There are big thrills in it.
There’s the thrill of the show, when the lights go down and performers lead you through a haze of flesh, feathers, and light, from one world into another. And there’s the thrill of watching the rehearsal of a show before it’s transformed into the polished final product, as performers change costumes and slip between worlds.
On a sunny Saturday morning in Garner, six performers are running through a technical rehearsal for the Raleigh burlesque community’s “sweet sixteen” anniversary show, slated for the following week on June 23. The rehearsal is at The Showroom, a small storefront space off U.S. 70, bedazzled with fake flowers and neon art.
Rachel Haskins, who is organizing the event, began performing in 2007 after a friend of a friend invited her to try out for a show in Greensboro. At the time, she’d only ever seen one burlesque performance, but she was hooked—and thus was born Rachel Riot; performer, scene matriarch, and part-time teacher of burlesque classes.
At the time, she says, the scene was small—just Rachel Riot and a performer named Porcelain—and Legends was the only venue in Raleigh that would host performances. As burlesque has gained a sturdier foothold in the South, more doors have opened and the community has grown.
Sixteen years later, around 100 performers have coalesced locally, with frequent scene overlap with other performing arts communities, particularly drag (“drag-esque,” Haskins calls collaborations.) There are fundamental differences, of course: burlesque has sexual undertones, drag does not. But both celebrate glamour and self-expression; both offer a joyful glimpse at liberation.
There are now, Haskins says, thriving burlesque scenes in Charlotte, Asheville, Greensboro, Greenville, and Wilmington.
Friday’s show is a lightly fancy affair at the Lincoln Theatre. Holly Pocket—nèe Kayla Knott, a former theater kid who radiates warmth—will emcee the event, alongside a chorus of stagehands (“kittens,” in burlesque-speak.)
“Part of the job,” Knott explains, “is to vamp so performers have enough time to get off stage and for [the kittens] to get all the clothes, or feathers, or candle wax—or blood or whatever—to get it all offstage. It’s all got to get off before the next performer comes onstage in heels.”
This show, which features a bill of 16 burlesque dancers, is particularly meaningful in light of the anti-LGBTQ and anti-women ideology sweeping the nation. Much of the burlesque community is queer, overwhelmingly female, and increasingly vulnerable to conservative pushback.
“A lot of people don’t realize how queer burlesque is,” says Claire Bigham, 25, who performs as Alvara.
Bigham, who uses she/they pronouns, has wispy Mia Farrow hair and a thick Southern accent and has always dreamed of dancing. When they moved from Louisburg to Raleigh in early 2020, just before the pandemic, they stumbled into the local burlesque scene.
“I’m country, you know?” Bigham continues. “Coming here and knowing other Southern people and seeing ways that we can be ourselves despite the way we were raised—most of us grew up conservative or under real traditional ways of life. And now, because I’ve met people in Raleigh, and even though it’s just an hour away from the country—I can’t even imagine being in Los Angeles or New York or somewhere—but just in that county change I see a lot more ways I can be free and that a lot of people can be more free. Especially the LGBT population.”
Bigham first performed at Ruby Deluxe’s amateur night, which is where Knott says many dancers find their start.
“Amateurs of all different orientations, all different body types, all different experience levels, can sign up and show off what they’ve got,” Knott says. “A lot of these performers started off in amateur night, and a lot of the people who book performers go to amateur night to look for them.”
Bigham, dressed in a blue silk dress and garters, is up first at the rehearsal. They pull out a chair and begin to dance as “Sexy Silk” by Jessie J comes on. (This is the brassy soundtrack to the part in Easy A when Emma Stone’s character strides through school with a scarlet A pinned to her corset—a scene from which Bigham drew inspiration.)
“As soon as you’re done, you’re like: I just did that,” Bigham says. “You know what I’m saying? And then all you want to do is to keep doing it.”
A little bit about burlesque: There are already parameters. In North Carolina, legally, stipulations include that performers wear pasties over nipples and panties on asses; in other states, “blue laws” stipulate that the area from the cleave of the buttocks to the leg—defined, less-than-delicately, as the “vortex”—be covered in such a way that if someone bends over, nothing in that vortex is exposed. Infractions can lead to fines and performers are already in the business of taking the rules seriously.
These days, though, they’re in the position of taking them a lot more seriously.
Across the country, 14 anti-drag bills have sprung up alongside a vast array of other bills that cruelly jeopardize trans and reproductive rights. In Tennessee, one particularly appalling anti-drag bill made its way past legislators in March—outlawing “adult cabaret performers” within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks, or places of worship (i.e., from within any urban core)—before a Trump-appointed judge ruled the bill unconstitutional.
North Carolina’s version of this measure, House Bill 673, introduced in April, did not meet the current legislative deadline and is unlikely to be revived during the current legislative cycle. Still, says Sarah Warbelow, vice president of legal affairs at the Human Rights Campaign, the introduction of such bills has had a “chilling effect.”
In Tennessee, numerous drag performances and parades were called off during Pride Month as harassment from the far-right intensified. In North Carolina, Proud Boys have intruded upon drag brunches and readings and venues have gotten spooked about hosting alternative entertainment.
“The [North Carolina] drag bill would affect burlesque performers as well,” says Haskins. “I’m relieved that the Supreme Court in Tennessee overturned theirs—that sets a precedent for here, too, and we’ll probably be okay. But we’ve already had two venues cancel burlesque shows, just once the bill was introduced.”
Burlesque’s origin in the United States is often traced back to the mid-19th century when performer Lydia Thompson crossed shores with her “British Blondes” troupe. Prohibition turned touring vaudeville acts into nightclub acts, launching the careers of burlesque stars like Josephine Baker and Gypsy Rose Lee, before New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia shuttered burlesque houses in 1937.
Perennially poised on the fringes of American dance, burlesque shapeshifted onto the silver screen and into showgirl routines before its popularity petered out mid-century.
Burlesque dancer M., who performs as May Hemmer—and who asked not to have her real name used in this piece—got her start in ballet, then sustained an injury and began to experiment with cosplay and burlesque. Things took off. She’s performed and competed across the country and beyond (she’s the 2017 Miss Montreal Burlesque).
Years into her career, she discovered that performance runs in her blood: Her grandmother disclosed a past life as a go-go dancer.
“She hid it,” M. says. “Being a woman born in the ‘30s and trying to get married, she kept it to herself.”
Unlike her grandmother, M.’s work as a burlesque dancer is no secret, but she’s still cautious. A mother of young children in a small North Carolina town, she’s seen firsthand how sexuality can be wielded against a person: a few years ago after she spoke out against a racist issue in town, she says, someone found and circulated photos of her performances. This spurred a barrage of nasty comments (“slut” and “pedophile” among them) that trickled down to her children. Now she’s put distance between her home and stage lives.
But pushback isn’t the final story for M. or any of the other showcase performers. Theirs is a story about a tight-knit art form that involves hard work—local performers spend as many as 20 hours a week practicing for and participating in shows—with the liberatory payoff of deciding what to do with your body in a culture that would have you do anything but that.
On the Friday night of the anniversary show, weather rolled in to match the drama of the event: the skies rumbled, then split, letting loose sheets of rain and prompting an Alert Durham! warning. I balked at a tempestuous I-85 drive to the show and almost didn’t go.
Then, at last: the storm withdrew into a drizzle. A perfect rainbow panned over downtown Raleigh. Outside Lincoln Theatre, along a pink carpet, guests waited in line with glittery skirts, whisking them out of the muddy lip of the curb as attendants scanned tickets.
The show began. Boom-Boom Bathory was up first, followed by a nervy trench-coat routine by May Hemmer.
“Once I step on there, I’m no longer Muggle me—I’m May Hemmer,” M. says over the phone, a few days later. “It’s like: I am here to entertain you and I am allowing that because it’s a control thing. That’s why it’s all about consent: I’m making the choice to take these clothes off. I’m making the choice to extend my gloved hand to you. It’s a very empowering feeling, knowing that they’re here to see you in this moment of strength and being vulnerable on a stage.”
At some point in the show, I began recording on my phone without really having a good reason to—the stage wasn’t close enough to capture good sound. But when I listen back, later, the crowd audio from the crowd is clear reason enough: As Holly Pocket vamps and each performer comes on and off stage, the crowd’s support—animated with a thrush of “woo’s” and “yes! okay!”—is like a sugar rush.
Virginia Scare, Euphoria Harlot, Ava Hardener, and eleven other performers take the stage. Drag queen Twixi Charddonay and non-binary “draglesque” dancer Hysteria Cole perform a rousing routine as a duo. There’s a ukulele, fans, several top hats. In a pastel fairy getup underpinned by lights, Lady Gatita (nèe, Betty Adorno) performs to a pleasantly hardcore song.
“Everyone performs for a different reason. I perform because it’s in my blood.” Adorno, 50, says. “I love being on stage. Being a bigger size person, it’s a lot harder to get your foot in the door. You can’t do things in the traditional routes because there are no spaces for you there.”
The evening draws to a close with a performance from drag king Sterling Maxwell, aka the “Ladyman”—flanked by the progress pride flag, the trans flag, and the non-binary flag—as they deliver a powerful speech about beauty, empowerment, and resilience in the face of rights being stripped away.
Bigham performed their Easy A routine at the afterparty—they’re just getting their start in the burlesque world, so they weren’t part of the main set.
Still: a thrill. A meaningful one.
“There’s things about myself that I didn’t realize were valid because it wasn’t the traditional way or the conservative way, but I can do and be myself,” they say. “I can do this and feel good about myself and feel empowered and feel talented and feel seen and feel heard.”
“I call it magic. But I love it, man.”
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