Burlesque, as an art, is a sensual and liberating form of self-expression and exploration. Involving a synchronized mind-body effort to find complete comfort with one’s sexuality in a world where it’s considered taboo, Burlesque is an incredibly empowering performing art. Whether presented solo or in a group, it is a bold act that involves subverting hegemonic structures that police one’s performativity of gender and sexuality. For Vassar students to take part in this beautifully rebellious theater tradition, dating back to the early twentieth century, is wholly awe-inspiring.
On Feb. 9 and 10 in the Shiva, Vassar Burlesque, established in the fall of 2016, put on its second annual show. Vassar Burlesque members are typically known by their stage names, and for the purposes of preserving their privacy, that’s how this article shall refer to them.
New member Froot Tart ’21, explained how, when he first arrived, he was delighted to hear that there was a Burlesque group on campus. “I was extremely excited because I am a big fan of Burlesque and just the whole idea of it,” stated Froot Tart. Enumerating several famous Burlesque artists who have inspired him, he continued, “I love Josephine Baker and what she stood for in the ’20s and am also a fan of Dita von Teese, but who isn’t?”
As someone who had not staged an undressing before Burlesque, Froot Tart is convinced that he is more comfortable in his body since he joined the group. He elaborated, “That [kind of performance] would not be ‘allowed’ because I’m not really buff or really fit and it’s just nice to have an org where we are honest with our bodies and, even though I’m still working through issues, I feel confident with myself now.”
Burlesque actively talks about body positivity and self-consciousness. Publicity Coordinator, Head of Special Events and the show’s Master of Ceremonies Mads Ouellette ’19 elucidated, “We don’t just focus on doing shows, we also have meetings every week and talk about a huge variety of topics: anything from intimacy to sexuality to how we feel about our bodies.”
Performer Mopy Dick ’18 felt similarly: “Some of our meetings have covered heavy topics such as intimacy and body positivity and so it’s been important that this trust has been there. You get as much as you give and so it’s been very rewarding to be able to form these friendships and be able to openly talk about such difficult issues in such an open environment.” All of these points are key to the group’s mission statement, which concludes with “…we hope to sustain a progressive conversation surrounding consensual sex, sexual expression and body positivity.”
The strong sense of enthusiasm and community transfer over well to the preparation for the performances. Dr. Ho ’21 explained, “One of our exec board literally made pretty much all of the costumes for one of the group routines. There were seven people in that show.” In terms of costuming, that was not the only example of extreme dedication presented by other members of the club. Froot Tart mentioned, “There was actually a point in the show when I couldn’t get my costume right and I got help…so they saved my ass and I love everyone in the group. I don’t know how many times I can say that. Probably a lot.”
With around four hours of practice a week, usually on Fridays and Saturdays, Burlesque is a serious time commitment. Froot Tart expressed his surprise when he got in: “Some of us were surprised to get into the org in general. We didn’t think of ourselves as Burlesque performers until we were in the group.” Dr. Ho, also a new member, conveyed similar sentiments: “I was very happy, flattered and confused.” The new members as well as the older ones both have an enthusiasm about membership. Ouellette mentioned: “I love every second I get to spend with the new members. They continue to amaze me with their talent and insight and love for the group.”
The sense of community is not just visible in the show, but around campus and in meetings. Mopy Dick, in his first year of membership in the club, explained his favorite part of being in Burlesque: “It’s the sense of community and acceptance.” He further elaborated, “At every meeting, there’s always such a level of positivity and support that you can find in everyone. And even outside of meetings, I find myself hanging out at the Deece or in the library with them. There’s a strong sense of trust that’s hard to achieve in a club.” Ouellette made similar points about Burlesque’s unique atmosphere: “Burlesque is an entirely different experience from other performances I’ve been in. It feels like more of a family or a community than a performance group.”
Since the show itself takes an abundance of effort and planning, each member must take the group very seriously. Ouellette took us behind the scenes, illuminating the level of planning that was required: “A surprising amount of work goes into these shows. There are a lot of tiny moving parts that have to be accounted for and trying to organize and communicate with 30 performers is really hard. I’ve been really impressed by everyone though. The group this year has really been giving everything 110% effort and commitment.”
Mopy Dick, as a solo performer in this year’s show, played the chords to “Wonderwall” on the ukulele completely nude as the audience sang along, some with distributed lyric sheets and others solely from memory. “I spent all of winter break practicing the song on ukulele,” stated Mopy Dick. Regarding his preparation, he continued, “It mainly involved getting the chords and the order of the song correctly. I originally planned on covering my genital region with the ukulele but gave up on that idea when I discovered how difficult a position it would’ve been to play. So I gave in, uncomfortably at first, to displaying it all.”
When Mopy Dick was actually on stage performing, he strove for audience participation: “During the Friday night performance, one person was simply in a fit of laughter the whole time and another person took one of the fake candles from a table and began waving it like a lighter at a concert. That performance was a weird experience; it felt like everyone was participating in a joke they were in on. And so my expectations for Saturday were very different when not as many people knew the lyrics to the song. Usually when you’re performing onstage, it’s one person feeling awkward in front of 150 people. This time, it felt like the other way around.”
Burlesque encourages said participation. Ouellette made it a strong point that the audience should unreservedly express love and support to the performers: “CHEER. SCREAM. CLAP. Anything to show that you love what’s happening, that you support us.” This happened from the entrance of the first performer: soloist, president and co-founder of the club, Madeleine Briggs ’18. The routine started out with her suggestively sprawled across a couch, with attendants surrounding her. Within seconds, the audience’s reaction filled the room with cheering, screaming and clapping. As the show progressed, the noise grew.
Briggs greatly supported this connection between audience and performer, likening it to one of the things that makes Burlesque special: “What I think sets Burlesque apart from other modes of performance is that the performance of confidence and self-assuredness onstage by the performer is not only healing to the performer but is also mirrored by the viewer. Seeing someone feeling sexy and having fun gives the audience permission to feel sexy and have fun. In all of the performances I have seen and participated in, I have never witnessed the depth of this mirrored connection between audience and performer, especially a shared experience that can be so transformatively positive.”
Briggs concluding the event wearing an extravagant pink-feathered costume—one that alluded to her performance last year, suggesting the start of a tradition. The repertoire of performances that left audiences reeling wrapped up with a heartwarming award ceremony on closing night, with multiple group members receiving beautiful arrangements of flowers from the rest of the team, as a marker of gratitude for all the hard work those members put into the show.