A few patrons huddled under the awning at St. Paul’s oldest LGBT bar, sucking in smoke from their cigarettes and talking as rain poured down around them late Friday night.
The heavy beat of an up-tempo dance song inside reverberated out onto the street, and colored lights flickered through the open front door, suggesting that whatever was going on inside The Town House was a lot more exciting than the gloomy, wet weather outside.
Just beyond the bouncer and in front of a hootin’ and hollerin’ crowd, Queenie Von Curves took center stage wearing a black and white dress worthy of prom, with a white feather boa draped around her shoulders. The DJ cued a number by the Wet Spots, and soft, lighthearted vocals filled the room. She danced on stage during the first verse, her green and teal curls bouncing with every step. When the song got to the chorus, “Do you take it in the ass?” Queenie Von Curves began to strip.
She gracefully unbuttoned her elegant dress to reveal a black strapless corset and black sequined underwear. The crowd whistled and shouted. Some walked up to the edge of the stage and held out dollar bills. Queenie Von Curves took off another layer.
This time, she peeled down to a black-and-white fringed bra that swayed when she shimmied and lace panties that made no attempt to cover her backside.
She turned toward the back of the stage, placed her gloved hand at the base of her thigh and slowly drew it between her cheeks and up her spine. Before the audience realized what happened, the white satin glove was off her hand, dangling between her cheeks.
She continued to play with her boa and toy with the audience, oozing confidence and sass with every movement.
In the final reveal, she flung her bra to the ground and twirled sparkly pasties attached to her breasts. Then she stuck two more pasties to her butt cheeks and wiggled them in circles as the melodic music faded out and the lights went down. The crowd burst into uproarious applause.
This is what you might see if you attend a burlesque show in the Twin Cities.
The most recent revival of burlesque in Minnesota started a decade ago, when Amy Buchanan founded Le Cirque Rouge. Since then, original troupe members went on to form their own troupes, and new members branched out even further.
Foxy Tann, a local burlesque dancer and performer, said, “If you draw a graph, everything leads back to Amy [Buchanan].”
When trying to explain burlesque’s popularity resurgence, Foxy Tann quoted one of the “original” dancers from 2003:
“Gina Louise said, ‘Burlesque is like sushi.’ Sushi first came out and people were like, ‘What the hell is that?’ People were not eating sushi 15, 20 years ago. Then, the first restaurant came out. And more and more people started eating it. And then all of a sudden you can get sushi in the grocery store.”
Just like sushi in America, burlesque in the Twin Cities varies greatly in origin, style and quality.
Both Foxy Tann and her protÃ©gÃ©, RedBone, said burlesque is loosely classified into two large categories: classic and neo.
Classic burlesque evokes the old vaudevillian, silent film era style of the 1920s to about the late 1940s. Dita Von Teese and Minneapolis-based performer Musette the “Mistress of Mischief” are modern examples.
Neo burlesque is modern burlesque that doesn’t quite fit into the more strictly defined classic category. It can include drag queens, fetish elements, queer themes, modern music or political satire.
There’s even a whole subgenre of burlesque called “nerdlesque” that plays on Star Trek, Harry Potter and other fantasy.
But burlesque is constantly evolving and changing, making it hard to categorize different acts and styles. The very nature of burlesque is about acceptance and expression. If someone wants to introduce a new idea that’s never been done before, burlesque is a good place to start.
Nocturna Lee Mission, a drag queen who’s been part of the drag community for only six months, said her “rock goth” numbers didn’t fit into the traditional Top 40 style that dominates the drag community.
“Especially in Minneapolis, it’s been the same performers for so long. These performers are training in drag daughters, and this idea of what drag should be is being passed down,” she said. “For me, it felt like they didn't want their norm messed with.”
Nocturna Lee Mission said the diverse and loving burlesque community was more accepting of her style.
“[Burlesque is] lending more of a voice to people to talk about politics and beliefs and pretty much anything that you want,” RedBone said. “It’s a very open catalyst to be able to express yourself as a person.”
CherryBomb Jac, a University of Minnesota theater alumna, said BurlesqueMN, the “dance alternative” school she founded in 2011, “grew out of a desire to help women and men reconnect with their bodies and sensuality. I wanted to provide a safe environment for people to feel good about themselves.”
People in the burlesque community say the biggest misconception around burlesque is that it’s exploiting and objectifying the female body.
“The answer to rape culture is consent culture. And the answer to being exploited sexually is to be in control of how you show your sexuality,” CherryBomb Jac said.
Burlesquers are in complete control of their bodies while on stage. They select their own music, costumes and props and choose to spend their own time practicing. And through that practice, they gain confidence.
“A lot of women go to see these shows and they’re so taken by what’s happening on stage, and they think, ‘I want to feel that way. I want to be confident and strong in myself,’” Queenie Von Curves said.
At a burlesque show, you will see skinny bodies and big bodies; dark-skinned bodies and light-skinned bodies. You don’t have to be size zero, fair- skinned, 5 feet 4 inches tall and blonde. But it’s OK if you are.
“A lot of people thought we were just strippers on a pole, and they didn’t realize that it’s an art form,” Foxy Tann said, “Thank God for the movie [‘Burlesque’ (2010)]. I mean, it was a horrible movie. But it made burlesque OK.”
CherryBomb Jac said everyone from moms to business women to grandmas have taken burlesque classes at her school. Some of them perform in a recital or show, but many simply come to build self-esteem.
“Objectification is not a concern. Playing into the patriarchal power structure is not a concern,” Foxy Tann said. “We’re doing it for us. We’re doing it for other women. It’s what we think is sexy. It’s not about what men want.”