Burlesque in Spotlight
Milwaukee women find freedom in over-the-top performance
Photo courtesy: Brew City Bombers
By Krista Culbertson
"I think my mom knew after she saw the kinds of shoes I was buying at the mall."
Lia Manning is talking about what she deems “stripper heels”: high heels with dangerously tall platforms, buckles and sparkles that dazzle. They aren’t what she wears on her days out grocery shopping, but they are her choice of shoe for work. Not her day job at a bank, but the other job.
Manning is an instructor. She tells some people she’s a dance instructor, but she actually teaches pole and lap dancing.
“Not everyone gets it,” she says.
Most recently she began to teach burlesque classes at Miss Pole in Brookfield after taking note of the resurgence of interest in the art form.
The studio is one of two fitness centers in Milwaukee that now offer burlesque classes. New troupes are forming and styles are developing. Women from all backgrounds are beginning to peels off their stockings and join the show.
Burlesque troupes such as the Brew City Bombshells have been gaining popularity over the past few years and new groups have been following in the successful footsteps of their predecessors.
Taking the Stage
At 10 o’clock, the lights go down and there’s a flurry of chatter in the crowd. Friends are clutching beers and laughing at their inside jokes. As the music gets louder, the sing-alongs begin.
The Stonefly Brewery is packed near the small wooden stage. As the music dies down, people crowd closer to get the best view. The large windows around the bar reveal the harsh Wisconsin winds, and curious passersby pause to take a look.
The décor behind the bar includes replicas of da Vinci’s “Last Supper” and Renoir’s “A Girl With a Watering Can.” These canvases contrast with the large pop art prints spread across the back wall. In a way, the show about to take place on stage is exactly like this art: the new with the old.
The cat calling begins immediately as Kandi Kickass takes the stage to lay out the rules for the performance. No photography, be respectful…
“But you can touch me all you want – for $20,” says Kickass with a cheeky wink.
Tonight’s Brew City Bombshell performance is a “Beauties and Beards Variety Show.” In a style similar to vaudeville acts, there are more than just burlesque performers. There are the Miltown Kings, a Milwaukee drag troupe, a male burlesque performer and a man with bull-horns who promises ability to hammer a nail up his nose.
A dancer named Sugar St. Clair takes the stage with a giant fan and looks coyly at the crowd until the music screeches over the sound system. An instrumental version of the jazz standard “Luck Be a Lady” begins to croon from the speakers.
St. Clair’s blonde curls echo the classic style of Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable. She twirls her giant parasol when not breathing fire. Parts of her performances sometimes include a more dangerous act (she has a fire dancing routine to Monroe’s “Some Like it Hot”).
Something to mix it up, but the show at the Stonefly echoes the 40’s.
“I love classic – old, retro glamour,” says St. Clair. “Everything that is luxurious.”
St. Clair says her love of burlesque is oddly related her life-long hobby of sewing. Her mother taught her to hand-stitch at a young age, a technique that has lent itself to hand-stitching sequins on bras.
“Being able to sew my own costumes made my mom more comfortable with me doing burlesque,” she says. “It gave us an opportunity to sew together.”
The dance form definitely has its public reaction challenges. Burlesque is often confused with strippertease. St. Clair acknowledges both the differences and the sisterhood between the two, but burlesque, she says includes an artistic glamour.
Tyler Melso is a student at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He had heard of burlesque before, but stumbled upon the Bombshells show at Barfly by accident.
“I think it’s empowering for women, which is a good thing,” says Melso. “It’s the positive side of stripping. It’s not my thing, but it’s positive.”
He admits it was a way to pass the time while he drank four beers.
St. Clair isn’t a fulltime performer or even a seamstress. She works selling mechanical parts to countries in the Middle East. It’s a far cry from the sequins and tassels of the stage.
“I like to think of us as the Village People,” says Manning, the burlesque instructor at Miss Pole. “We have women that are nurses, lawyers, women who work in the technology department.”
Manning is talking about the variety of students she sees each week and the women she works with.
Raven McCaw is another burlesque performer for the Bombshells – and she continued dancing even in the final months of her pregnancy. Before every show, the performers have meetings to touch base about the theme of the shows and to just hang out. With women coming from all different backgrounds, making a connection is important.
“It’s really laid back, just us getting together and talking ideas, crafting and snacks,” says McCaw.
Asking favors for costumes is just part of the bonding for burlesque performers.
“We’re all really close,” says St. Clair. “When you’re getting up in someone’s bra and underwear, it’s pretty personal.”
Finding the Spotlight
Miss Pole started offering burlesque classes a year ago. Owner Patricia Hawkins wasn’t sold on the idea that burlesque would be a good option for a class. Manning and her fellow burlesque instructor, Jesse Linksi, insisted on moving forward with the new classes.
Manning and Linski worked on a routine in Manning’s basement. The instructors wanted to offer students something to practice at home without needing a pole. The routine is set to Lady Gaga’s song, “Vanity.” Feather boas are a must.
“Students don’t have to focus on a prop. As the weeks go on, they begin to play around with the routine and add their own personal touches,” says Manning.
The three Miss Pole studios in Madison, Brookfield and Kenosha have added more burlesque classes than they offered a year ago. More advanced classes have been set up for returning students who are hungry for more.
“I had this pre-conceived notion that it was for girls who just wanted attention,” says Manning.
The classes became something she did only for herself. “For a long time it was pretty taboo for women to embrace their sexuality,” says Manning. “Attitudes are changing.”
Manning says women from all backgrounds are trying the classes, from as young as 18, the studio’s age requirement, to grandmothers. Not everyone is comfortable initially, but it is a gradual transformation. During the first week, many women are still reserved.
Many times it takes the six weeks for them to become comfortable with themselves in a sexual way.
“I see all kinds of women come in. There are really thin, shy girls who are sort of hunched over and by the end of the six weeks there are walking out of class with their heads held high,” says Manning. “That is what makes it all worth it.”
Manning and St. Clair agree that there isn’t a single type of woman who is attracted to burlesque. No body type is required, no race or cultural background: only the desire to be performing to an audience.
“Burlesque isn’t about pleasing others,” says St. Clair. “It’s about demanding that attention on stage.”
Miss Indigo Blue is the co-director of education at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.
She says American burlesque gained popularity in the early 20th Century through vaudeville shows. These variety shows offered comedians, dancers, musicians and often a burlesque performer.
“Neo burlesque is a revival that has women challenging social norms again. Performers are bold and people really pay attention,” says Blue.
St. Clair’s acts aren’t always inspired by vintage performers. She’s also a burlesque dancer in a new troupe the Dainty Rogues. Their shows are different than the Bombshells’. It is, as St. Clair calls it, “geeklesque.”
Shows of geeklesque are often themed geek entertainment such as television series produced by Joss Whedon, steampunk (a science-fiction, machinery version of the past) or games like Dungeons and Dragons. St. Clair has a double-act with her fiancé, Faye Tahl, doing My Little Ponies.
“There’s a huge market for it now. Geeks like burlesque,” says St. Clair. “But what they really like are happy, confident women.”
This new form expands on the old American Burlesque tradition of humor. There is a playfulness that allows performers to explore new ideas.
“Burlesque was meant to make people laugh,” says Blue.
The stories and themes may change as fads do with the decades, but there is always the same appeal to burlesque performers.
“I still remember watching my first burlesque performance,” says St. Clair. “She had on these glittery high heels and she demanded the attention of everyone watching. I said to myself, ‘That’s what I need to do! I need to be on stage and wear those shoes!’”