By David Alm
If there’s one tangible difference between stripping and burlesque, it’s money. In the former, patrons pay the performer to embody their sexual fantasies on stage. In the latter, the performers may take off most of their clothes, and they may stimulate their audiences, but they also typically wind up paying a good deal of money for the privilege – from creating the costumes to any number of personal and professional sacrifices they often make in order to perform.
And a privilege it is, because, as Jon Manning, a commercial film director whose documentary Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe opens in select cities nationwide this Friday, says, the performers are doing it for themselves first.
But this doesn’t mean the audience doesn’t benefit, too. “As soon as you take money out of the equation, it just becomes fun,” says Manning, who went to his first burlesque show seven years ago with his wife and business partner, Julie Livingston, who produced the film. He says he went expecting a titillating experience; he did not expect to discover a subculture he would spend nearly a decade and tens of thousands of dollars documenting. “There was just so much joy in the room,” he says, he felt compelled to learn more about burlesque.
“That people would do this amount of work and spend this much time and money without getting paid. I found it extremely inclusive and empowering,” Manning says. “And not just to them, but empowering to me.”
The film focuses on a group of performers from Portland, Oregon, who Manning says he chose to capture the diversity in burlesque today: men and women, people of color, performers who may not fit neatly into any category at all.
In this, he says, there is an inherently political element to the film, the full importance of which has only recently become apparent. Speaking of the cultural differences between when he began the film – halfway through Barack Obama’s first term– and now, Manning says that, back then, “the fertile ground was there, from the president on down, and now that we don’t have that, we realize how good it was when we had it,” referring to the tone of tolerance that Obama set and that Donald Trump has largely reversed. “So for the film to come out now, and maybe help people develop more empathy for people who don’t look like them – I’m ecstatic.”
Isaiah Esquire, who features prominently in the film and goes by the stage name “Glamazon,” says that burlesque helped him overcome shyness and insecurity with his body, as well as sexual abuse he suffered as a child. Angelique DeVil, who moved to Portland from a small town in North Dakota, says that burlesque is her “megaphone – all the people that I’ve been, that I am, that I want to be.” And a trio of young men who perform under the name Stage Door Johnnies acknowledge that whereas naked women dancing on stage is inherently sexy, with naked men, “there’s inherent comedy.” Their goal, they say, is “to twist [burlesque] beyond” that humor and allow audiences to “indulge in the male body.”
Babs Jamboree, another of the film’s featured performers who works as an arborist by day, climbing and pruning trees around Portland, says that she discovered burlesque in 2010, while studying farming at Oregon State University. “From the moment I knew what it was, just that combination of different art forms – comedy, and dance, and art – all in a sexually charged expression that pushes the envelope – I thought, ‘Oh my god, I have to do that,'” she says.
She adds that, for her, burlesque provides a venue for personal expression that she felt was lacking in her life, “somewhere to bring my crazy ideas, somewhere to take my ridiculous stories. I think everybody needs that in some particular way.”
While burlesque’s growing popularity in liberal, coastal cities like Portland, San Francisco, New York and Miami may not be surprising, Manning is quick to note that it’s also found in smaller markets throughout the United States, including conservative states you may not associate with such a free and whimsical expression of sexuality.
“You have to ask yourself why, why is there burlesque in all of these cities and towns?” he says. “And the answer is that it gives people something they don’t get from stripping or other types of performance. There’s something there.”
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