Under flashing reds and blues from the Rocket Room's lone disco ball, 15 women are bumping and grinding. Half of them, wearing jeans and sweaters, shift their hips back and forth awkwardly to old jazz tunes. The prepared ones in high heels and hot pants strut and slide more confidently.
Calls come out from the front of the stage.
"Keep shimmying. Shake those shoulders."
That last one works the thighs. Do enough of them and you get a burning reminder in the morning, whether you're 18 or pushing 45.
Colorado Springs native Lindzey Martucci has gathered the women for their first class at Lola Spitfire's School of Burlesque. Over one month, the 26-year-old will teach them all the elements of becoming a burlesque dancer. She's already made one thing clear: It's not as simple as stepping on stage and pulling off a glove.
For one thing, it is not stripping.
"It's the art of the strip tease. ... It's an act. It's glittery."
For another, everyone here in class is not just a dancer, but "an actress." They must think of themselves as characters in a play or a musical. They will develop characters, select stage names, choose music, choreograph routines and design costumes.
Those costumes may or may not be revealing enough to feature pasties, which Martucci is selling this evening. Curiosity ultimately overrides hesitation and one by one, women dig through the box, laughing over purple sequins and red tassels, and trying to figure out if small, medium or large might be best.
There's lots of casual joking about breasts and butts and belly bumps.
"I wish I had bigger boobs," one woman says.
Another immediately squeezes her ample chest and replies, "You can have some of mine."
Here, it's clear why Martucci says burlesque is "about celebrating women." And in a way that Colorado Springs unlike its Old West neighbors has never seen before.
Burning their bras
The burlesque genre was, in many ways, an early women's movement that first raised eyebrows and skirts in the mid-1800s. It was thanks primarily to Lydia Thompson, who brought her British Blondes from the U.K. to tour in the United States in the 1860s. In 1893 at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, exotic and international hip-shakers such as Little Egypt were credited with saving the fair.
In the early 1900s, Mae West made a name for herself with raunchy humor and a sexy shimmy. Other American women like Gypsy Rose Lee, Lili St. Cyr and Ann Corio hit the big time a few decades later. All of them, and others, were challenging society's perception of what it was to be female. Many started their own companies and ran their own shows.
"[Burlesque] was their form of burning their bras," Martucci says.
But from the day in 1871 when Gen. William Jackson Palmer set up shop here, Colorado Springs hasn't been a bra-burning kind of city. According to Jan MacKell, director of the Cripple Creek District Museum and author of the book Brothels, Bordellos, & Bad Girls, "Colorado Springs sought to be the "Saratoga of the West,' with fancy homes, nice hotels, and a variety of tuberculosis sanatoriums ... Palmer's wife, Queen, talked her husband into outlawing liquor houses within the city limits."
Without liquor houses in town, dancers were relegated to pricier theaters. And city ordinances restricted the types of performers that could tour through by charging $1,200, to be paid in advance, for each show at places like the downtown Burns Theatre.
Advertising run in the Colorado Springs Gazette indicates that variety and vaudeville shows did make their way through the Springs. One such tour called "Orpheum" billed itself as "The Only High Class Vaudeville Circuit."
(Orpheum, interestingly, actually brought Mae West to Colorado Springs in October 1915. In those days, though, the Burns Theatre ad could describe the 22-year-old as a "comedienne"; the following year, according to Emily Worth Leider's Becoming Mae West, Variety magazine would brand West as too vulgar for vaudeville.)
Those who pushed the envelope found themselves up against religious force. In the Jan. 27, 1913 issue of the Gazette, the paper filled three-quarters of a page with a sermon given by the Rev. Samuel Garvin, pastor of First Presbyterian Church. In it, he referred to the "moral conditions of Colorado Springs."
"Personally, I am old-fashioned enough to think that no dance is right," Garvin wrote. "... I think I am not misquoting the church in her time standards and age-old position as the exponent of the life of Jesus Christ in the world, that she tolerates no such death-dealing institutions as the modern dance hall."
One week earlier, on Jan. 19, Gazette editors had run an editorial on the same topic that clearly reflected a Christian viewpoint, quoting the Bible and stating that "conditions have been allowed to obtain that bring a terrible indictment against our Christianity."
Den of sin
As MacKell comments in her book, "It stood to reason, then, that Colorado City now Old Colorado City should excel where Colorado Springs did not."
MacKell's research shows that a man named John George opened Colorado City's first tavern in 1860, a year after the territorial capital was founded. Others were quick to follow suit. By 1886, at least a dozen saloons had popped up. By 1888, 23 places were serving a population of 1,500. "Immoral" activities from prize fighting to prostitution to dancing and drinking raged around what is now the 2500 block of Colorado Avenue.
"In fact, much of Colorado City's new commerce was generated by Colorado Springs," MacKell writes. "Although residents and authorities in Colorado Springs frowned on Colorado City, many of the former's residents were regular patrons of "Old Town,' whose saloons and sporting houses were quickly growing in number."
One key attraction: the women. From dance hall "hurdy-gurdy" girls to traveling burlesque troupes to vaudeville performers to prostitutes, local residents could find just about whatever they wanted in Colorado City.
Burlesque was happening further up in the mountains, too, as Cripple Creek's gold rush brought prospectors and money to the area.
"Two saloons were located at the mouth of Poverty Gulch: the Last Chance Saloon and Mahogany Hall," MacKell writes. "At the Mahogany, rules appear to have been the exception. There were few restrictions and one could view the real "cancan" being performed there, wherein women kicked up their legs, revealing their underpants."
Because of their affiliation with the saloons, and because some among them were also "soiled doves," dancers of all kinds were often lumped together in the same "class" by law enforcement, media and government officials.
"In Cripple Creek, the dance hall girls got so fed up with being taken for prostitutes and being fined and arrested that they actually formed their own Dance Hall Girl's Protective Association and made a presentation to city council requesting to be differentiated from the soiled doves," MacKell explains in an e-mail.
She adds, "Quite a few dance hall and burlesque performers were married with children, and danced on the side to make extra household income."
Learning to adapt
Those back for class No. 2 at the Rocket Room on this Monday night include wives and mothers, and they're here for lots of reasons.
Some love to dance. Others are intrigued by the history. Stephanie Slaton, a 37-year-old mother of a 14-year-old, says "I wanted something that was fun and exercise. ... I [also] joke that a single girl has to have skills."
Pretty much all adore the idea of the glitter and glam and getting all dolled up. When they walked through the front door tonight, they saw a feathery rainbow a foot high. Each dug through the pile, searching for just the right boa to adorn herself with this evening. A boa around your neck equates to instant attitude.
Martucci hands out worksheets on how to develop a burlesque persona. She asks everyone to turn in last week's homework music selections.
As the DJ spins the tunes and the women test moves to different beats, Elvis Presley's "Devil in Disguise" produces smiles. Alannah Myles' "Black Velvet" receives a few whistles, and Big & Rich's "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" fills the room with laughter.
"I love this song!" Martucci hollers across the bar.
At the end of the evening, she passes around homework sheets for next week, on costuming. Chatter takes over the room as women swap buying tips and offer to loan bustiers, snap-off skirts and leather chaps.
Can't borrow what you need? No worries. Martucci says Goodwill offers great costume pieces and parts. Don't have a sewing machine? Borrow one or invest in some fabric glue. It works wonders.
Martucci does warn that "costume malfunctions" are common on stage. Zippers stick; hooks mate with fishnets. Though Martucci rarely strips down to pasties any more she's "over doing that," she says she always wears them, "just in case."
"And I make sure those suckers are glued on," she says. "I went on stage once and ... I was dancing and I took off my top. ... One of my pasties came right off with my top. I had one pastie on. ... Someone yelled "Yeah, you love me!'"
Basically, she says, "If it doesn't go the way it's planned ... the show must go on."
Learning to adapt is just part of the scene. That's how Martucci got into it in the first place.
Spread your wings
Around 2000, Martucci had done what a lot of young would-be dancers do headed to Los Angeles to live the dream. For her, that meant being on stage.
"I'm an entertainer," she says.
What she found was a seriously competitive scene and, ultimately, a series of non-dance-related, part-time jobs to pay the rent.
On a whim, Martucci answered a craigslist "Dancers wanted" ad. She was hired to dance with Finlandia's newest vodka marketing campaign, "Refresh with Burlesque."
Finlandia sent her to Chicago to train with the Cantankerous Lollies, a neo-burlesque troupe based out of San Francisco, and Martucci was hooked.
She'd always been a musical theater junkie, but this experience with all its glitter and crazy stories gave her new passion and direction.
"I felt like Rose in Gypsy," she says, mimicking the tease-loving character. ""I can make this work!'"
But Martucci needed a stage name. Two days before her first "official" solo performance, at a Lollies show in San Francisco, she realized she had never settled on one. In a last-minute conversation with a former boss, he called Martucci a "spitfire."
Now she just needed a first name; a friend suggested Lola. At the time, she wasn't really into it, but when asked her name an hour before going on stage with the Lollies, she said Lola Spitfire.
"I got so many gigs as Lola Spitfire, it stuck," Martucci says.
While she was enjoying the run, she still had to work part-time jobs to make ends meet. So when her dad offered her a job working back at home in the family business, Martucci and her husband decided to make the move.
Back in the Springs in the fall of 2006, Martucci started working as a manufacturing representative for her family's lighting company, but always left time for dancing. She taught hip-hop classes and began to formulate plans for a burlesque school.
She found a willing cohort in Shalonda Cantrell, owner of the Rocket Room. Cantrell was already familiar with burlesque, having hosted two individual touring dancers, Pandora Bellarose and Miss Orchid Mei, since the Rocket Room opened in May 2007.
"Shalonda was, like, "Go spread your wings and fly,'" Martucci says.
Lola Spitfire's School of Burlesque welcomed its first class on Feb. 4. And while Martucci also teaches drop-in burlesque classes at Rock Your Yoga on Friday nights, she's finding the monthly workshops are truly feeding her need to grow something special in the Springs.
Up from the underground
Those at the school today are, in a sense, keeping alive a flame that has faced high winds for the last hundred years or so.
Nationwide prohibition shut down the Colorado bar and saloon scene in 1919, and female performers disappeared. Records are spotty about Front Range burlesque activity in subsequent years.
According to Denver burlesque artist Michelle Baldwin, aka Vivienne VaVoom, by the 1940s and '50s a lot of big-name performers, including the tireless West, toured through the state capital. With strip clubs more prevalent, burlesque clubs had to differentiate themselves.
"Men couldn't come in unless they had a woman with them," Baldwin says.
Martucci says that by the 1960s, with television becoming more accessible and stripping more mainstream, burlesque went underground.
It wasn't until the mid-1990s that modern-day "neo-burlesque" really took hold. In the revival's early days, Baldwin says, anybody could perform at the big national festivals like Tease-O-Rama. Today there are so many performers, they have to submit videos.
"It's actually at the point where in any city, you can see burlesque," says Baldwin. "Small college towns. Big cities where you would expect it. There's at least one troupe and usually several."
"I think it's the same thing that drew me to it," Baldwin says. "The idea of stepping back from modern sexuality, which is so out there and so saturated, you see it on prime-time TV."
Yes, burlesque dancers remove their clothing, but they are never completely naked. (Think pasties, thongs and fishnets as the bare minimum.) And getting down to next-to-nothing isn't the point, unlike in strip clubs, where customers pay to see all of a woman's curves. Burlesque dancers may consider their audience when developing a choreographed piece, but in the end it's the dancer who decides what she will or won't do on stage. It can be empowering, while at the same time putting women back in touch with traditionally female feelings.
"[Burlesque's] very glamorous. ... [Back in the day] women wore eyelashes and did their nails and wore dresses all the time. Now, we're a sweatshirt-and-jeans kind of society," Baldwin says. "It's fun for us to put on the sparkles and these dresses. It's a really good time."
It's similar for Martucci: "I love channeling those hotness mamas!"
Here and now
It's a Saturday night in March, and the Rocket Room is packed with a crowd of over a hundred for its first burlesque revue. The lights lower and the emcee warms up the crowd, asking people what they came to see.
"Boobies!" a guy hollers from the back of the room. Everyone laughs.
A bump and grind beat fills the air. The ladies shake their tooshes, roll their shoulders and toss gloves and boas to the floor. The Brazilian Blondie knocks out a high-energy salsa. Violet Vixen vamps it up in and out of a purple gown. Lola Spitfire treats the audience to a different kind of card show.
There's lots of lace and fishnet but only one performer, Miss Laura Belle, breaks out into a pair of black sequined pasties. The crowd goes wild during each dance. A finale brings all the girls out for one more performance.
And with that, the show is over.
The dancing part, at least.
Around 10 p.m., the door opens and two patrol officers walk into the bar. Three more officers and five patrol cars wait outside. Seems a female patron called the Springs police department and complained about all the "nakedness" going on.
One officer approaches dancer Roxie Divine on the street outside the Rocket Room as she opens the door to her car.
"Am I parked illegally?" she asks, clearly confused about his intent.
"No," he says, then asks about what was going on inside. "Some sort of dance school?"
The crooked smile on his face indicates there's a bit of sweet-talking going on. Divine still doesn't seem to understand why he's questioning her, but she answers all of his inquiries. Yes, it was a dance performance. No, there was nothing inappropriate. Just a lot of fun.
Another officer tells a third that the owner has just stepped out of the bar. All five men walk over to Cantrell. One takes down her name and address. Another explains that they received a complaint.
Cantrell calmly explains that there were no problems at the bar this evening. She knows legally what she can and can't do (strip tease OK, showing genitals or nipples not OK). She invites them to come back for the next show.
You can ask anyone in this bar tonight, she says. There was nothing improper going on.
Burlesque dancers being mistaken for prostitutes. Authorities jumping the gun.
Good old Colorado Springs. What's next, prohibition?
Burlesque Ladies' Night Out with Lola Spitfire
Rock Your Yoga, 127 E. Bijou St.
Fridays, 8-9:30 p.m.
$10 drop-in class; for more, visit blendyourlife.com.
Springs Salsa (2506 W. Colorado Ave., Unit C) also teaches a "Tease 101" class. For days, times, class themes and prices, visit springssalsa.com.