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May 17, 2017 News » Cover Story

LGBTQ people change the burlesque landscape and find outlets for their identities 

Free and queer

click to enlarge From left: Evangeline Cain, Penelope Mais Oui and Chairmyn Meow. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • From left: Evangeline Cain, Penelope Mais Oui and Chairmyn Meow.

An elegantly dressed figure stands alone onstage, the room around her dark but for a single red-tinted spotlight that casts shadows at the curve of her wide hips and the dip of her cocked elbow. With her back to the audience, she begins to sway, something fluid and sensual, following the beat of a slow jazz number that seeps out of the speakers like smoke.

She tugs off her gloves, one finger at a time, tosses them aside to a small chorus of whoops and whistles from the back of the room. When she slips the skirt from around her hips, she rotates, facing forward, revealing a rhinestone-studded thong that glints red in the light. Its straps pucker her skin where they trace the curve above her thighs. As she unbuckles her corset and the sparse crowd hollers its encouragement, she bares her belly in all its rolls, running her fingertips over her stretch marks, then tracing the curve of her breasts, obscured only by a pair of glittering pasties. That, and the playful smile on her red lips, is all that's left between her and the room full of strangers watching her every movement.

The art of burlesque is the art of unveiling, tearing away layers bit by bit until there's nothing left to hide. But the act often exposes much more than the performer's body.

"Anything goes, and the crazier the better. The more honest the better." So says Viva Valezz, founder of the Fierce Queer Burlesque festival, a nationally touring event that has highlighted queer burlesque performers and their allies for five years. She means that each performer who takes the Fierce stage, and anyone who performs burlesque, brings an intrinsic piece of themselves into their act. Vulnerability colors each performance. For many, that vulnerability is the reason they perform.

According to the people who have turned this hobby into a passion, burlesque reveals parts of them that never had a chance to see the light of day before, or parts of them they didn't even know existed. The art has attracted a growing population of LGBTQ people who not only contribute to the scene, but redefine it.

"Queer folks have always been drawn to burlesque," Valezz says, "ever since burlesque was burlesque and before it was burlesque as we know it today. There's a freedom to it."

Burlesque, like many trends in performance art, has spent time in and out of fashion. Since its origin in the 1800s, it has seen resurgences that flared to life and quietly faded away. The most recent of these started in the '90s with famous performers such as Dita Von Teese inspiring young burlesque communities in cities like LA, New York and Chicago. Soon, burlesque's nature as an art form began to change, taking on new life.

From the beginning, burlesque has been a way for women to flaunt their sexuality. It originated during a time in which some doctors still believed the female orgasm to be a myth. Now, in a world that often discredits queer identities or labels them as deviant, burlesque offers a new generation of not just women, but people of all genders, a way to express and own their sexuality.

click to enlarge Chairmyn Meow - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Chairmyn Meow

The word "burlesque" comes from the Italian burla, which means a joke or a mockery, so it has always been about exaggeration — specifically, the exaggeration of femininity and feminine sexuality. Neo-burlesque, as the hip kids call it, carries over some of the same styles and fashions as its earlier counterparts — anyone with half an interest in the media retains some familiarity with the Betty Boops and Gypsy Rose Lees, their feather fans or Victorian-style costumes — but neo-burlesque opens up the doors to a diverse new culture of performers whose acts do not always follow those old expectations.

As queer people have more freedom to express themselves, and a greater vocabulary with which to do so, queer performance art has become more indicative of the vast spectrum of identities represented by its practitioners. In all areas of performance art, the stage reflects our culture. While burlesque has always been about empowering women and celebrating bodies, the definition of femininity and the vast possibilities for expression have changed. And, as with all things burlesque, the performance takes what's already there and makes it bigger, brighter, glitzier.

"It's part of our [queer] culture, our DNA," Valezz says. "We love to be bigger than life and we love to express ourselves in whatever way makes us happy."

These performances don't just come out on the Fierce stage. The people who make the pilgrimage to Fierce each year continue to be queer when they get back to their hometowns, and their performances continue to reflect their identities. One two-time (three after July) Fierce Queer Burlesque Festival participant, a trans performer by the name of Violet DeVille, currently tours an unconventional piece, intrinsically tied to her identity.

She saunters onstage without music or choreography, wearing a gorgeous, classic gown. While she begins to strip off her gloves, she talks about her experiences as a fat trans woman in burlesque, her initial insecurity and her growing, nervous excitement. As she removes her dress, her confidence builds, and she talks through the tale of shutting up that inner voice that told her no one would want to see someone like her take off her clothes.

By the end, she stands smiling in nothing but her panties and a pair of pasties, completely vulnerable in front of her audience.

DeVille takes this show everywhere, and people have thanked her for it. "I have body issues," she says. "A lot of us do. Seeing someone who is fat and transgender onstage gives them hope."

Which is why DeVille continues to tell her story, and why so many other queer people are driven to tell theirs. "Burlesque is a queer art form just by the way we push the boundaries," she says. "Burlesque is a feminist art form, populated by women taking control to tell their stories onstage."

Three local women have decided not just to take control of their own stories, but to help others share theirs.

"We all had the same goal in mind," says Chairmyn Meow, "to bring something refreshing, new and inclusive to this area ... A group that is inclusive of people of color, people of gender fluidity, people of different abilities in their body."

Meow makes up one trine of Trifecta, a new Springs burlesque collective, alongside Evangeline Cain and Penelope Mais Oui. Their own identities reflect their goal — all three are older than 40; all three are mothers (Evangeline, a grandmother); all three come from different racial/ethnic backgrounds; and all three are queer. They all have stories they want to tell, and burlesque has become their preferred medium through which to do so.

Mais Oui, who has a background in theater (disclosure: we were co-workers at the Millibo Art Theatre in 2015), has a unique view of what it means to dance burlesque: "There is no director. You are your own costume designer, your own writer. You choose your own name. You're writing your own story and you're owning it and putting it on display with the most amount of sparkles you can fit on your body."

Her story starts in an unhealthy, sheltered childhood, which influenced a life filled with conservative choices and trauma that she only recently began to sift through. About five years ago, Mais Oui saw Dita Von Teese strut her stuff on TV, and it changed everything. "I think I gained this awareness of vulnerability and power in the same moment for these people onstage," she says, "and also for the audience experiencing their performances."

Mais Oui's stage-self embodies feminine empowerment, a character that originally came about when her therapist suggested creating a strong female figure within herself. "What I liked about burlesque that I brought to this persona," she says, "was that it was women who were empowered, women who were choosing to take their clothes off, women who could walk off the stage instead if they wanted to. It was always a choice to be there."

She started performing about two years ago, and says she has grown a great deal in that short amount of time, both as a performer and a person. Burlesque brought her out of her shell and, more importantly, allowed her to process her internalized shame.

click to enlarge Penelope Mais Oui - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Penelope Mais Oui

When one of her daughters recently came out to her as gay, Mais Oui had a revelation. "[My daughter] is amazing," she says. "She decided to tell me this, and I was not living authentically. So I wanted to own every part of me onstage." Though the choices she has made in life make her appear straight, and though she loves being married to a man, she no longer felt as though she were honoring her full self without acknowledging this piece of her identity, a sexuality that she would not have discovered without burlesque.

Many burlesque performers seem to come from sheltered lives, periods of introversion and self-denial. Cain, the self-dubbed "horndog" of the group, is the last person one would expect to have grown up in a staunchly religious Southern household. But while she reductively describes her pre-burlesque self as "bashful," she admits that she lived with her husband for nearly two years before he saw her naked. "Now I can't keep clothes on at all," she jokes.

Cain gestures widely when she speaks, exuberant and expressive, made for the stage and proud of her overtly sexual nature. But it took a long time for her to get here. "When you grow up with so much shame and sexuality you hide it and hide it, but it's always been there for me," she says.

Through burlesque, she learned how to accept and embrace her sexuality. She tells the story of her first time backstage, when she caught a woman undressing and accidentally let her eyes linger a little too long. "There she was in all her naked glory and I was just drooling on myself," she says. When she attempted to apologize, the woman told her gently not to worry about it. "And that was the moment I knew that I found home. I'm okay to be who I am and not have to feel ashamed."

click to enlarge Evangeline Cain - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Evangeline Cain

Cain's experience, while singular to her, exemplifies the collective experience of queer people in the burlesque community. People who have been told their entire lives to feel ashamed of themselves learn that they can choose to exist in a world where they take ownership of the very things they were forced to hide.

Queer people are drawn to burlesque, Cain says, because of that acceptance. Meow cites multiple reasons: "It's a place where there's a lot of room for people to exist however they need to exist," she says, "and it attracts a lot of individuals that do not fall within the societal norms and boxes. So there's a lot of fluidity that's available to them."

She believes burlesque holds the key to different kinds of healing, partly due to that fluidity. As a practitioner of the healing arts in her "mundane life," as she puts it, Meow has a pretty good idea of what it means to recover from trauma. "Almost everyone who is in burlesque is coming from a place of either healing or storing," she says. "To reclaim some part of their sexuality and body awareness, or gender fluidity, and that really spoke to me."

In addition to practicing as a massage and healing therapist and performing both locally and in festivals, Meow teaches workshops "so people can find what's inside of them to shine onstage, but from a place of finding that wound. And how to use that wound as fuel."

As the daughter of a stripper, she has always borne a sense of shame related to her mother's career. She became incredibly conservative in her adult life, overcompensating for that shame by suppressing what she calls her "wild thoughts," her desire to get tattoos and piercings, or to date women.

"I made a decision very early on to fit into a mold because that meant I was lovable, and if I wasn't in this mold, then I wasn't lovable," she says.

Meow started performing burlesque about three years ago, at age 43, after many years struggling to reconcile her mother's career with her own perceptions of decency. She says burlesque has given her the opportunity to celebrate her mother, to speak out against rape culture, to honor women "in whatever choices they make."

Her household now is one of flexibility and acceptance. Raising a nonbinary teenager, living as openly pansexual, and "coming out" as a burlesque dancer to her family, friends and even clients, have helped her live a more open life.

But none of these women took an easy road to the stage, nor did the stage magically erase their insecurities. All of them have struggled with body image, with shame focused around their sexuality — both in terms of their sexual identities and the fact that they are sensual people, a trait still widely regarded as lewd in women.

Because of their continued struggles, the counterintuitive nature of their healing isn't lost on them. Why would someone who is ashamed of their body or ashamed of their sexuality flaunt both onstage in front of a crowd?

"The way I compare it," Cain says, "is why would any sane human being jump out of a perfectly working plane? Because it scares you, and you want to face fear. There, to me, wasn't anything more frightening [than burlesque]."

click to enlarge Mr. Valdez, left, and Mustang Monroe - BROKEN GLASS PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Broken Glass Photography
  • Mr. Valdez, left, and Mustang Monroe

Because each of them has her own issues with her body, they know that putting themselves out there can make an impact, revealing the very features they have been told are ugly, convincing the audience and — in many cases — convincing themselves that they are beautiful.

"We all have stretch marks," Cain says. "I've got cesarean scars, and I've got things that don't sit quite where they're supposed to, but you know you're doing the right thing when a woman comes up to you with a tear coming down her face saying, 'this makes me so happy that real women that've had children, that have the extra 10, 15 pounds can get up there and look sexy. That makes me have hope that I am sexy and I can be sexy.' That right there makes it worth it for me."

When they founded Trifecta, their goal was to encourage that moment. To showcase different bodies, different identities, and to allow their audience a chance to see themselves in the performance.

For instance, Mais Oui's daughter has a genetic condition that once required her to use a wheelchair. At first, she rebelled against the idea, but Mais Oui showed her a video of Jacqueline Boxx, a burlesque performer who uses a rhinestone-gilded wheelchair in all of her acts. It helped dispel some of her daughter's fears about being different.

"We're creating relationships with our audience," Mais Oui says, "and we're showing them and teaching them what is normal. Maybe not what is typical, but we're showing them people of color, people of different abilities. That type of visibility is so important to our kids, our community."

Trifecta held open auditions for their first show, which will hit the stage at the Millibo Art Theatre in June. The lineup includes performers from all over Colorado, plus Texas and Canada. While the goal to showcase more diverse identities in race and ability may take some time to take off, the body types and personalities represented will still make for a dynamic performance.

Beyond making burlesque accessible to performers, Trifecta also wants to make it accessible to audiences. They're starting with a "speakeasy" theme, something relatable, easy to digest, and something they hope will bring new audiences to the art form.

Performers and their audiences have a reciprocal relationship; it takes an audience's enthusiasm and encouragement to make a show exciting. And, since each of them started out as spectators, they hope to encourage more performers to join the growing burlesque community.

You don't have to be a woman, they say, or a certain size or race or of a certain ability. You don't even have to know how to dance. Meow says: "Burlesque is a matter of a decision. If it's something you want to do, there's space for you."

click to enlarge Waxie Moon - BRONWEN HOUCK
  • Bronwen Houck
  • Waxie Moon

While male performers compose a minority in the burlesque scene, the art of "boylesque" (the male version of its more mainstream counterpart) grows and evolves as more men of all sexualities and modes of gender expression take to the stage. While the point of boylesque is still to exaggerate and entertain, its very existence proves that burlesque does not only exaggerate femininity anymore. (One example: See our recent write-up of martial artist and boylesque dancer Romeo Uncaged.)

"In burlesque you can be whatever you want to be," says Mustang Monroe. "It depends on what gender role you want to be a part of."

Monroe and his performance partner Mr. Valdez (the co-founder and co-executive director of local burlesque troupe Peaks and Pasties) call themselves The Brotherhood of Burlesque. The two have known each other since high school, and have been performing together in some form or fashion for about seven years.

Between them, the Brotherhood's style of performance spans the gender spectrum. Mr. Valdez refers to Monroe affectionately as "High-heels-makeup-sparkleface," while Mr. Valdez himself claims to be more comfortable performing in leather harnesses, flaunting riding crops (though he laughs when Monroe refers to him as "butch"). The gender identities and modalities expressed through their two performance styles indicate an infinite mutability in boylesque. That, Mr. Valdez says, is one reason they use the term "burlesque" in their title, instead of separating themselves with a masculinizing label.

"We thought it appropriate to keep the actual name 'burlesque.' Because what we do is no different than what they do ... We just happen to be males," he says.

The Brotherhood of Burlesque began about four years ago as an offshoot of Peaks and Pasties, which has trained many burlesque performers in town (and started off the ladies of Trifecta) with their now thrice-yearly workshops. Mr. Valdez says he was "dragged" into burlesque by his fellow Peaks and Pasties co-founders, while Monroe claims to have "piggy-backed" off of Mr. Valdez's experiences. But in spite of their unconventional starts, they have both come to value burlesque as an important part of their lives and who they are.

Especially because burlesque gives them the opportunity to, in many ways, become something they're not. While the members of Trifecta maintain that burlesque brings out parts of them that are intrinsic to their identities, Mr. Valdez says the opposite.

Mr. Valdez, who claims to have "zero game," embraces a sort of raw sexuality onstage that he doesn't feel the freedom to embrace in his daily life, a persona that represents a complete departure from his typical personality.

"For at least three to four minutes, I can be who I want, who I've always wanted to be," he says. "And then when it's done I can be regular me, back to my regular corporate day job."

Monroe, too, wouldn't consider his stage persona a day-to-day identity, but that draws him to the art. "To find a place where you can be completely free and completely accepted is for me one of the most rewarding parts of it," he says. "I go out there contoured and highlighted to Jesus, and people still applaud. People still like it. I can't do that on a Tuesday."

As someone connected to the scene both locally and nationally, Mr. Valdez is in a good position to notice trends and shifts. He says that the definitions of "male" and "female" are changing when it comes to burlesque, even just in the past year.

He cites the most recent Burlesque Hall of Fame — "basically our Super Bowl" — during which a competition decides the reigning king and queen of burlesque for the year. For the first time in his memory, officials permitted a female-identified performer to compete in the male category because she performs in drag, part of the nationally recognized duo Kitten N' Lou.

Monroe, too, has noticed a flow in gender expression in burlesque. He, and a few others interviewed for this story, spoke in near-reverence about a Seattle-based performer who has received national attention, Waxie Moon. Moon struts onstage with his bald head and muttonchops, wearing beautiful, flowing ballgowns and enough glitter to get him lost in a craft store. Far from causing outcry in the burlesque community — since his very presentation challenges any category of "boylesque" versus "burlesque" — he became popular for challenging gender expectations. He has described himself as "the gender-blending queer lady boylesque performance art solo stripping sensation."

Though the Brotherhood's reasons for embracing their stage-selves are different, they echo the sentiments of Viva Valdez, Violet DeVille and the ladies of Trifecta. Freedom, acceptance and a chance to express themselves brought them to burlesque. Not just the performance, but the community of it, too.

That community doesn't care that they are men in a female-dominated industry. They have rarely been ostracized or criticized for participating in burlesque, and no one has ever told them to change the way they present themselves.

"I can't speak for any other males in the industry," Mr. Valdez says, "but we've always been accepted into this wherever we've gone. We've been very lucky in that respect."

As Chairmyn Meow says, "We're not going to police each other in this industry."

People of all genders maintain a membership with Peaks and Pasties, as they do in burlesque troupes around the world. One only needs to look to the Fierce festival stage to find trans performers, nonbinary performers, gay and bi and pansexual performers. These communities, Valezz says, are growing as queer people discover new ways to express themselves.

"Figuring out who you are as an artist is kind of like figuring out who you are as a person," says Monroe. In burlesque, the lines between those two identities can be incredibly thin.

Editor's note: Viva Valezz was originally referred to as Viva Valdez. This story has been updated to include her proper last name. We regret the initial error.


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