom Boom, 29, started out with a conservative gray jacket, black pants and white blouse in her act about removing clothing to make it through the airport security metal detector. In mock frustration, she wound up stripping down to pasties and, as she termed it, “ridiculously rhinestoned” panties.
Audience members cheered just as enthusiastically for Lowa as for the more slender Tush members.
“I’ve always been large,” Lowa de Boom Boom said. “I always have felt womanly and sexy. I really like myself. Part of the reason I belly dance and do burlesque is because I am not ashamed of myself.”
Occasionally, she hears rude comments in the audience, but most reactions are positive.
FENDING OFF CREEPS
Though Tush! and Gritty City members consider burlesque an art form, they say misconceptions about burlesque abound.
In this story, the newspaper agreed to the performers’ request to use their stage names, instead of their legal names, because the participants said personal safety – and preserving their reputations – is a concern.
At a recent burlesque show in Olympia, Lowa de Boom Boom said she had to have a man removed from the premises. “He was being extremely creepy, trying to take pictures of the performers. He approached them afterwards and said ‘I’ll give you $10 if you let me take more pictures.’”
On her Facebook page that uses her stage name, the Olympia woman said she receives “incredibly inappropriate messages” that she must delete.
Nationally, there have been instances of dancers losing their jobs after employers learned they perform burlesque. Last year, an associate professor at John F. Kennedy University in the San Francisco Bay area was fired for her off-hours burlesque performances, according to news reports. Although she used the stage name Professor Shimmy in her act, the university said her performances were posted on YouTube, impairing her credibility with students and damaging her effectiveness as a teacher, according to sfweekly.com. She sued the university over her firing in March.
“A lot of people don’t understand burlesque,” Frida Fondle said.
Despite their glamorous personas on stage, Tush! and Sirens members lead regular, mundane lives by day.
“Most of us are married, have children and full-time jobs. Our age ranges are 27 to 49,” said Frida Fondle, who works as a waitress and has a teenage son.
Likewise, the Tacoma Sirens include college students, a barista, a hair stylist, a florist and two moms. Rosie Cheexx works as a bartender and event planner and has a 3-year-old son and 14-year-old stepson.
If the troupes earn money from gigs, it’s plowed back into materials for the costumes they make themselves as well as posters and promotional materials. Tush! often rents venues such as the Eagles Hall or the Olympia Film Society’s Capitol Theater, which means ticket sales cover those expenses as well.
The Olympia group performs at least once every three months, typically creating an entirely new show. The Sirens have been staging shows about once a month at nightclubs and private parties, but they’re planning to cut back to shows every other month in the fall, when some members start school.
“We’re usually lucky if we break even. It isn’t about the money,” Frida Fondle said. “It’s fun. My troupe sisters are like family to me ... getting together once a week, catching up on our lives and doing something creative. It’s one of the most creatively constructive things I’ve put my time and energy into in a long time.”
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694