The ladies of Zircus Erotique, Santa Fe's foremost burlesque dance troupe, have a lot to say about their medium of expression, so let's get one thing straight right off the bat: Burlesque is not stripping. It's not go-go dancing, nor is it exotic dancing. It is sensual, intelligent, often funny social commentary, the main instruments of which happen to be scantily-clad female bodies. A recent renaissance of the art form in the last decade or so has brought attention back to the performers that Zircus' members jokingly call "topless jesters."
With four of the five dancers of the troupe gathered around a table at Del Charro one winter evening, talk quickly turns not only to why they choose to dance burlesque in 2010, but what burlesque has meant to men and women alike over the last century. Members Amanda Peters (alias Talulah St. James; seated on couch in photo above), Irina Zerkin (Zoe Brooklyn; reclining on couch), Heather McDonald (Belladonna; far left in photo), Clare Barclay (Doutelle; far right)—missing from the gathering was April Mae Basset, alias Dusky Hue, top right—come from all walks of life, all college majors, all corners of the country and range in age from 22 to 30, but all have one thing in common: They're super smart, super hot and super talented.
Zircus Erotique is set to perform at SFR's Pre-Valentine's Day Party on Wednesday, Feb. 10, as well as in a feature-length burlesque show, Heartaches and Heart-Ons, at the Lodge on Friday, Feb. 12. Get full event information at the bottom of this post.
Someone unfamiliar with burlesque may ask why women would choose to objectify themselves in such a way. After all, the traditionally provocative costumes, including corsets, lingerie, garter belts and high heels, are generally the types of contraptions invented by men to make women look "better" while simultaneously causing discomfort and—yeesh—internal injury. Why should a woman need to take off her clothes to get someone to watch her perform?
Zircus Erotique, which has been a collaborative entity since September 2008, asserts that the sexuality of burlesque is a reclaiming of the female body, which was made obscene by puritanical society. By performing acts and skits that, in fact, make fun of society, all while wearing skimpy clothes, the dancers dare the audience to come face-to-face with taboos and just how ridiculous and arbitrary they are. If the audience is liberated enough to get past the fact that the ladies are provocatively dressed, they will see that the dances are actually hilarious as they make fun of the patriarchal institutions that got us into the societal messes we're in now.
That being said, why the resurgence of burlesque now? Across the country, the last decade has seen a resurgence in burlesque performance, arguably due in part to the antics of burlesque star and pinup girl Dita Von Teese. Peters also references seeing the now-defunct 20-woman ensemble, the Shim Shamettes, in her hometown of New Orleans. From Virginia to Los Angeles, women are sticking pasties to their nipples and bouncing onto stages after decades of leaving well enough alone.
"Now, everything is so over-sexualized," Peters says. "There's no room for imagination." It's easy to be provocative and attract attention when you're just being bold and reckless; it's another thing entirely to make the audience think as they watch a meticulously choreographed performance. Indeed, think about it: Why is burlesque viewed as overtly sexual when videos like "Dirrty" are getting prime airtime?
The members of Zircus Erotique also dance because, when it comes down to it, they just like to dance. Peters, who's the unofficial head of the group (the other dancers call her "Mama Burlesque"), says, "I've always been voluptuous—and when I was younger I actually had ballet teachers tell me, 'You can't dance.'" Not satisfied to abandon dancing because she wasn't rail-thin and gaunt, Peters says that burlesque is perfect because it allows for bodies of every shape and size.
In addition to being fun in general, burlesque offers the dancers an outlet for their alter egos. In burlesque, you can be sexy any way you want. Be bubbly, be dark and stormy, be uproariously funny, be smart, be mean—it all works. And, since it's generally a given that the dancer is playing a character, they don't even have to pretend that their persona onstage is who they are in real life. It's all an act.
To fight the objectification of women, burlesque dancers choose to take themselves from the object to the subject. They're not there to look at; well, they're not there only to look at.
"We get onstage knowing that people are checking us out," Zerkin, a spunky purple-haired Brooklynite, says. Then her face breaks into a sly smile. "But you know what? We're watching them back."
SFR'S PRE-VALENTINE'S DAY PARTY
Wednesday, Feb. 10
HEARTACHES AND HEART-ONS
Friday, Feb. 12
Both events will be held at:
The Lodge at Santa Fe
750 N. St. Francis Drive