An eager audience stares up at a stage as the lights dim and music begins to play. A woman emerges from behind the curtains with a coy grin as she strides across the floor to the music. As the song continues, she teasingly reveals more skin as the crowd cheers her on. Glitter flings through the air as the dancer’s one-person tango continues. The act ends with breasts boldy displayed, save for the modesty of nipple pasties, and a roaring applause.
This is the basic format of a burlesque show.
Burlesque is a performance art where a person dances on stage with props and strip-teasing. As Empress de Naste, a local burlesque dancer, put it, “It’s stripping with a story.”
While burlesque has the action of stripping, it’s different than the profession of stripping. De Naste said it’s a lot more artistic, and sometimes can be more emotionally driven with more teasing to the act than regular stripping.
Rebecca Frankel, a student at VCU and the Boom Boom Basics Burlesque dance course, said that burlesque started in the 1930s as a form of entertainment to help distract people from the Great Depression. Around the ’50s it became viewed as more sexual, like stripping, until around the ’70s when more artistic aspects were added to the performance. In the ’90s, Neo-Burlesque became popular, which is what we see more of today.
De Naste said Neo-Burlesque, like classic burlesque, uses props like feather fans and feather boas, and incorporates many different themes and often characters. Frankel said these themes range from “Nerdlesque,” which uses nerdy costumes like Tina Belcher from Bob’s Burgers, to “hooplesque,” which uses hula hoops.
“If you can think of it, it can be in burlesque,” Frankel said.
Burlesque show flyers are posted in storefronts of local businesses around Richmond. De Naste said that while she’s been to a lot of cities larger than Richmond in the U.S., Richmond has one of the most active scenes. She said that shows are often packed or easily sold out.
De Naste credits the activity of the scene to the producers who organize the shows, one of whom is Deepa de Jour. She is a burlesque dancer who has been performing in Richmond for six years, and began when she graduated from VCU with a degree in painting and printmaking.
“I started producing shows over four years ago, with guidance from more experienced performers and producers,” de Jour said.
De Naste said it’s impressive that de Jour has been in the scene for this long, because most people in the burlesque scene come and go in about a year.
De Jour says organizing the shows is a long process that begins with looking at the venue and organizing a guest list, to paying the performers and clearing out the dressing room at the end of the night. While it’s a lot of work, she says that many of her fellow “troupe” mates are always offering to help.
“It’s a well-oiled machine, lubricated with glitter and love,” de Jour said.
Creating acts also takes a lot of effort. De Naste said while most performances may only last four minutes, burlesque dancers may spend 48 hours to a few months making their costumes.
Despite all the effort that goes into the show, for de Jour the hardest part of burlesque is the day after the show happens.
“The whirlwind leading up to it with all the laughter and performance euphoria is fading,” de Jour said.
De Naste says that she has a few signature moves at performances such as working on the floor and booty drops. On the contrary, de Jour said that she tries to stay away from signature moves.
“Each act can vary in the character the performer is taking on,” de Jour said. “And I wouldn’t want to limit my options.”
De Jour said that after performing for a while a dancer develops certain tendencies, such as the way they walk across stage. In a sense, a dancer’s stage presence becomes their signature.
It’s also important not to plagiarize another performer’s work. De Naste said that each dancer has a theme that they perform with, and it’s important not to rip off someone else’s theme or performance.
Many burlesque dancers have day jobs outside of burlesque. De Naste said that one of the uses of stage names are to help protect the dancer’s identity and keep their burlesque life separate from their personal life. She said that the names also create a stage persona such as when Lady GaGa or Nicki Minaj choose to use a stage name.
“At a show no one calls me Emma,” De Naste said. “Everyone calls me Empress.”
De Naste said that burlesque dancers also have taglines, Deepa de Jour is “the delectable dish.”
One of the reasons Frankel said she loves burlesque is because of the body positivity she feels from the performances.
“There are performers of every height and weight,” Frankel said. “I never feel envious when I see them on stage, I’m always just amazed at how beautiful they are.”
De Naste was attracted to the scene because she loved the control over the creative process. The choreography, costume, props and music are all chosen by the performer, and truly make it their vision coming to life. However, both De Naste and Frankel said that they were attracted to the glamor of the burlesque scene.
For novices, one way to dip your feet into the burlesque scene is to take one of the Boom Boom Basic Burlesque classes, Frankel said. They are taught by Deena Danger who, according to her website, is the reigning number one burlesque dancer in Richmond. Danger is also the only full time performer in Virginia, meaning she has no other job, she only does burlesque.
In her classes you will learn everything from how to to make your own nipple pasties, to choreographing a routine.
If you don’t have the funds to join a class you can still get into the scene. De Naste, who has been performing in Richmond for a little more than a year, said she got her start in burlesque by showing up to events and talking to people about her interest in it. De Naste said it’s also important to show them your creative capabilities so that they know what they’re working with, such as your ability to create costumes.
De Naste said that most burlesque shows hold calls for performers, and it’s not uncommon for them to ask you to come and audition by showing them the performance you want to do in full costume with props.
If you wish to get wrapped up in the scene or just do something fun for a few hours, burlesque shows happen year-round and can most often be found at Gallery 5.