"Heart of the Glitter Tribe" Is a Look Into Portland's Booming Burlesque Scene

We spoke to Portland director Jon Manning's about his new doc and the difference between stripping and burlesque.

(courtesy of XLrator Media)

To the surprise of no one, Portland is blessed with an incredibly active burlesque scene. Since the explosion of the neo-burlesque movement in the mid-2000s, Portland has emerged as a national leader in the modern mishmash of dance, striptease, comedy, gymnastics—and just about anything else you could imagine a performer incorporating into a stage act while mostly naked.

And now, we've got a movie about it. Directed by Portland- and L.A.-based Jon Manning, who discovered Portland's thriving burlesque scene when his wife took him to a show in 2009, Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe, opening this week at Living Room Theaters, is a look into the lives of Portland-based performers, their motivations, routines and their many hundreds of rhinestones.

WW spoke to Manning about Burlesque and why Portland has become a leader in the tasseled arts.

WW: What was your introduction to Portland burlesque?

Jon Manning: I had no idea what it was, except imagining it was some kind of strip show. We went, and I was blown away by how much it's not like a strip club. Then, when you learn about it, you realize more and more that it's not like a strip club. To me, because it's misunderstood, and sexy, and funny, because it's about empowerment and making a political statement, and because they're not doing it for money—all of that becomes the basis for a story.

It literally took a couple of years for us to develop trust with [the performers], for them to trust me that I was a safe person, that I wasn't going to take advantage of them and that I was smart enough to understand burlesque. I fell in love with these people and realizing why they would give up so much of their life, their time and their money to do something that was so fleeting but created so much joy in the audience.

What is it about Portland that makes it a hotbed for burlesque?

When I first got into it, I figured that burlesque would be in Portland and, maybe, San Francisco, New Orleans and New York City? Well, try Cincinnati, San Antonio and St. Louis. It's everywhere. There are people everywhere looking to do it as a performer, and to support it as an audience member.

I think part of why it's a thing here is a combination of West Coast politics, a mashup of drinking and nudity laws which allows those things to be done together, a lot of people here that want to express themselves, and a lot of artists. In town, there are many troupes that do this: I'm going to say that there are at least 100 performers in town, and the film just touches the tip of the iceberg with this.

A lot of the performers that we utilized perform all over the country and internationally, and they do that regularly. This isn't just community theater; these people take burlesque very seriously.

Why do you think burlesque is an enduringly popular form of entertainment?

I think that it is a very unique combination of a stage experience with new music, politics, a little bit of nudity and a lot of laughter; it's a unique animal, not what you get at a strip club, and not what you get at the theater.

There's a saying in burlesque: "Love the body you come to the stage with." A lot of the empowerment comes from the fact that you're being appreciated without having to necessarily fit the absolute physical norm. Where else do you go for that as a performer or audience member? 

SEE IT: Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe is unrated. It opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.

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