Stripped Down, Built Up: Burlesque and Empowerment in Seattle

I sat on a barstool less than two feet from the stage, my back to the bar and eyes on the performer who had just stepped from behind the curtain. It was only the first moments of the first act of the long-standing Seattle burlesque show Behind the Pink Door, but already I was a goner. Utterly transfixed.Mesmerized.I would have followed the Carny Preacher anywhere. Some men of the cloth have that kind of charisma. Of course, he was barking for a show more intent upon sin than salvation, but I didn’t mind. If I must be led, I prefer that it be astray. The burnished glow of the room added to the image of a delicious ride through purgatory. Dozens of gilt-framed mirrors lined the walls, reflecting the dim glow of the mismatched chandeliers strung from the ceiling. My friends and I sat at the beaten copper bar, sipped the specially bottled house wine a little too quickly, and waited to see what was truly behind the Pink Door.

In fact, there was quite a lot. Burlesque is a Pandora’s Box of influences and intents (letting loose glitter and social commentary rather than pain), and behind the sequins, pasties, and sharp, wry humor there lies an empowering, complex, and poignantly vulnerable culture. The show at Behind the Pink Door was not just enthralling, but offered a glimpse of the culture of burlesque, what it means to the performers, and what it creates for audiences.

Armitage Shanks, also known as the Carny Preacher, was the one to introduce the audience to this particular show, and to guide them like them from one act to another. He came by his job title honestly. After creating a ringmaster persona while fronting for a Seattle-based band, he and his girlfriend formed a dark, vaudevillian circus that toured Europe for a decade. Since then, he’s branched out on his own, adding his carnival persona to burlesque shows, setting the scene for each performer, and bringing his own unique editorial content to each performance. With a background in traditional theater, stunt work, music, and the aforementioned circus, Armitage seems to have done it all in the world of professional entertainment. Even so, burlesque is special. From Armitage Shank’s perspective, burlesque is not just about nudity, but about radical confrontation.

“[The] roots [of burlesque] have always been in a radical performance style… Lampooning the social mores of the day,” Armitage explained, “I see people taking on issues of gender disparity, and… what we view as the other.”

Perhaps most poignant is what Armitage Shanks sees as his goal in the world of burlesque. Not a boylesque performer, he nonetheless provides both context and content in a way that breaks down walls and preconceptions, and makes the audience part of the trippy, stunning, and thought-provoking world that he inhabits.

“I needed to create thoughts for the audience to think about burlesque on a higher level. I want them to realize it’s of value,” Armitage said, ““It can be facile if you let it, or deeply poignant and meaningful, if you rise to the challenge.”

In seeing the value of the performances, of the unique perspectives and messages of the performers, a validation of individual mind and physicality reflects between the audience and the stage.

“There’s a joyous quality about it (burlesque) that is embracing a certain aspect of getting over ourselves, and our body image.”

That joyous quality came across well, both onstage and off. While imbibing slightly too much wine and eating freshly made pasta Bolognese, I cast my eyes around the room, taking in the audience. I live in Seattle, so any audience is bound to be interesting, but the content of the show added another dynamic. There would be boobs onstage, along with the rest of the female form, gyrating seductively. Yet the audience was filled with women. There wasn’t a single unaccompanied male in attendance. Rather, there were middle aged gentlemen out on dates with their wives or lady friends, young businessmen and businesswomen, discreetly paired off, a lesbian couple celebrating an anniversary, and a bachelorette party. This is a world where women and men are equally at home. Burlesque is about sex, but in the same way that sex is about everyone. More than that, the performers do the acts that they want to do (there is a noticeable lack of lap dances). They are paid, not to cater to others, but to be themselves. This point was made clear days later, when I was sitting in the living room of J. Von Stratten, one of the burlesque performers featured the evening I sawBehind the Pink Door.

“It is pretty much just me,” she said, when asked about her on-stage persona, “Like, ‘Jamie wants to be glamorous! Jamie wants to be a mermaid!’”

A bespoke costumer as well as a burlesque performer, Von Stratten’s apartment was a microcosm of everything glamorous. Sequined gowns and elaborate ensembles hung in racks along the walls, competing for space with paintings and wide, bright windows. A sparkling red gown was draped across a table next to a sewing machine, and Von Stratten’s hands were still tinged pink from dying tearaway tape to go with the cherry colored dress. Burlesque is a world that she seems to live in and embody, behind the curtain, on the stage, and after the show has ended. Clad in a perfectly vintage-looking lavender floral dress and accented with expertly applied cat eye makeup, she told me what makes that world so worth living in.

“It’s all about building people up,” she explained, “Everyone is feeling better about themselves and more confident after the experience.”

At its root, this is what the world of burlesque means to many women, and to many men. It builds people instead of tearing them down. It accepts sexuality instead of hiding it, including all personalities, and across orientations and body types.

“I don’t remember who told me this,” Von Stratten said,“but nothing bad can happen from women feeling better about themselves.”

While burlesque is about women feeling better about themselves, and being fully themselves, the art form isn’t confined to one gender. The genre of boylesque has made an amazing impact in recent years, bringing a positive light to expressions of gender bending, and expanding the way in which male sexuality is viewed. No performer exemplifies this better than Waxie Moon, also a featured performer at Behind the Pink Door. Classically trained in dance at Juliard, Waxie danced professionally all over the world before moving to Seattle to attend graduate school for acting. After forming his own production company, he started looking for a new form of theatrical expression. He found it at Ms. Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque, where he created the character of Waxie Moon in Ms. Blue’s Burlesque 101 class.

In creating Waxie, he created a way to express more of himself. In expressing more of himself, he gives the audience permission to do the same. As he said, “I think I’m more confident with my own sexuality, and letting that be more apparent. I think that’s why people get great satisfaction watching it, is they feel that celebration of full sexy self. You feel like you’re making the world better.”

Burlesque is about sex in the way that sexuality is a part of everyone, and the performances and performers are as multifaceted as humanity itself. The difference is that they are onstage, laying bare their psyches along with their bodies. The beauty is that they are being applauded for being who they truly are, both mentally and physically. The audience is swept up, embraced by the knowledge that they can be themselves as well. People are tortured and tortuous, funny and sweet, angry and desperately vulnerable. Burlesque doesn’t show that shyly. It reveals individuals and society for what they are, leaving only pasties, glitter, and honesty.

That honesty is accepted, applauded, and treated with a compassion that, too often, seems rare. As Waxie Moon put it, “I think there’s really a strong sense of community here that’s palpable. We really support one another, and it’s a very loving, welcoming community. And the more that that community grows, the more it ripples into the world. It’s making more people comfortable being their awesome, silly, sexy, sassy, selves.”

So go forth. Be yourselves. And apologize to no one.

Previous articleBlog Me, Baby!
Next articlePredators in Arms: Sexual Assault in the Military
Sarah Burton was raised in academia, but released into the wild in a confused state upon college graduation. Even prior to this time, she had developed a number of desperate weaknesses, including lingerie, high heels, books, and travel. Now, she nurses her addictions in the city of Seattle, trawling second-hand bookstores and breathing heavily onto the plate glass windows of boutiques.