In the pharmaceutical word, a patient is naïve to therapy if he or she has never tried that specific therapy before. In the real world, I was naïve to burlesque until a friend took me to see a show featuring a traveling group called the Suicide Girls: Blackheart Burlesque.
The word burlesque derives from the Italian word “burla,” meaning joke, ridicule or mockery. Burlesque as a performance originated in 17th century Italian theatre as a type of comic interlude and would evolve over hundreds of years into its present-day form of bawdy entertainment.
Burlesque is defined in the dictionary as “an absurd or comically exaggerated imitation of something, especially in a literary or dramatic work; a parody” and as “a variety show, typically including striptease.” A Google image search shows multitudes of photos featuring fuller-figured, scantily clad women involved in various strip tease acts.
I went to the Blackheart show with an open mind. I left with a less-than-stellar, somewhat mixed opinion of this traveling troupe’s show.
The show opened with a young lady, who spent much of the evening in tubes socks and a pair of itsy bitsy panties, coming onstage to talk to the crowd. She was the emcee for the evening’s delight and opened the show by calling everyone there “bitches.” This young lady was derogatory to herself, to her fellow troupe performers and to the crowd. Instead of using her mic time to showcase intelligence and strength of character in herself and in her fellow performers, she instead stayed in trash-talking mode for the entire performance.
The performers all wore black X’s across their nipples instead of pasties. I liked the X’s as they helped differentiate these performers from ordinary strippers at a night club wearing the usual pasties. The ironic part of the evening was when the emcee picked three young women from the crowd to go up onstage and give the crowd their best dances to win a prize. All three of these women wasted no time in exposing their bare breasts and nipples to the crowd, with nearly everyone in attendance using video and photographs to record the entire evening’s live performance as this was encouraged by the troupe and the venue.
The prize given to the best amateur dancer was a year’s membership to the Suicide Girls website, a $48 value.
The Suicide Girls’ website states they have been “celebrating alternative pin-up girls” for nearly 14 years. I was impressed with the 6.3 million facebook fans and just over 337,000 Twitter fans this group has achieved. The group offers a Tumblr page featuring photographs in various states of undress, (think Playboy Bunny of the Month spreads) of its performers.
The majority of the Suicide Girls are heavily tattooed, and most have hair dyed in neon colors, red or black. I applaud these women for pushing the envelope of society’s definition of physical beauty. These young women are the exact opposite of the Barbie and Stepford parade we see in the Miss America and Miss Universe pageants. The Suicide Girls exhibit body types running from slim to a little plump; they are not just one body shape like most supermodels.
One of the dancers in the earlier part of the show performed solo in a piece that was an homage to snuff films. (A snuff film is one in which an actor is murdered or commits suicide for real while the death act is filmed. The killings depicted in these movies can be sexual in nature or can be committed for sexual pleasure.) The dancer pretended to slit her own throat and poured copious amounts of fake blood all over her and the stage while stripping.
Another dancer performed her solo act with a chair and a bottle of whiskey for accessories. She would take shots of alcohol straight from the bottle and then long-distance spit the whiskey out in a cascade over the crowd. Anyone with mysophobia, or the fear of germs, watching this performance must have been repulsed by the whiskey shower.
The emcee selected a young man from the audience and sat him down in a chair with his back to the stage before instructing him to read a short essay before undergoing a reading comprehension test. Much to the amusement of the crowd, a dancer came out on the stage and performed around the young man who was still attempting to read his essay while she gave him a brief lap dance. Surprisingly, the young man answered three out of the five questions correctly. He was given a year’s subscription to the Suicide Girls website for his participation in this skit. From the looks of things, he rather enjoyed being part of a voluntary reading exam.
The burlesque dancers mostly focused their attention on performing pieces based on American and British pop culture. The most note-worthy shows of the evening were the Star Wars stripping skit in which the performers can onstage outfitted as Storm Troopers, the Harry Potter strip tease solo featuring Hermione Granger’s character (if you don’t know by now, Hermione is the plaid skirt wearing, super geeky bookworm in both the books and the movies) and a dance performed by multiple dancers wearing top hats and using canes to the Nine Inch Nail’s song, “Closer,” with the infamous lyrics “I want to fuck you like an animal. I want to feel you from the inside.”
All in all, I am grateful my friend invited me to see this show with him. I experienced a peek at one part of the burlesque world, which is expanding into more cities across the nation as local burlesque troupes take to the stage in their respective hometowns. There are other traveling troupes who perform more traditional burlesque shows, and I will be going to see one of these shows in the future to broaden my burlesque horizons even further.
In the meantime, I am researching past and present burlesque performers as I work on a future blog piece about the evolution of burlesque from comedy to vaudeville to strip-teases and how this evolution has made an impact on our own American cultural and sexual landscape. Stay tuned!