Last night I was posed with the question, “What’s the difference between stripping and burlesque?”. What a sticky question.
I was happily boozing at Bob & Barbara’s (or “Barbara and Bob’s” for the sober impaired) for Swellco & Swellco’s Amateur Go-Go Contest & Hip Hop Dance Party Benefit for Baby Cheezwitts. The benefit was an attempt “To help raise awareness about puppet persecution.” Now, while the details of this event are vague, uncanny and quite amusing, droves of people gathered to the Pabst laden bar to experience yet another Philly style night of debauchery.
Two of my girls were involved with the event, one hosting and one participating in the contest. There were the usual Bob & Barbarians roaming around, foolishly throwing caution to the wind ordering “Special” after “Special” (a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon accompanied by a shot of Jim Bean for the bargain price of $3). B&B’s is one of those places that is hard to describe but once you’re there, you understand that it’s a first-hand experience like no other. The walls are adorned with an insurmountable amount of Pabst memorabilia, from old calendars to advertisements to cheesy (in an awesome way) rotating lights and toys. The place is timeless in its decrepit vintage-ness, and the local color is blinding. The out of place digital jukebox has everything from heavy metal to hip hop (old and new school) and the bar is a plush red vinyl with holes and tears throughout, with rickety stools scattered about the place.
The patrons run the gamut. There are neighbors that have been going there for too many years to count, in all shapes sizes and colors. There are sporty dudes and gals, yuppies, hipsters, slutty bike messenger types. The place is not only known for its mind boggling diversity but for its live jazz and extremely popular drag show.
There’s nothing bad I can say about my neighborhood bar. It is conveniently located within stumbling distance to my stoop and it screams “So Philly So You!”. Always a good time.
This night was no different. There was the usual motley crowd, this time all seemed to be there for the main event, the amateur go-go contest (not to be confused with stripping). The rules allowed for both sexes to compete as long as no genitalia or areola were exposed. Fair enough.
The first few competitors weren’t shy thanks to copious amounts of alcohol but as the show progressed, more and more was revealed thanks to the berating and coercing of the judges, all formidable members of the underground art scene. One after another, the contestants bumped, grinded, shook and danced for the audience, invoking hollering, clapping, oohing and ahhing amongst the spectators. Looking around I thought, “Don’t you people have jobs?”.
It has always been hard for me to participate in these night owl events, especially on a Tuesday night. I am an early bird and with 3+ jobs, staying out late just isn’t my cup of tea. I wonder how these people do it. I suppose it is just as captivating to them that I can get up at 5am and clean my whole house, get some work done, iron, make coffee, shower, cut my hair and get to work by 8am.
I admit I had ulterior motives. I wanted to see my girls yes, and have a good time, yes, but I was also handing out fliers and promoting my upcoming burlesque show. What a better audience than the people who were there to see half naked women, and of course to support “Baby Cheezwitts”.
I did in fact succumb to that evil “special” it was an offer I couldn’t refuse and before I knew it I lost control of my “inside voice” and I was happily shoving dollar bills in the faces of these beautiful, proud women. I ended up talking to a cute little reporter from the City Paper about an article she was pitching and she asked me what the difference between “Burlesque and Stripping” was.
I told her that burlesque is striptease but the difference is that stripping is done specifically for money and it’s really just about taking your clothes off. With burlesque, it is more about adding satire and having a gimmick in order to produce an enticing form of entertainment. It’s more theater based and because of the humor that is injected into it, it provides a point of reference for the audience, helping them to relate to the performance rather than just ogling a pair of boobs. Sure, much of it is extremely sexual and burlesque is about celebrating sexuality, but it’s much more about the tease than just taking it off. Plus, burlesque has such a history that spawns from theater that it really is in a category all on its own.
From doing my research about burlesque, it has made me nostalgic for my late-night life. I always wanted to be a star of the underground art world, but I like paychecks too much. If my server job provided me with benefits, I might just find a roommate and live cheaply and do my art much more full time than I do now. Problem is, I like expensive things and I love fine dining, so slinging trays isn’t enough to support my career as an artist and as a lover of the finer things in life.
Reading about some of the burlesque stars who felt as though they weren’t good at anything else, I can empathize. When you get on that stage and you see all those smiling faces, the applause, it is so validating. And then you are showered with compliments. The attention can be awful, but at the same time it is so gratifying to know that you have the ability to take people’s minds off the drag of daily life. You have offered them the most simple distraction from stress. It is a blessing to be able to do this. I love that I have that affect on people.
It is still a struggle to be an artist in Philadelphia. Without getting on my soapbox, I have to say that I can’t deny that being black, gay and doing the kind of work I do is easy. I pulled away from the burlesque scene right when it was starting to become popular again because I thought if I choreographed modern and ballet, I would be considered a more “legitimate” artist. Looking at the crowd at B&B’s that night, they were all human beings craving entertainment. There were all kinds of people, young and old, black and white, gay and straight, and they were having the time of their lives. These are the people I want to perform for, the people who appreciate it. This is not to say that the patrons of the mainstream theaters do not enjoy what they see, but they are part of an elite group (dare I bring the word “class” or “caste” into this) who can afford to pay upwards of $200 in a big theater with a big name where big performances are produced. I want to be a part of that, but then I would lose so much of myself.
Reading about Lili St Cyr and Josephine Baker, and how they had to leave the country to inspire them and to claim success, it is something that is very dear to me. Having traveled to Europe, it is the first time I felt that I have fit in somewhere. I came back from Paris and Berlin, glowing, and people asked me, “Did you fall in love with the city” and I’d say, “No, the city fell in love with me!”.
I desire the possibilities of the culture in Europe. The divine respect for art. The support that the entire community gives to its artists. Here, it is a bloodsucking power struggle, a who-you-know place where there is scandal and exclusion. I don’t understand it. I am no patriot but at the same time, I love and respect my place in this city. It’s a great city with great talent, but there is little support for the work that goes into show business.
I left refreshed (and dehydrated) that lovely evening. It was good to be back, to see old friends, to have that electric energy surging through me again. And then I laid in my bed, set my alarm clock and fell asleep dreaming about reality all over again.