Baring it all: How the burlesque spotlight is helping return the power to performers
“Burlesque and performing are one of the few places that I feel safe to be sexy and to feel my curves – to feel whatever I want, really – with my body in movement, and to not fear that someone is going to take that as me asking for them to touch me,” said Sarah Wolf, a pole dancer and member of Pagosa Springs’ Bohemian Burlesque Society.
All eyes are fixed on Wolf, in tight booty shorts and 8-inch platform stilettos, as she wraps her legs around the silver pole. The spotlight is where Wolf feels in control of her sexuality. The stage is her protection.
“There is a barrier there where I can be what I want,” Wolf said. “I become this being of sensation. I don’t feel human in the eyes of the audience. I am a show.”
Burlesque is vintage entertainment, having first become mainstream in the early 20th century, but the artform has maintained its appeal over the decades. In most metropolitan cities, it’s quite possible to see a burlesque performance every night of the week. And, as artforms are wont to do, burlesque is ever-evolving. It’s taking on nerdy new forms, with themes like Star Wars and zombies finding their way into burlesque routines.
What has remained a staple, though, is that the performances focus on expressing a subtle message with playful tones.
Take, for example, a piece performed by Bohemian Burlesque Society member. It begins with her being tied up and tortured by her captor before she turns into a werewolf. The captor is then eaten by a pack of werewolf women.
“As performers, we remind ourselves what we do on stage is not really about the threshold of anybody else, it’s about our own,” said Lindsey Ballyhoo, founder of the Bohemian Burlesque Society. “People really do feel empowered by watching the performers be empowered. That’s the part that feels good to me.”
Ballyhoo said that with burlesque, the audience doesn’t just see semi-naked bodies – they are witnessing a person baring their art and soul.
As the #MeToo stories have continued to surface nationwide, prompted by a hashtag that went viral on Twitter in October 2017, more and more women are embracing their sexuality in bolder, more outspoken ways than before, much like Wolf and Ballyhoo.
The influx of #MeToo anecdotes have made it clear that women can feel as unsafe and uncomfortable in their workspaces as they can walking down a dark alley. A recent NPR “Marketplace” poll revealed 27 percent of women have been harassed in the workplace. Whether it’s in public, on Hollywood sets, or in the White House, there are few places women have not been subjected to sexual pressure and intimidation.
This is why offstage, Wolf is more guarded, she said.
“I think I’ve done really well establishing my resting bitch face so that people don’t mess with me as much, but when I was younger that wasn’t so much the case,” the 36-year-old mother said.
The first moments Wolf remembers her body being sexualized by an outsider was in elementary school. She was waiting in line for the bus and was called a slut because of her clothes.
“I was the same size in fifth grade as I am now, so I was wearing junior clothes while everyone else was in kid-size clothes,” Wolf said.
Similar incidents tainted her college years and early 20s.
A frat boy at a party tried to trick her into coming home with him by saying her ride had left, she said. She was stalked by an unknown driver, who jumped out of his car as if to grab her before the person he was with persuaded him back inside.
Outside a nightclub, after noticing her friend talking to a guy and the frightened look on her face, Wolf intervened. The man grabbed her breast. She walked away and felt him kick her in her back. She fought back and ended up with five stitches in her face after he punched her.
Once, on a date, Wolf got drunk. Her date didn’t. She said no several times before blacking out.
“I woke up later and it was obvious,” she said. The rug burn on her neck from the couch was the first clue.
“How did you say no? You didn’t really say no,” she remembers the cops telling her.
Moments like this led her to find a man in her life she could trust – Leroy Brown, her 12-year-old American bulldog. Like the stage, Leroy offers Wolf some protection.
“It’s funny how no one hits on me or scares me walking down the street when I have him,” she said.
But Wolf feels differently about the two-legged men of the world. Her life experiences have led her to have bleak opinions of the XY kind.
“I blanketly think men desire to own women,” she said. “They think that a woman’s mind is an obstacle to be overcome and her body is there for the taking.”
That’s why, these days, Wolf chooses to be in open relationships.
“I’m sick of any of the ownership involved, because men think if you really love them, then you should just want to have sex with just that one man – that [your body] is just for them,” she said.
As an Anthropology of Gender professor at Fort Lewis College and the coordinator of the gender and women’s studies program, Dr. Kathy Fine-Dare has been teaching her students the dizzying complexities of gender dynamics for the last three decades. She isn’t as quick to put the blame solely on men.
“I feel a lot of empathy for men,” Fine-Dare said. “We are all in this system together. We are part of the same big culture, and we operate on the basis of the same assumptions.”
This is something Wolf recognizes as well.
“We’ve all grown up in the same trap. Men have been taught to not share their feelings, that women are meant to be overcome, and that no means maybe or keep trying,” Wolf said. “Women have been taught to be chased and be prudish and virgin-like, and to say no a bunch of times even when she really likes him. Well, what about women who actually don’t want him? What are those women left to say?”
Fine-Dare said that these societal assumptions about desire can’t be reduced into black and white, and doing so only polarizes people.
“If a conversation doesn’t happen – and by conversation, I mean analysis of political, economic, and historical grounding of how we got here – the result isn’t going to be satisfactory,” Fine-Dare said.
That leaves the question of how to avoid oversimplifying a conversation that at times seems too complicated to put into words.
“It’s little by little. It’s individual bravery,” Fine-Dare said. “We have to be valiant; we have to not be afraid to talk or bring it up anymore, but we cannot frame it as if it’s men against women. Men can’t take it that way, even if women are venting and upset.”
Recently, Wolf did confront someone who was making her uncomfortable in her burlesque world – what she calls her sacred place. Wolf said Bohemian’s stagehand, “Kitten,” touched her on two separate occasions, making her feel uncomfortable. The first time was at an after-show party, where she said he touched her ass while she was twerking. The second time was on her leg at a viewing party.
Kitten, who requested DGO use his stage name, sensed the awkwardness, but said he wasn’t entirely sure why. Initially, Wolf hadn’t said anything directly to Kitten, and let Ballyhoo know what happened instead. It wasn’t until Ballyhoo made the decision to tell him that he realized Wolf had an issue with the touching.
“That’s part of the problem, our hiding from each other. It’s like, here, I am going to have this problem, but I don’t want the person to know that I have a problem,” Ballyhoo said. “It just creates this uncertainty.”
Kitten said he didn’t remember touching Wolf at the party, and the second time he touched her, he said it was intended in a friendly and non-sexual way.
“My first reaction was defensiveness – it’s not like I really did anything,” he said. “My second reaction was like, well, you know, it’s not about my perception. It’s about hers, and her perception is absolutely valid.”
Kitten said he wanted to make it right, and wanted everyone, including himself, to be comfortable.
“Leading up to this last show, I was pretty nervous,” he said. A few nights before showtime, Kitten apologized. She accepted the olive branch and they were able to move past it.
“I think that men can genuinely wish they haven’t caused the harm that they caused, but I don’t think they always know what they’re doing to cause it,” Wolf said.
This simple example exhibits how complicated and confusing gender dynamics can be.
“I am not going to give up all of my spaces where I can finally express myself because of fear,” Wolf said.