Costumes, balloons, feathers and plumes. The clubhouse is full, and attitudes are saucy and just a little naughty. Hold your breath – you’re in for a show. Burlesque in C.R. – if you’re a sourpuss don’t go!
For this interview I was surprised, set straight and, yes, a little sold. If you haven’t heard, Campbell River has its very own burlesque club – Sweet Tease Burlesque. My first glimpse of this talented troupe is of huge lollypops and bright streamers – and an innocence that stays put when the clothing may not! Led by Heather Gordon Murphy, they’ve been going for a year, are a solid hit, and are almost booked up for the summer. Here’s the scoop.
Burlesque is theatrical entertainment and dance with broad humor and earthy characters. Brought from Britain by Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes in the late 1860’s it consists of short dance pieces, comic skits and sometimes striptease acts. Burlesque evolved from theatrical spoofs and ladies performing men’s roles in costumes considered risqué for the times – showing ankles and knees – to vaudeville, minstrel shows, striptease, comedy, and the follies of the 20’s and 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Burlesque and Neo-burlesque – a revival and updating of the traditional burlesque performance – encompass a wide range of performance styles from classic striptease to modern dance, theatrics and comedic mayhem. Neo-burlesque is "more focused on the tease in striptease than the strip”, is exquisitely playful and fun, and uses innuendos and satire to involve the audience in its yarns and stunts. I get this firsthand with phrases from the Emcee like "take the spicy one” and something about "getting leftovers” while handing out garters to a trio of reluctant, possibly birthday, recipients called up to the front.
Burlesque disappeared around the 60’s and 70’s partly because of the Women’s Movement. Heather, whose stage name is Za-Za, says, "It came back with the third wave of feminism – the first was out of the corsets, the second was not wanting anything to do with that kind of thing, and now the third wave of Rocka-Billy-punk to embrace all of it.” Neo-Burlesque is an "edgy, punk kind of style that young people – if they know about burlesque – know.”
I’m curious about who comes to see burlesque and why. Za-Za says, "At first I didn’t know who my audience was going to be. It’s more women, large groups of women”. I’m told that some women dress up – feathers and fringe – and I agree with Heather that "people like a chance to dress up and become a different person.” Sweet Tease encourages dressing up even at the Rock n’ Bowl nights at Crystal Lanes bowling alley, which is their sponsor. The building is home to Art and Soul Productions, where their clubhouse is. They also get couples and groups of couples. "We had a couple in our last show come all the way from Whistler. They had seen our poster, came over and enjoyed our show.” As to why: "People come to watch us because we have so much fun. That’s what seems to come across and once people walk through the doors and have an idea of what it is, they want to be a part of what’s happening and have the fun we’re having.” With their red balloons, rainbows of colour and flounces flying, I concur, and the audience is in on it too!
I want to know if people arrive knowing it’s a striptease or if they’re shocked or surprised. Za-za says some are surprised, but "they know it will be a titillation, absolutely.” She says, "I liken the shows that we do to a Las Vegas Review, something along those lines of incorporating all kinds of styles of performance. Some Las Vegas Reviews are completely nude from the waist up, others are more conservative, with everything in between.”
Sweet Tease Burlesque, with their two full shows a year tries to be "very clear that this is what we are. When we are contracted to do other things, we can do our burlesque show that would involve no stripping or shedding of clothing or nudity at all. We would do our Can Can or some of our other numbers that don’t have that aspect. It’s really up to what the group [venue] wants”, which is usually a bit of the edgier part of burlesque. Heather says they always check, will show their DVD and ask which sets will suit the audience, club or group. "So that makes it quite clear.” Za Za tells me that some people who go to their shows might be a little surprised – for instance her mother "who has since decided it’s not her thing but supports me wholeheartedly!” I’m told their staunchest supporter is a grandmother who’s 89 who "thinks it’s absolutely wonderful and comes to every show.”
I ask what brings women and men to dance in burlesque and what their motivation is. Za-Za says it seems to be intrigue. "A lot of the girls and the guys that we’ve had will see our show and will say "that looks like fun, I’d like to try that – or I’d like to be a part of that. Often they will come through the door and check us out, come to a meeting or come to a rehearsal. We have people come through the door and just watch; others come and want to help sew.” Heather says that one lady wanted to do costumes and loves that kind of stuff, so she sews sequins on the costumes. "This is something she can do on her own if she wants. It’s mostly for the camaraderie.” One woman basically wanted to get out of the house, heard about the new club and thought it looked like fun. "We have all ages, the youngest is 19 and I have three older women – older than me, which is old! – who want to become involved. They want to put together some kind of little act.” Heather describes friendship, camaraderie, supportive mentoring and cross generational role models. In the show I see a heart-and-soul performance using skills and an understanding of life and dance that comes with experience and taking a risk sometimes.
I ask if Campbell River is ready for a burlesque club and Za-Za replies, "I think Campbell River is ready for this. Attracting the Campbell River audience can be a challenge at first but once they take that risk, you have them forever. It’s a little bit harder work and I’ve had a chance to go to lots of other places but I’d rather stay here and work at it. So I think definitely Campbell River is ready for this.” From the applause and laughter I hear at the show, I agree. Heather really didn’t know what to expect at first from the audiences but she had many supporters and has worked with people she knew would help her out. "So I knew I would get some support and positive response. I didn’t expect it to be quite this big this fast!” Heather’s been astounded by the response which is "almost all positive” and she credits her technicians with professionalism, complete support and a safe environment for the dancers. "They are professionals and I totally depend on them to create the proper environment.”
I ask what message, if any, burlesque dancers want to put out there. "I think for a lot of the women it’s ‘Look at me. I’m up here doing this, feeling good about myself and you could be part of this too’, in whatever way.
Maybe it’s just walking down the street knowing that you haven’t been up there but somebody else like you or similar to you has done that, put themselves out there. I thought most people would just come because they wanted to get out on stage but it hasn’t turned into that.” Heather describes the different women in the club: woman of all ages, sizes, physical shape, movement and dance ability and says, "It’s constantly encouraging and supportive with comments like ‘beautiful outfit’, ‘you look beautiful’, ‘that was so nice’, or ‘I’ll help you do your hair’, and that’s pretty cool.”
So guess who gets a standing ovation? (Cirque de Soleil watch out!) And do you know what happens at the end of the show? Better check it out – I know I’ll never look at silk pajamas the same way again!
Sweet Tease Burlesque’s next public show is in the fall of 2008. They are available by request for special functions and can be reached on Facebook and by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. See their events poster at Art and Soul Productions-Crystal Lanes Bowling Alley. They perform at the Rock ’n’ Bowl at Crystal Lanes on specific theme nights, usually once a month.
BIO: Chris loves to write, dance and take long walks – for fun, spiritual fulfillment and rejuvenation. She encourages us to live consciously in the world.