Facing the mirrors with me are 13 other students at the Rose City School of Burlesque, the biggest of its kind in Portland. I'm taking this 10-week course—and at times regretting it—to learn what's fueling Portland's blossoming burlesque scene. Burlesque often mimics 1940s striptease, with stocking pulls and feathered fans, but in Portland, many performers prefer the neo-burlesque style—Babs Jamboree strips out of a giant burrito. The number of performers in town has swelled fairly quickly in the past five years, giving burlesque fans sometimes daily options for shows: happy hours, cabarets and theme nights for geeks and metalheads. Portland's scene still isn't as expansive as many performers would like, but what it lacks in skill and variety, it makes up for in spirit. Positive, group-hugging spirit.
"Portland burlesque is special because of the camaraderie of the girls," says five-year burlesque veteran the Infamous Nina Nightshade, who's performed across the U.S. "This community is extremely supportive of each other. I don't see that in every city."
When burlesque performers talk about how tight the scene is, I nod in passive agreement. I may be a cynic, and I'm sure many of them have great, supportive relationships. But what does that have to do with putting on a good show? Turns out, everything. The aggressively positive mindset drives entertainment that, more than it shocks and awes, appeals to the therapeutic needs of the audience. And it's enticing an increasing number of regular people to take off their clothes for strangers. It's the gospel of Portland burlesque, and I'm going to church.
On the first day of class, my fellow students and I sit on the floor of the Viscount Dance Studio, designer light bulbs hanging overhead. Phoenix asks why we're here. "Burlesque is whatever you make of it," she says. "Is it performing? Is it creating a better connection with your body?"
We're a motley bunch: a beauty-school student, a belly dancer, a former opera singer, ages ranging from 20 to 47. Some students enroll simply because they need a change. Some hate their jobs and want an escape. One, a recent divorcee, had to quit singing opera because of a growth in her trachea that restricted her airway. The first day of class, as we played sexy in front of the mirrors, her breathing sounded painful. About a week later, she went into surgery, and now can sing again—if she wanted.
"I was allowing myself to be hemmed in by singing opera and a job that I hated and a marriage that was not right for me," she says. "I think my body was just like, 'Really, though, do something about this.'"
Three of us are men. One guy, whose fiancee graduated from the previous class, takes pictures at shows but wants to get in front of the camera. With a goatee, ponytail and Batman T-shirt, he channels Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. His burlesque name: Captain Glitterbang.
"I'm kind of a fat guy," says Glitterbang, "and nobody ever talks about the guy because, you know, we're supposed to get away with that. But there are times for myself when I look in the mirror and I'm like, who the fuck—who's gonna want to see me up on that stage looking like this?"
As the class progresses, I learn that stocking pulls and fan work are not part of the curriculum. Those moves are evidently too advanced for a Burlesque 101 class. Instead, we get lessons in makeup, costuming, dance and facial expression. The three men get tips in "boylesque" from performer Tod Alan, including how to make a cock sock. It's pretty simple: Take a tube sock, cut off the bottom, sew up the end and—voilà! Your junk is insured against accidental hat drops. "If it peeks, it peeks," Alan says. "You can't really see anything, but the audiences are shocked."
But such practical lessons are secondary to the main focus of the school: getting students comfortable with their bodies, mostly through talking and mirror work. "It's not about the schtick," instructor Fannie Fuller tells a student concerned about her breast size. "It's about being in your body and loving what you got. I can make you look like you have bigger boobs in a costume, but you have to be comfortable with their size when you take them off."
This philosophy actually created a brief rift within the school last year. It has since been amicably resolved, but it prompted the school's founder, performer Holly Dai, to split and start a new school last month. "The reason burlesque is acceptable for every body type is not necessarily because it's about accepting your body type," says Dai, founder of All That Glitters Burlesque Academy. "I believe it's about performance. Burlesque accepts every body when you push yourself to be a good performer."
Rose City instructor Fuller counters: "A great performance can come out of just having awareness of who you are and how you move."
Some of my fellow students already seem to have this sense of awareness down. One of the other men, a singer and recreational drag queen with scarcely any body fat, seems comfortable with himself; he takes every dance class as an opportunity to strip down to booty shorts and suspenders. He's in the class to perform. But another student, Mimi Onna Rockett, is trying to be less Benny Hill and more Bettie Page. "You can kind of protect yourself from your vulnerability by just being funny," she says.
I fall somewhere in the middle. I have shame issues I should probably work out: My six-pack-discerning cohorts would refer to me as "skinny-fat," and over the past few weeks, I've almost eliminated carbs from my diet and kept strict gym hours. But I also don't want to get onstage and make a fool of myself.
The course has been building to a graduation recital (it will be held Sunday, March 23, and is open to the public). My act involves transforming from a mild-mannered stiff into the boisterous Tag Wilder, a name inspired by my childhood border collie and Oscar Wilde. I want to strike a balance between fun and sexy, and I'm trying to strip without looking like a Chippendale.
"Oh!" says the silver-haired lady behind the Jo-Ann Fabric cutting table, as I try to explain tear-away pants. "Are you a dancer?"
At our final meeting, we debut our routines for critique. Goldie Bonanza, who sewed a fur Viking costume, menacingly clutches a sword. Mimi Onna Rockett rolls in…on a rocket. Maddie McFly prances to "The Power of Love." Another student twirls silk fans. Most seem nervous and don't have their acts fully planned. The instructors won't allow disclaimers.
"The worst thing that happens in burlesque is the self-ridicule," Fuller says. "It's a community of growth."
It's my turn. I step in front of the class. Until now, I haven't thought about what I will actually do for my performance. Fuller told me to create a concept and said the choreography would come naturally, advice I took literally. I map it quickly in my head, my hands shaking as the '80s rap track begins and I fumble with my tie. Look confident! I rock my hips: cheering. So far, so good. I try to serve a sexy face: smiles. This isn't going so badly. I go for the tie again. Why won't it come off? I look at the class: still smiles. All right, let's try some pelvic thrusts—screaming! Yes! Motivated, I build up some courage, and eventually end up rock-stepping and crawling across the floor.
OK. Strip time. I turn my back to the class and slowly peel my tank top over my head. I sense hesitation in the cheering. Shit. Oh wait, it's back, and it's continuing! I ham it up before the song fades, sliding awkwardly to my knees and pumping my fists. When it's over, I feel a rush.
After class, a student who did a New Orleans jazz bit approaches me. "You totally blew me away," she says. Honestly, hers was much more carefully choreographed than mine, with Mardi Gras beads produced in several crafty reveals. "Oh, stop it," I say.
"No, I kind of wasn't expecting much," she continues. "I thought you're probably just doing it for the journalism piece or whatever, probably not taking it seriously, but it was good. Funny, but sexy at the same time."
I know the law of burlesque is to dole out compliments. Is she telling me only what I want to hear?
If that's the case, I can't really tell.
SEE IT: The Rose City School of Burlesque graduation recital is at Funhouse Lounge, 2432 SE 11th Ave., 841-6734. 7:30 pm Sunday, March 23. $7. 21+.