There is one thing we know about a Chicago summer: It will be sweltering. So if we’re already going to be hot and bothered, why not also be hot and bothered? I sat with three of Chicago’s beloved burlesque belles: dancing warrior Po’Chop, enchantress Gaea Lady and goddess of artists, aesthetics and women’s empowerment Red Hot Annie. The trio of temptresses dive into their experiences with the art form and its outlook in the age of social distancing.
What will coming back from the stay-at-home order look like for you and for burlesque in Chicago?
Gaea Lady: I have no idea. I think that the key is not to expect what it looks like and more to continue to develop tools of resilience so we can adapt and thrive. We have the opportunity right now to do a lot of self work. To look at our structures and our communities and the way things are done. I’m excited for a lot of change to happen. I think a lot about how this is an unfortunate and strange gift.
Po’Chop: I don’t know, that’s a hard thing to say. The idea that going outside is very different for everyone, it feels like there’s a shift that is happening in our society, how we see each other. I’ve always enjoyed performing intimately, but now even the idea of intimacy is different. The idea that I’m going to be taking off my clothes in front of people, even six feet apart, seems close. But I hope still magical and special and cool and uplifting.
Red Hot Annie: You’re asking the ten-million-dollar question. I have turned this over a thousand times in my head and I’m sure I’ll turn it over my thousand more times before we’re at stage four or five. Every time I come to a transition in life I always try to be open to what might change. Especially I try to be open to letting go of anything that has expired or no longer feels relevant.
Burlesque has a long history of being stigmatized and misunderstood even though its origins are conservative by today’s standards. Why do you think burlesque has courted controversy in the past?
RHA: Things that are predominantly feminine always have this way of being relegated to being extra or a side dish. It’s kind of bullshit. When you go to the supermarket and see magazines with women in skimpy clothes on it because it’s sold under this sort of male gaze, that approach toward sexuality, it’s seen as acceptable. But whenever women are expressing their sexuality there is a fear around that and rightly so, because we’re really powerful.
Has the burlesque community always been progressive or has this communal inclusion just recently emerged?
RHA: The history of burlesque has been whitewashed like many [histories]. On some level, you’d see mostly white women of a certain body type when you look at the history of burlesque. But the reality is there were burlesque performers of all sorts of bodies and even more so nowadays. The great thing is we are progressive and we are a little bit like in-your-face about it. If we think that it’s the right thing to do, we’re going to do it, regardless of whether some people support it or not.
PC: It’s complicated. Within the structure of burlesque, when it comes to booking gigs, performing at corporate or higher-paying gigs, it loses some of that [progressiveness]. I think that’s wrong. There’s definitely standards as far as body type and types of acts that are presented. The more that you begin pushing the bar against the burlesque aesthetics and content, it limits where you’re going to be. It’s commercial versus underground.
How can Chicagoans get involved with burlesque even in the era of social distancing?
GL: I would say show up at whatever online events you can find. Follow the performers who make a difference in your life and those of others and then take classes. Taking classes, whether you want to be a performer or not, is a great way to understand the art form. That being said, a lot of this is underground because the mainstream has an issue with feminine empowerment and bodies and sensuality and sexuality. So get on mailing lists, get on Patreons, so you can get the inside scoop.
PC: Find a mentor. Find someone who can guide you. Just finding someone that you look up to, send them an email and say you’re interested in learning burlesque and seeing what’s happening. And if that doesn’t work, keep going after it. People are pretty open to welcoming striptease. If you just want to support burlesque, I would go to your favorite artist directly and say “How can I support you?” Send them five dollars or send them two dollars. Whatever you have.
RHA: Classes. That’s probably the easiest way to get involved, through Vaudezilla or Chicago Academy [of Burlesque] or really anybody who’s willing to give you lessons. But also, the beauty of this virtual time is that you could just create a video of yourself performing in your living room and send that to the producers, too. If you’ve got the courage to just put together an act in your living room you should because that’s what we’re all doing. Now is the best time that you could ever get involved.
What can someone expect when trying an online burlesque class or workshop?
GL: My classes are based in looking at the roots of burlesque and how that emanates out. So finding the empowerment, the self love, the sensuality and the comfortability in oneself to discover your authentic movement and your authentic unique style. Which then becomes a true and very gratifying form of burlesque. It’s not like prance and pose or copy my movements. It’s seeing where your own sensuality and sexuality emerge from because we’re all so different. You don’t need to be cookie-cutter.
RHA: It’s definitely a different format because in classes we were able to focus a lot on technique. To an extent we are able to still do that, I’m surprised by the amount of technique that can make it from here to there. But we focus a lot more on getting comfortable in your body and fully expressing yourself from that place within you. So we are like “Touch your body,” “What feels good to you?,” “What do you like seeing your body do?’” So it’s a different light.
What do you want people to know about burlesque?
RHA: At its heart, burlesque is about self-love and self-acceptance. A lot of women know that sort of shame around their bodies, and we work on opening that back up and feeling self love. Not feeling ashamed of any sort of thing that you may have experienced in a woman’s body. We want to have that love and acceptance that everybody deserves to feel. But it’s also sparkly and pretty. It’s as glamorous or not glamorous as you want to make it because a lot of burlesque is ugly and strange. And that’s part of what makes it so fun, is that that person is coming into it like, “What am I going to represent in this art form?”
You can learn more about Po’Chop and her online magazine “The Brown Pages” at itspochop.com. Gaea Lady offers events, lessons and online classes on her website gaealadychicago.com. You can collaborate and support Gaea Lady through her Patreon patreon.com/gaealady. She will be hosting Stay-At-Home Supper Club livestream on July 26, details online. To see Vaudezilla’s full class schedule and sign up for a class taught by Red Hot Annie, visit vaudezilla.com. Vaudezilla! Virtual Dance Parties hosted by Chicago burlesque favorites, featuring virtual games and the chance to win prizes, are forthcoming.