New burlesque encourages all shapes, sizes and sexes


Burlesque star Deanna Danger. (David Parrish; Courtesy Deanna Danger)
May 24, 2013

There are some for whom glitter-tracking is an occupational hazard. Sadie Hawkins and Buster Britches are two of those people.

“Glitter gets all over your house; it gets all over everything,” observes Hawkins, an Atlanta-based aerial burlesque virtuoso who’s all too familiar with the sparkly nuisance, a decorative staple of burlesque acts. “I find glitter in my dog’s ears,” she says.

Glitter migrates “everywhere,” agrees Britches, a Richmond entertainer who specializes in sideshow acts and in the burgeoning sub-genre known as “boylesque” (burlesque performed by men). The stocky, bearded 27-year-old has been known to strip down from a tutu-enhanced tuxedo to tasseled pasties and a G-string, to the accompaniment of the song “Money” from the musical “Cabaret.”

Hawkins and Britches are two of the artists who will appear in the inaugural Virginia Burlesque & Sideshow Festival, running in various locations around Richmond, May 31-June 2. Produced by Onca O’Leary, the impresario behind a well-established burlesque festival in Asheville, N.C., the Richmond event will showcase, among other turns, a “tribal fusion” belly dancer called Karolina Lux; a Washington, D.C.,-based sideshow artist and ukulele player who goes by Mab Just Mab; and a juggler/fire eater/knife thrower named Paolo Garbanzo, whose credits include serving as an official Fool of Muncaster Castle in England.

Hawkins is bringing her “She-Demon of the Deep” routine — in which she portrays a captured mermaid, writhing in sultry fashion in an off-the-ground net. Steele Starling, an artist from St. Louis, will perform his football sendup, in which he discards a pigskin, sheds articles of workout attire, and executes acrobatics around a pole, to the strains of “Another One Bites the Dust.” The needling of a revered American pastime is wholly intentional. “It’s fun to make fun of things that people take seriously,” he says.


The photo titled "Hoop" by Bryant Upchurch, featuring performer Sadie Hawkins. (Bryant Upchurch/; Courtesy Sadie Hawkins)
A progressive spin

The festival is a manifestation of the “new burlesque,” a movement that has reinvented, and impishly subverted, a risqué entertainment form that was at a pinnacle from the Jazz Age through the mid-20th century. American burlesque originally crystallized around 1870 as a showbiz formula that embraced variety acts, populist comic shtick (Fanny Brice, Bert Lahr and other comedians would hone their craft in burlesque), and topical satire, as well as dames in revealing garb. But as the 20th century progressed, the titillating showgirl became a more central ingredient, and burlesque evolved into striptease, producing celebrities such as Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr, before eventually losing ground as the sexual revolution dissolved taboos, making peel-it-off acts less thrilling.

New burlesque, which began percolating in the 1990s and gained visibility around the turn of the millennium, aims to give a progressive spin to the bump-and-grind tradition. Back in the day, the leg show and striptease facilitated the ogling of attractive women. The new burlesque is more inclusive: It facilitates the ogling of everybody.

The attitude is “every man is beautiful; every woman is beautiful; every man who dresses as a woman, and everyone woman who dresses as a man — and the people who you can’t tell!” Hawkins says.

Hence the upsurge in male performers, such as Britches and Starling. And the new crowd in the limelight is matched by a new crowd in the seats. DePaul University scholar Rachel Shteir, author of “Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show,” said in an e-mail that while “old burlesque mostly catered to working-class men,” the new version appeals particularly to “male and female hipsters and LGBTQ audiences.”

Shteir attributes the rise of the new burlesque in part to the advent of third-wave feminism, which takes a more tolerant attitude to behavior that an earlier generation of feminists might have frowned upon. Interviews with women involved in the Virginia festival seem to confirm the theory: For them, burlesque is far from exploitative or demeaning; it’s a means of personal empowerment.

“It’s about showing the audience what you want them to see — not subjecting yourself to somebody else’s whim,” says Deanna Danger, a Richmond performer self-dubbed “The Warrior of Burlesque.” She teaches burlesque to laypeople — the welcoming of amateurs is part of the new burlesque’s inclusiveness — and says she regularly sees self-confidence “blossom” in shy students who attempt the form.

Burlesque as political activism

O’Leary goes even further: The longtime resident of Asheville, N.C., who is now a Richmonder, came to burlesque by way of a professional belly-dance career. For her, burlesque is political activism. “It is my opinion that the single most radical thing a person can do in our society is accept themselves,” she said in an interview at Dogtown Dance Theatre, the venue in Richmond’s Manchester district where two of the festival’s shows will run. “Our entire consumer industry, and a lot of our social interactions, are predicated on the idea that at least 51 percent of the population should be apologetic about themselves all the time: ‘I am too old,’ or ‘I am not thin enough,’ or ‘I’m having a bad hair day,’ or ‘If only I was a different age, race, class, whatever.’ ”

By encouraging performers of all dress and waist sizes and demographics to strut their stuff, contemporary burlesque can “defy the fascist beauty ideal,” she says.

Britches has experienced that dynamic in his performance. “I’m obviously not your average stripper,” he observed as he sat at a Richmond coffee shop, his comfortably padded frame decked out in steampunk attire (a bowler hat trimmed with goggles and a peacock feather, etc.). When he walks onstage, he says, viewers initially feel embarrassed. “I can see the audience put their hands over their mouths and say, ‘Oh, my goodness, this fat guy is going to take off his clothes?’ ” he says. But by the end of his number, his humorous razzle-dazzle has won out and “they’re having a great time.”

Like most of the artists interviewed for this article, Britches says he earns a living through performance and related activities. When not treading the boards in a burlesque or sideshow capacity, he works in haunted-house-style entertainment, and sometimes hosts karaoke. Other interviewees say they round out their incomes by working as instructors and event producers in their field; or hold down day jobs (Hawkins does freelance copy writing, as well as teaching) that leave them free to perform several times a month.

Britches became a burlesque convert because he felt creatively unfulfilled working in traditional scripted theater. “As an actor, you are more of a paintbrush for someone else,” he says.

By contrast, a contemporary burlesque performer may conceive, choreograph, create costumes for, and execute her or his own act, not to mention choosing a stage name to match a colorful persona. (All the names of performers in this article are stage names.)

In O’Leary’s view, this idiosyncratic, do-it-yourself approach is what American audiences hunger for, after years of homogenized entertainment churned out by media conglomerates.

“People are tired of having mass-produced boy bands handed to them,” she says. In the face of such formulaic corporate content, she believes, new burlesque serves as “cultural pushback.”

The pushback includes some concerted turning back of the clock: The sideshow bills that round out the upcoming festival (Britches will be doing a bed-of-nails routine, rather than a striptease, for instance) hark back to the days when variety acts were central to burlesque. Indeed, for all its revisionism, new burlesque, like contemporary sideshow, feels a kinship with history.

That’s in part because the Internet has made it easier for performers to check out their historical predecessors. “People all over the world are getting inspiration from the past: It’s like a flood,” says Trav S.D., an expert on vaudeville and other old-time entertainments whose most recent book is “Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies From Nickelodeons to YouTube.”

“People are getting inspirations for costumes, and for methods for putting on shows, and ideas for acts, and the full gamut,” he says.

History has certainly been an inspiration for Deanna Danger, who’ll perform her tribute to silent-film star Theda Bara at the festival. In the homage, Danger stalks and whirls, thrashing winglike silver scarves that reveal tantalizing glimpses of physique, especially after she sheds a diaphanous gown.

She’ll also be one of the artists offering how-to workshops as part of the festival. Danger’s tutorial will focus on costuming on a budget and will cover what she calls “rhinestone theory.” (One tip: Mixing and matching types of rhinestones can create glitz without breaking the bank.)

“Getting into burlesque, you’re kind of getting a new habit of buying rhinestones,” Danger says. “Everything can always use more sparkle and gleam.”

Wren is a freelance writer.

Virginia Burlesque & Sideshow Festival

May 31-June 2 in Richmond; virginiaburlesque.com.

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