The answer came unanimously without prompting or hesitation, as if sent straight from the sexually liberated goddess of serendipity.
“Sequins or fringe?”
Two men consider this question and then another query—just how many rhinestones is it possible to squeeze onto one jacket, exactly?
“San Antonio is all about glitz, glam, big hair and breakfast tacos,” says local performer Jasper St. James, as he fondly describes the burlesque scene of the city. “There is a level of pristine that other places have that we don’t care about, but we do love the sparkles.”
“I wish I were as sparkly as you,” sighs fellow ‘boylesque’ performer Dino Foxx, gazing admiringly at his cohort.
Our city currently boasts only a few prominent burlesque troupes including Le Strange Sideshow, Stars and Garters Burlesque, and Pastie Pops Burlesque. The groups regularly perform at venues across town, including Fitzgerald’s, The Korova and the Josephine Theatre. James and Foxx are two of a handful of San Antonio producers responsible for the upcoming San Antonio Burlesque Festival, now in its third year of existence.
A two-day showcase scheduled for the first weekend in August, SABF promises some of the best acts from across the country in addition to local favorites. The Friday Night Showcase will feature performances by Gaige, Foxxy Blue Orchid, Coco Lectric and Jasper St. James, as well as farewell performances by the current reigning Queen and King of San Antonio Burlesque, Olympia DeWinter and Stephan (no, not Saturday Night Live’s famous club kid character). Saturday will be an evening of headliners competing for a number of titles. Among the notable names are Waxie Moon of Seattle and Michelle L’amour of Chicago.
As if all that sparkle packed into one theater for two days weren’t enough, burlesque novices can also learn from the pros via workshops like “P*ssy Confidence” and “Booty Lab,” which requires participants to wear very comfortable clothing.
Classically associated with performers like Gypsy Rose Lee, Tempest Storm and Dita Von Teese, burlesque is recognizable to many but understood by few. The connotation of the word inspires the image of a tartish pinup doll shaking it seductively in a larger-than-life martini glass—and by that, I essentially mean Cameron Diaz in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.
“It’s one of those things that you need to see to understand,” prominent burlesque performer Michelle L’amour told the Current in an email. Hailing from Illinois, L’amour currently holds the title of “Most Naked Woman” and caused a stir this year for her viral twerking video “Buttoven’s 5th Symphony.”
She observed, “There are many poorly produced burlesque shows that pay a major disservice to burlesque. It’s very hard for me to convince someone that they will like what they see if they’ve seen something of the amateur sort. You have to win the audience immediately.”
Often viewed as a homogenous expression of Bettie Page’s life set to music, burlesque actually occupies a campy liminal state somewhere between theater, performance art, political satire and pop culture comedy. To illustrate the spectrum, some of the festival’s routines include a Lance Armstrong performance set to Queen’s “Bicycle Race” and a Monica Lewinsky-inspired number to Peaches’ “Fuck the Pain Away.”
Male performers have been getting in on the action increasingly, but audiences shouldn’t expect a cliché version of a Chippendales act during this festival. Foxx, for example, is a fire-eater who sings live and performs burlesque as both a male and female. Boylesque stars such as Tigger!, whose performances verge on the inexplicable (try YouTube), have paved the gender-bending way for Foxx. Lines of division are not only blurred here, they seem nonexistent as this neo-burlesque style continues to challenge conventional ideals of beauty and sexuality.
Foxx and James admittedly do not sport the stereotypical body type of burlesque performers. Day to day, James is an introverted, hipster department store employee but by night he becomes a curvaceous and confident vixen, singing and dancing like he means every jiggle. “Our bodies become our vessels to talk about our freedoms. We are curvy and it’s empowering to both audience member and performer when there is someone on stage that looks like a person,” said James.
“We are all eating in the dressing rooms,” added Foxx. “Food is a huge part of what we are thinking about onstage too. We are in our heads like, ‘What are we eating afterwards?’”
As Foxx explains the art of the tassel twirl, the act of using your shoulders and breasts to make the nipple-obscuring tassels rotate in different directions, he elaborates on this subculture that derives agency from public ass-baring. Audiences watch as these professionals peel off layers, both literal and figurative, until exposure becomes both vulnerability and strength, painfully and beautifully human. These performances don’t always eradicate self-loathing, but the community provides support for those brave enough to shake it on stage, celebrating acts both divine and proudly pedestrian.
Under the extravagance of costume and makeup and the mask of comedy is a very real need to see and be seen. The SABF will ask its audience to suspended reality for a few hours in order to sit back, relax and be entertained by a large number of almost-naked people. This won’t be the Suicide Girls with duct-taped nipples throwing beer cans, though. It will be more of a thought-provoking combination of Moulin Rouge, Alice in Wonderland and a John Waters film featuring lots of boobs, of course.
For every action that deviates from the norm, however, there are individuals fighting to vilify and shame the participants. Coco Lectric, director of the Austin Academy of Burlesque and performer at this year’s SABF, experienced such resistance firsthand in 2010. After performing at a club near the River Walk, Lectric was told that she could be arrested if she continued with her performance. She finished her second set and was promptly escorted off the property.
Even for the titillated audience, exposure to so much burlesque in the two days of the SABF may be dizzying, but with a high level of quality guaranteed, a spinning head may not be such a terrible thing. The performances will make you laugh, whoop, holler and feel a little dirty or confident or confused.
You’ll see it all—whether you want it or not.
As a performer myself, one final thought kept creeping into my interview questions—all that skin must cause some seriously awkward moments. When asked about his most embarrassing onstage experiences, Foxx had a few stories, but generally feels at home in the blinding lights of front and center. “The awkward shit happens in real life, not on stage,” he said.
San Antonio Burlesque Festival
$25-$50, 7pm Fri-Sat, Aug 1-2
The Josephine Theatre
339 W Josephine