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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Burlesque, boobs and body fluids: an education

burlesque educationBurlesque, boobs and body fluids, not often on display at the CUNY Graduate Center, took center stage last Wednesday evening at a panel discussion and performance. Sponsored by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, the show took place on March 12. While some members of the audience were clearly fans and friends of performers like Jo Boobs, Tigger, Velocity Chyaldd and Rose Wood, others, like the visiting sociology class from Kingsborough Community College, were burlesque virgins.

It was Jo Weldon, aka Jo Boobs, who began the evening by telling the audience that every time she is interviewed, she is asked to describe the difference between burlesque and stripping. Weldon, who has performed in both venues, read aloud from a variety of responses. There are a lot of "politically correct" theories about both, often held by people who have never experienced a strip club or burlesque performance.

One type of performance does not necessarily translate into the other. There is a pervasive misconception by the general public that while burlesque dancers may be performance artists, strippers are considered whores.

She shared the thoughts of one stripper who noted that burlesque has risen in popularity simultaneously as stripping has become seedier. "While burlesque is a grandmother," Weldon quoted, "stripping is a wild child." For Weldon, the difference is a matter of focus. Stripping is performing for an individual who tips. Burlesque is playing to the whole house and it is the house that pays you.

Weldon, who is headmistress and founder of The School of Burlesque, performed two burlesque styles. In an elegant black velvet dress reminiscent of Madame X, she donned long black satin gloves, only to erotically peel them off by biting the fingers and pulling them, ever so slowly, down her arms, twirl them over her head and toss them away. Next she shook her red hair loose and slipped out of her gown. Dressed in a black bra and panties, she gave Tigger a lap dance.

Then, the audience watched a hot video of the Las Vegas 2006 Erotic World festival where Tigger, dressed as a priest, performed an act with a rosary and communion wafer that would probably qualify as pretty naughty by a humorless Roman Catholic.

For Tigger, a distinction between stripping and burlesque was the element of surprise, both on the part of the audience and the performer. "I want something live," he said, "I want something back from the audience. We are all taught that sex is dirty and bad. And if you are blessed with queerness, we get to move on to the ninth circle of eternal damnation. But our bodies know better. Sex is going to exert a profound influence on you whether you enjoy sex or not. That's up to you. You're going to be affected by it, humongously."

Another essential element of burlesque is humor. "Humor is crucial. It infuriates both the prudes and the pervs because they both have this deep-seated need to take sex very seriously," he said. "As soon as you inject humor, it diffuses it. It kills their buds. It doesn't work for their whole agenda."

Dr. Lynn Sally a lecturer at New York University and a performer, added an intellectual moment to the evening, complete with a PowerPoint presentation. Inspired by the writings of Joanna Frueh, Sally, whose stage name is Dr. Lucky, said that burlesque performances often have the element of Monster/Beauty. Where beauty can attract, Monster/Beauty can attract and repulse the audiences simultaneously. It's a bait and switch technique where the performer is able to suspend the viewer's disgust over the subversive and turn it into desire. Burlesque, she said, "Is not simply about taking off, but oftentimes about putting on layers of meaning."

Velocity Chyaldd's performance could easily fall into the category of Monster/Beauty. Her performance, which caused Professor Katia Perea of Kingsborough to worry about her students, was frankly sexual and violent. She stripped down to a waist corset and boots. She then brandished a large knife and, with fake blood flowing, pretended to cut her face, arms and vulva. When asked by the students the meaning of her performance, she simply said, "It's a metaphor." James, a liberal arts major and one of Perea's students, reacted to the performance by saying, "The knife thing was creepy, but interesting. I definitely wouldn't watch it on YouTube. But live, it's worth watching."

Last, but not least, was a performance by Rose Wood. Because there was no stage, the audience in the back of the room was encouraged to stand. Carrying a bottle of bourbon, Wood took a swig and then sprayed the audience. He reached under his mini-skirt, slipped out a condom and snapped out its white contents.

After he stripped, he revealed a pair of perky breasts and a penis, then squatted and retrieved his bottle without hands. After the performance, Rose Wood said that sex is as various as the people who have it. "We will not be on a family network anytime soon," he said.

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