Where the Boys Are Burlesque

A venerable feminist tradition brings some guys into the fold in Oakland.

Every burlesque artist has an awkward and perhaps anguished story about her deflowering. For nine-year veteran Sparkly Devil, it happened at a goth club in her hometown of Detroit, where some friends cajoled her into doing a classic striptease. “They asked me to do a burlesque show and I said I’d sing a torch song, but there was no way in hell I was taking my clothes off onstage,” she said. “They persisted and twisted my arm.” Oakland performer sASSy Hotbuns debuted with a gag inspired by the song “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” “My whole thing was I lost my hat onstage and the whole time I had to look for it,” she explained. Comedian Margaret France — who hosts burlesque shows in the guise of a lesbian bunny — tried crossing over with a routine based on supreme narcissism. “It’s me singing both parts of the theme from Mannequin that’s supposed to be a duet — ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,'” she said. “I sing to myself in the mirror, then kind of to the crowd, but mostly to myself. … I think that’s why it wasn’t really popular.”

Nonetheless, they all agreed that the form was pretty addictive. It allowed them to be simultaneously creative and exhibitionistic, and had spawned a fascinating nostalgia-based subculture: DIY feminist theater geeks. Although it dates back to the 17th century in Europe, and to early vaudeville in the United States, burlesque remained relatively dormant for most of the 20th century. It might have been a casualty of mid-century American prudishness, but its main enemies were probably radio and television, which supplanted many live forms of entertainment. It wasn’t until the 1990s that burlesque really made a comeback, first with some independently produced revues in New York and Los Angeles, and later in the club scene. It overlapped with the revival of swing dancing and roller derby, which also had a kind of old-school glamour and classical choreography that appealed to the indie crowd. It provided an outlet for crafty women who liked to make their own costumes, and for girly women who just liked to play dress-up. Not to mention that it had a certain feminist cachet: The scene was a veritable matriarchy.

It’s only recently that men have joined in — not only as extras or emcees, like the famed Kingfish and Eddie of Hubba Hubba Revue, but as proper burlesque dancers. A couple years ago, some enterprising men in San Francisco put together their own troupe, SF Boylesque. “Burlesque is generally thought of as a female domain but SF Boylesque is poised to change that,” the group announced on its web site, apparently with little hubris. In the past couple years, SF Boylesque has performed at Bimbo’s 365 Club, DNA Lounge, and Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory, among other venues. And now, the boylesque phenomenon is coming to Oakland, in the form of a small, dreadlocked, tattooed, very industrious twenty-year-old named Najee Rene, better known as Chip.

A few months ago, Chip started attending First Friday Follies, a popular post-Art Murmur burlesque show at the Stork Club. Launched last year by a local group named Belles du Jour, it was recently taken over by one Belle, a four-foot-ten Bettie Page look-alike named Alise O’Leary, aka Cupcake. The show features a rotating cast of performers with France serving as host in full lesbian bunny rabbit regalia (i.e., a unitard, bunny ears, and men’s briefs). According to both Cupcake and France, Chip was all but bursting to get in the show — and he wasn’t alone. “There’s a couple boys harassing us,” France explained matter-of-factly. “Cupcake won’t book you unless you have an act. One of the boys who’s been going to the show finally got his act together.” Chip recounts it a little more coolly. “I went up to Cupcake, and I was like, ‘Yo, can I, like, be in it?’ She was like, ‘Yeah.'” At any rate, he came up with a song-and-dance number, which he plans to premiere this Friday.

Chip may be an anomalous presence in the Oakland burlesque scene — he’ll be the first male performer at First Friday Follies — but that doesn’t make him an interloper. In fact, most female burlesque artists aren’t territorial about the scene, even with regard to its feminist ideals about body image or disrobing as a form of empowerment. “A lot of times people get so hung up on the fact that a lot of female burlesque performers aren’t a size six — they get hung up on curvy girls,” said Sparkly Devil, who’s recently been pushing the envelope by doing classic dance routines to gangsta rap songs by Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. “I get the point about it being empowering to see women of all sizes onstage, but if someone’s commenting on your body, they’re missing the show. I definitely appreciate what people are trying to say, but sometimes I wish they’d get off that train.”

France, who felt a little more empowered in the burlesque world after she “came out” as a rabbit two years ago (she’s since videotaped a lengthy “coming out” monologue that’s all about settling into her rabbit identity before she can talk about things of more general interest), is happy to share that sense of upliftment with dudes. “Boylesque is a chance for men to celebrate their bodies and their songs and their sense of humor by taking their clothes off,” said France. She compared boylesque to the San Francisco Air Guitar competition, which feeds off of male vanity and choreographed exhibitionism. “I think Boylesque could actually suck up some of the air-guitar people,” France continued. “It’s not a super big thing yet but I think it’s gonna catch on because everyone wants to be a rock star at home — soon they’re gonna want to be a rock star in public as well.”

Chip hopes that if his debut show passes muster, Cupcake will let him bring some more dudes into the mix. It probably won’t take much cajoling. After all, the burlesque women of Oakland seem eager to diversify their numbers. But they might not want to place all bets on Chip, who recently admitted that he’s mostly using burlesque as a stepping stone. He actually wants to be a go-go dancer.

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