Behind the scenes of a burlesque show is a performance of its own.
Thirty minutes before showtime, beers were being slugged backstage straight from the can. The conversation circulated around who was going to get tacos from the neighboring Mexican restaurant. Hooks held sequined costumes on a lime green brick wall and someone aimlessly strummed on an electric guitar covered in SpongeBob SquarePants stickers. A few feet away, a shirtless guy lay on a bed of nails and a girl dressed in leather was spread out on top of him. No one batted an eye.
Burlesque is a marriage of humor and striptease and, over the past few years, it has taken Philadelphia by storm. Burlesque classes have popped up at places such as The Peek-A-Boo Revue, Philadelphia’s longest running burlesque troupe, Fit and Fab Studios and Studio 1831. Each has welcomed those wanting to learn the act.
However, the number of burlesque performances outnumbers the classes greatly. A particular performance at Connie’s Ric Rac was packed with numbers from dancers whose stage names include Asha Lo, Madame Hellcat, Rachel Rottin’, Scarlett Storm and Talia Zatanna – otherwise known as the girls slugging beers and eating tacos. However, once they took the stage, not a soul would have believed it.
The transformation from an average, everyday woman to a sensual, powerful and humorous girl almighty is all part of burlesque. Talia Zatanna, who celebrated her one-year burlesque anniversary this past October, said she still gets anxious before going on stage, but once she starts to move, a completely different set of feelings and emotions take over.
“I love being naked. Doing it is kind of, just like, ‘Oh, I’m going to put rhinestones all over myself and be sparkly and naked?’ Great. Awesome,” said Zatanna before she performed a go-go dancer act. “Some days when you don’t feel very good about yourself, you’re like, ‘Ugh. I have to go up there and do it?!’ But I don’t even think of it as going up there naked. I’m more worried that I’m going to get my garments off at the right time. I want my act to be perfect.”
Hattie Harlowe, another dancer, said she initially struggled with confidence on stage – including a mishap where her wig fell off – but has learned to take her time and let loose. She insisted the more fun she has, the more fun the audience has.
“Audiences are encouraged to show appreciation through hoots, whistles and cheers, and tips are always appreciated for a job well done,” Harlowe said. “Because as we like to say, ‘Rhinestones ain’t cheap!'”
Considering the amount of time, effort and cost involved with a typical performance, the pressure to do well is understood.
“It depends on the troupe, the level of show, what kind of show it is, but it can take anywhere from a few minutes, if it’s a last minute thing, to days and hours and sleepless nights to prepare for a show,” said Asha Lo, a former model who brings a self-taught Hula Hoop flair to her burlesque acts.
Their hard work certainly does not go unnoticed by the cheering and whistling crowds who come together to watch the shows. Audience member Tonnie Rubes watched her first burlesque show after initially believing it would simply be a performance of naked girls dancing around.
“It’s clear the girls have to work really hard at this,” Rubes said. “It’s not like stripping where you walk around naked for a dollar. They work for this. They practice.”
Enter the elephant in the room: Are strippers the same as burlesque dancers? People unfamiliar with the art may say yes, but the burlesque community would argue otherwise.
“They’re two different beasts. Yes, you’re stripping in burlesque, but it comes from a completely different attitude and expects a different outcome,” said Zatanna. “Stripping is a lot more sexual than burlesque. Burlesque is more about the build up and release of tension.”
“Burlesque is an art. First and foremost, it’s more about telling a story and making a connection than it is about nudity,” Harlowe said. “Humorous, sensual, bittersweet, controversial, irreverent, dreamy – the experience you share is all up to the performer.”
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Brandon Hicks, an avid fan, agreed and said burlesque dancers put on a show with far more entertainment value than strippers.
Frank Marciano, a burlesque dancer previously from Nashville, Tennessee, commented the Philadelphia burlesque scene is unique due to the eclectic mix of people.
Eclectic is certainly an appropriate word when describing themes recently used during burlesque shows in Philadelphia. Harlowe named Miss Rose’s Sexploitation Follies, a bimonthly show based on different film directors, as her favorite. This past June was Mel Brooks-themed and they performed a homage to Men in Tights.
“Creating that number took almost 10 hours of choreographing and group practice, plus all the time it took to sew six different tunics and hats from scratch,” Harlowe said. “It was one of the most fun months I’ve ever had.”
The theme at Connie’s Ric Rac circulated around outer space, completed with an astronaut and a three-breasted alien, both portrayed by nine-year burlesque veteran Scarlett Storm.
Zatanna said she is currently working on an act based on the film Pineapple Express with the support of the local burlesque community.
“I’ve known them for a while now and we perform together a lot,” Zatanna said.
A sense of community radiated during performances. Though the crowd contributes their share of whistles and cheers, the loudest bits of support were heard by fellow burlesque members. With every turn, shimmy and removal of a glove, they shrieked in encouragement.
After seeing Miss Liberty Rose perform at a burlesque variety show at a wine bar, Harlowe expressed interest in learning how to perform and Rose took her under her wing to teach her the craft, art and history of burlesque.
“I’m lucky to count among my new friends a sword-swallowing clown, an extreme Hula Hoop dancer, drag performers with far better legs than me, and several ‘boylesque’ dancers with the most enviable facial hair,” Harlowe said.
Zatanna refers to fellow performers as her family. There isn’t an air of competition, but instead a strong wind of desire to help each other perform better and better each night.
Each of their purposes for performing is different. Zatanna loves dancing. Rachel Rottin’ embraces her inner daredevil with a fire-eating act. Madame Hellcat seemingly just enjoys being on stage in front of a cheering crowd. Regardless of the reason, they each agreed burlesque has changed their lives for the better.
“In my nine-to-five, I’m a buttoned-up business professional,” Harlowe said. “But at night I can take on the persona of Hattie, fake lashes, glitter and all.”
– Text, video and images by Chynna Mela