Burlesque 101

by Brian Clarey

It starts out as a conversation between the five women in the room. There are supposed to be 11 of them, but some of them get cold feet, explains Tiger Roxxx, proprietess of the Purrrlesque! burlesque troupe and lead instructor for today’s class.

“You’re so many things to so many people,” says Peaches de Vine, AKA Debbie Griffin, also teaching today. “Wife, mother, daughter, girlfriend. You need an outlet so you can be a good example to all of those people. You need to nurture the things that made people love you to begin with.”

All the women nod in assent.

Then Tiger, who goes by Sky Bradshaw when she’s not onstage shakin’ and bakin’ it, forms the group into a circle and, holding hands, together they breathe.

“Positive energy in,” she says. The ancient art of burlesque has known many incarnations since the 16th century: farcical satire, low comedy, musical drama. It wasn’t until the 1840s, at London’s Eagle Tavern, that salaciousness came into the picture when dancers’ necklines plunged and flashes of bare ankle caused scandal. Nudity, Roxxx tells the class, wasn’t a part of the genre until the 1920s.

It’s the first session of Peel Appeal, the academy set up byRoxx, Purrrlesque! founder and five-year veteran of the scene. The students — there are four of them now — won’t be getting naked today. Not completely naked, anyway.

They all have their reasons for being here. Kristen, who works in the healthcare field, says, “I am interested in the artistic side. I love dancing. I love dressing up, love the costumes, the make-up, the glitter. I’m here to have fun.”

Tammy calls herself a “recent empty-nester,” saying, “I don’t want to be considered old. I have a great body and I like to flaunt it.”

Amber waits tables while pursuing her MFA in creative writing.

She admits she definitely has a wild side. “I’m looking for ways to express that,” she says.

Tess used to be the house mom at a strip club, now she’s interested in spending her golden years as a sexy glamour queen.

Each one, upon discovering burlesque, had a light-bulb moment, an instant connection with the bump and the grind. And while for some this may be nothing more than a Sunday afternoon time-killer while their men watch football or play golf, others may shimmy all the way onstage where burlesque is alive and well, as popular and entertaining as it has ever been.

Roxxx should take some credit for the preponderance of burlesque in the Triad — she’s been involved for half a decade, getting in the game way back when a sultry redhead going by the moniker Foxy Moxy sashayed into town, bringing with her a flamboyant style that took root and flourished.

Now Purrrlesque! has standing gigs at the Blind Tiger in Greensboro and the Garage in Winston-Salem; they tour the country and have cadres of fans in every city they visit. To the class, Roxxx relates some of the lessons of the road.

Each state has its own blue laws as well. No thongs in Tennessee, not without pantyhose. And the euphemism for North Carolina’s Blue Laws makes a grown reporter blush.

“You need to know you’re keeping it covered,” Roxxx says. The laws for places serving alcohol don’t necessarily apply to those that don’t; the rules for theaters are different than the rules for bars; and each city has its own style of burlesque. New York City, she says, is shocking, sometimes involving full nudity and overt sexual content. New Orleans dancers are known for their elaborate costumes and props. In LA, burlesque grew out of the fetish scene, so latex costumes and ball-gags are often incorporated into shows.

After the social studies lesson, the women engage in rudimentary stage-acting exercises: making faces in the mirror, smiling across the room, mimicking animals ad having the others try to guess what they are.

“It’s got to be bigger,” Roxxx coaxes. “More more more!” And then it’s time to take it off. The women change into men’s collared shirts and neckties, thighhigh stockings both with and without garters, high-heeled shoes.

Roxxx makes sultry vintage horns slink from the speakers; they stand in front of the mirrored wall and sway, motion starting at the hips and moving outward.

Roxxx takes the lead, slowly loosening her tie, splaying the collar of her shirt, undoing the knot with a practiced motion, throwing in a little shoulder shimmy. She loosens the necktie, undoes the shirt buttons one at a time, slides the shirt halfway down her back and turns, again slowly, so her back is to the mirror. The shirt moves down to cover her butt, slowly, she pulls it back and forth, and then drops it to the ground in a puddle, slides her hands up her legs, across her hips, along her neck and into the air. The women of the class follow suit, and soon they are all down to their underthings here on Sunday afternoon.