When people hear the term “burlesque” some still think of that 2010 film with Christina Aguilera. For others—like performers Lita Deadly, Jasper St. James and Dino Foxx—it’s a more nuanced label, one associated with radical, freeing self-expression. Those performers will shake up the city this weekend with San Antonio’s fifth annual San Antonio Burlesque Festival.
Attendees will see everything from burlesque and sideshow to drag and aerial acts, says Lita Deadly, founder and producer of the festival who’s been involved in the burlesque scene for several years. Organizers say the festival showcases both classical and neo-burlesque, which can incorporate comedy and satire or political motivation. The festival will feature politically motivated acts that involve gender-bending, and something called “nerd-lesque,” where performers cosplay on stage and create a story through intentional choreography.
But isn’t all burlesque politically motivated to some degree? Its history as adult entertainment pushed social boundaries and taboos, making its mark as a sociopolitical movement without many people realizing that taking your clothes off could even accomplish that. Longtime queer performers like Dino Foxx insist burlesque is about much more than just shedding clothes in front of a crowd. What began as a form of parody evolved into exotic dancing on the vaudeville circuit. During Prohibition, burlesque was part of a culture that encouraged an uninhibited atmosphere. Eventually, the artform declined partly due to the presence of nudity in theaters. That is, until it was revived with neo-burlesque.
To Foxx, it’s about changing what mainstream culture considers beautiful. “People walk away feeling a little sexier, more empowered, they can see themselves in something that is beautiful and glamorous and positive,” says Foxx, who will emcee the festival. This impact on the audience plays a huge role in the festival’s growth every year. Foxx calls the shows eye-opening for first-timers, who often come back with a group of friends to share the experience. “They automatically think of at least four people they can bring to the next one,” he says.
This year, the festival brings in performers come from all over the country, even some internationally.
“People from New Zealand have applied. People are taking notice of our festival here in San Antonio and want to be a part of it,” says co-produce Jasper St. James, who will also be performing in the festival.
“Some of it is word of mouth,” he says. People are intrigued when they hear about the festival, where awards will be given out on Saturday night, but the headliners are the real selling point for those who recognize them. This year they include Violet Chachki, Perle Noire, Chola Magnolia, Dusty Summers, and J.D. Hickcock.
All of which highlights how Texas burlesque has come a long way since its inception.
“Pretty much every major city in Texas has a festival,” says St. James. “When we first started San Antonio Burlesque Festival, we were like, why don’t we? We had a scene, we’re a major city, why aren’t we doing this?”
San Antonio’s festival has put the city on the map, burlesque-wise, attracting talent and well-known performers like Perle Noire, known in the community as the “Mahogany Queen of Burlesque” and Dusty Summers, known as “Las Vegas’ Only Nude Magician.”
Yet there’s still the ongoing struggle of engaging the city, possibly due to the city’s traditionally Catholic context, or maybe just general lack of knowledge about the art form.
“A challenge for us has been to educate and get the word out in our city about our style of entertainment,” says Deadly. “There are still a lot of people who don’t know what burlesque or sideshow are.”
While educating the city may be one of the challenges, Texas itself is growing its burlesque community with five major festivals. And San Antonio’s has clearly grown since its inaugural run in 2012. That year, Friday night’s teaser was the Korova, and only Saturday night was at the Woodlawn Theatre. This year both nights are at the Woodlawn.
For performer Perle Noire, it’s a return to the city. “Perle Noire was our first headliner for our first year, and we’re having her back for our fifth anniversary,” says St. James. Perle Noire just got off tour with Dita Von Teese, and has danced her athletic and sultry performance worldwide.
Foxx says that burlesque is in part about providing a safe space for expression – especially for expression that’s been demonized in the past, like androgyny, drag, or open sexual expression.
“It was important for us as producers who are queer identified and all people of color that our headliners represent that mission to provide a space for people who look differently,” says Foxx. “And right now, in our political landscape and where we are as a country, it was super important for one our headliners to be a fierce black woman, and someone who has already left a lasting impression on our festival to begin with.” Both Foxx and St. James credit the festival’s growth to Noire’s 2012 performance.
With any performance comes the question of whether any given piece is politically motivated performance art, an act of expression, pure entertainment to be consumed, or some hybrid. The festival’s producers say that this year’s event fits squarely in the hybrid category. “It’s important to our lineup that we have different type of representation of genders, ethnicities, body sizes, even ages, and it’s incredible,” says St. James.
The festival includes a “burlesque legend” in their lineup every year, and “Dusty Summers is our legend this year, and she is recognized as a Legend by the Burlesque Hall of Fame,” says St. James. Noted as Las Vegas’s “only nude magician,” she performed for 24 years across the U.S and Canada, before returning to the stage 25 years later in 2006. St. James says that it was important to add a dynamic of “not just what’s happening now,” but also a piece of history that gives hope for the future of burlesque.
“I feel like any audience member can identify with someone on that stage. It’s a really empowering event and entertaining at the same time,” he said.
That empowerment is precisely what the whole festival is about. “Burlesque is about body positivity,” says Deadly. “Love yourself for who you are.” Burlesque can function as a vehicle for political commentary, especially regarding forms of identity and discrimination based on those identities. “We have each struggled at one point with discrimination,” she says. “And as performers who have faced such issues, we wanted to create an environment where any performer would feel comfortable to come out and perform.” But regardless of how audiences interpret the performances, the festival producers emphasize that it is about empowerment. “People can identify with the performers,” says St. James.
And art-discussion aside, it wouldn’t be a San Antonio event without tacos.
“We’ve heard many times that our festival for many performers who’d tour the national circuit that this is coming home for them,” says Foxx. “Because this San Antonio, and we bond over tacos, and when it’s all over on Sunday we have a brunch and they get to see the hospitality that is native to San Antonio. That sets us apart.