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A look at queer burlesque
by Sarah Terez Rosenblum
2010-05-26

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Belles of burlesque. #1 Miss Tamale photo by John Dart. #2 Bea Haven


Posters plaster Starbucks bulletin boards, Facebook friends tout weekly shows and local establishments promote bar-top dancers. Let's face it: Chicago's booming burlesque scene has become impossible to ignore. However, even as a typically countercultural diversion drifts mainstream, some Chicago performers are queering the form.

With origins in the early 1800s, burlesque began as a lower-class response to refined upper-class entertainment—a mishmash of dancing, singing, comedy and notoriously, stripping. Superficially, burlesque's current incarnation harkens to a time when porn wasn't searchable by key words, and the sight of a woman's calves made an audience gasp. But lesbian burlesque performer Miss Tamale argues that, although nostalgic, burlesque packs a political wallop. "Burlesque calls into question all manner of body politics, gender politics, and sexual politics," she says.

For Bea Haven, another queer-burlesque scene mainstay, politics—albeit important—take a backseat to creativity. "I am political in the way that I cast my shows." said Bea Haven. "A commitment to presenting women of all ages, races, body types and personal gender expressions is a political act." But more important, is that each performance have significance. "It's a little tiresome to see girls in gowns stripping down to the same style lingerie with a "reveal" of pasties and G-string. If an act combines costuming, choreography, props, music, hair, makeup, etc. in a way that builds meaning, it's magical. For me, the point doesn't have to be political; it could be a simple exaggeration of the themes in the song or something that turns the costuming on its ear. But having a reason to take off your clothes is exciting."

If politics isn't the point, what attracts lesbians to a form which might seem hetero at best and anti-feminist at worst? Entertainer Candyland credited burlesque with helping her process body-image issues. "Burlesque performers come in all shapes and sizes, and the audience loves it," she said. Bea Haven agreed, saying, "After [ performing for ] seven years, it's not a big deal anymore, but I used to be nervous to undress at the gym." For Miss Tamale, burlesque's appeal to lesbians is obvious: "Performances are unapologetic and empowered. Even if the particular act is performed for a straight audience and contains relatively straight gender roles, the very act of heightened sexuality on display for others is rather queer."

Another possible draw is burlesque's relationship to drag, an obviously queer mode. According to Bea Haven, "the forms even share a history. We had a show recently where woman was exploring Gladys Bentley's work. She was one of the first drag kings and she started out in vaudeville and burlesque." Although Bea Haven admitted that as burlesque goes mainstream, "camp seems to disappear," she added that burlesque remains "like drag in that it is an exaggeration of 'femme' in the same way as male and female drag are an exaggeration of essential masculinity and femininity." Candyland summed up the intricacies succinctly, saying, "Gender is a performance, and people are attracted to all levels of that spectrum."

As for the continuum of burlesque performance, the thriving queer contingent has spawned an even edgier approach, sometimes referred to as Grotesque Burlesque. Active on the scene, as Candy Cadaver, Candyland has "always loved horror movies" and gets a rush from the "shock value" of creating acts such as "You want a piece of me," a gruesome take on the Britney Spears hit. "I pull off pieces of bloody dried liquid latex from my body and hand it to the audience," she said. "My friends love it, and thank goodness that stuff is mint flavored because act after act, they play along and bite it off me!"

Miss Tamale's performances, though perhaps less gruesome, are equally thought-provoking. "The addict act is one of my most popular," she said. Performed to the K's Choice song "Not an Addict," the secret to the act's success is "establishing an agreed upon story, then flipping it so all the clues given still apply, but to a new shared reality," Tamale added. As the piece opens, she said, "everything points to heroin addiction— [ until ] I reach into a paper sack [ and ] look at the audience with a desperate expression; then [ I ] pull out a giant Hershey's chocolate bar. When I discover it's empty, I begin to shake and tear my clothes off in a detox fit. I have this act introduced as political, with a somber tone. When I hear the audience self-policing with Shhhh! Shhh! This is serious. Please, you guys, keep it down. I know it's going to kill."

Although all openly queer, the three artists vary in their approach to integrating performing alter egos into their workaday lives. "Sometimes I worry about my day job finding out," said Candyland, "but the people there would never be exposed to the media or advertising of my shows." A certified high school teacher now completing an MFA in interdisciplinary arts and media, Miss Tamale, on the other hand, strives to align her day and night jobs.

Bea Haven has fluctuated in her approach. "I just lost a day job where I had to hide my performance life," she said. "My old boss actually told me that it was "inappropriate" to discuss. Never, ever again." Interestingly, she's turned her passion into a source of income, teaching burlesque as well as working as a freelance graphic designer. " [ Teaching ] re-energizes burlesque for me," she said, "It is amazing to watch women who had no idea that they were sexy discover their sexuality."

Although happy to welcome new performers and hopeful for a broader audience base, the artists have similar qualms about burlesque's increasingly mainstream future. "I'm really excited," said Bea Haven. "The only caveat I have—and I see it happening already in the larger national burlesque scene— is I hope that it becoming more mainstream doesn't mean women who don't have "perfect" bodies decide they can't do it." Miss Tamale also warned that, with greater exposure, "limited attitudes around what women onstage should look like could become more pronounced. I hope to see women of various body types hold their ground, insisting upon representation [ as burlesque's popularity grows ] ." Likewise, Bea Haven said, "I would hate to lose the part that drew me in the first place. Burlesque has the power to change the way women view themselves. And it's why I still do it."

Intrigued? Visit www.TamaleRocks.com to learn more about Miss Tamale, www.msbeahaven.com for info or to take a class with Bea Havenand www.facebook.com/candy.cadaver for Candyland's upcoming shows.


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