Burlesque is a mainstay in Portland, from the fiery stages of Dante's to the nerdy trenches of Geeklesque. It's almost too popular, sometimes with more shows than the city can support—regularly scheduled shows have come and gone over the past few years, sometimes with life spans of less than a month.
Still, the town keeps cranking out peelers, and that's largely thanks to one fabulous factory: the Rose City School of Burlesque. Since it was founded in 2010 by performer Holly Dai, the school has handed degrees in tease to more than 150 graduates, including such Portland pillars as Ivana Mandalay, Babs Jamboree and Claire Voltaire. Drag queen Zora Phoenix has served as head mistress since 2012, and this year the school moves to the Viscount Dance Studio in Southeast Portland.
What are these classes like, and why do people take them? I'm going to sacrifice most of my dignity to find out. The school's next ten-week session starts this weekend, and I'll be there, learning to strip for strangers.
One of the reasons is personal: Consider it part of a New Year's resolution to give up shame. But the other is to go beneath the glittery facade of the burlesque world and see what turns seemingly ordinary people into unabashed entertainers.
"The faculty and I always take notes on which students are going to come out of their shells the most," says Phoenix (Chris Stewart), "and I'm always wrongâit's always the quiet ones."
Iâll join those recent divorcees and bashful WiedenkkndKennedy execs for lessons in makeup, character creation and walking in heelsâ"many have worn them but few know how to walk in them," Phoenix says. The men (there are three in this class) will mostly bypass lessons in tassel twirling and peeling off stockings for sessions in how to remove tear-away pants, but I'll take notes as thoughtfully as possible on all topics, and Iâll post weekly updates here.
According to Phoenix, burlesque is more enlightened than stripping. Whether that's trueâfor exhibitionists, housewives or Willamette Week writersâwill be tested during the next ten weeks.