So it's blog post time again, and once more I'm called on to titillate your senses. Now listen, I'm not saying I deserve an award or anything...but everyone reading this should feel obligated to send me a large sum of money, or jewels, or something as a gesture of gratitude, because the creative I found for this week is really gonna blow your socks off. I'm talk'n about the one...the only...the burlesque phenomenon...Tamale! A multitalented dancer who takes off her clothes for a living, Tamale is rekindling the old flame of burlesque here in the Windy City. Now don't freak out, I'm not going to show you anything too scandalous...
But I am going to talk about how this kick-ass baby on the right:
became this motorcycling rebel on the left.
I'm also going to talk about how a person who performs naked on stage can become a champion for body positivity, social justice, and all around queer-awesomeness. So lace-up your corset, dust off your feather-boa, and let's get to talk'n about striptease!
So, before we begin, let me say that I'm something of a connoisseur of burlesque, and that's not just because I like rhinestones and fluorescents. It's because as a gay man living in Chicago (the land of Boy's Town and beautiful people) I know that trying to be comfortable in your own skin can suck-hard-core. And that's the awesome thing about neo-burlesque ("neo" meaning the modern interpretation of the dance form as opposed to the traditional striptease performed in old-school burlesque houses), it's not about what you think you don't have or what society has led you to believe about your body, it's about knowing what you've got and flaunting it - to hell with social norms! So before I continue, I'd like to politely ask of anyone uncomfortable with nudity or stripping because of moral or ideological reasons to please stop reading and find another post to pass your time with. I respect everyone's turn-ons and hand-ups and I expect the same curtesy in return. As for those of you too fascinated to turn away, I ask that you keep an open mind and reevaluate what stripping actually means in 2015 and how it can be reclaimed as a vehicle for self-love and celebration.
A Crash Course in Burlesque...
More than just an excuse to whip-out your birthday suit, burlesque actually has a long and "sophisticated" history dating all the way to ancient Greece. Remember that guy Aristophanes who's plays you may or may not have actually read freshman year? Well, more than just being an id on an honors exam, he's credited as the father of burlesque. His play, Lysistrata - a comedy about how the women of Athens ended the Peloponnesian war by withholding sex from their husbands - is the earliest example of burlesque, or at least some would argue. Now, you may be wondering, "how does this old dude's play count as a striptease?" Well, it doesn't, and that's the point. Aristophanes isn't the father of burlesque because he took off his clothes, he's the father of burlesque because he was a funny, raunchy satirist, and that's what burlesque is, a satire.
Of course, nowadays nudity is the defining element of American burlesque, but the humor is still there, and remains a key focus in the dancer's craft. Performers will openly poke fun at themselves, society, politics, economics...you name it and I guarantee there's some naked person out there making a parody of it while twirling tasseled pasties. Take for example the show-stopping Dirty Martini who comments on capitalism while rocking some bejeweled lingerie...
Despite it's awesomeness, burlesque came close to extinction in the eighties and nineties thanks to the proliferation of strip-clubs (burlesque houses minus the comedy, theatrics, and sequins). That's where Tamale comes in - fighting in an artistic war to revive Burlesque and reinvent it for our modern times. But before we get into all of that, introductions are in order...
A true Renaissance woman, Tamale got a degree in agricultural technology and worked with Second City as a comedian before becoming the sequined super-star she is today.
Like lots of us, burlesque wasn't even on her radar until a friend dragged her to a performance by the Butch Brothers (a dance troupe). Enamored by the laughs and glamour, Tamale contacted the group soon after, offering to trade her roadie skills for free tickets to their shows. She must have roadied her butt off, because within no time they had her dancing main stage. Tamale is currently an independent performer and draws inspiration from drag, belly dancing, and everything in between.
Rather than talking your ear off about her, why don't you take a look at her signature shaving cream act and form an opinion for yourself...
So, we've established that Tamale is a dancer, but what is it that makes her a creative dancer?
Well, on one level you could argue that creative thinking is a prerequisite for performing burlesque. When Tamale gets up on stage, her job is to entertain, and to do so she must appeal to all five of her audience's senses (yes taste and smell too...Tamale incorporates lots of chocolate in her acts). For lack of better words, she's got to figure out how to turn on a crowd of people. As Ivan Hagendoorn explains, "most of the people who attend the [dancer's] performance have paid to see it...some may be interested in dance, others may have been dragged along by a partner, and some may be paid to write a review. All of this influences how people perceive and will remember the performance." Hagendoorn is referring to the psychological concept of priming - basically how prior information and attitudes set up how you experience something, in this case burlesque. Arguably more so than other dancers, burlesque dancers - being purveyors of equal parts sensuality and comedy - have mastered the art of priming an audience to their advantage. "In a performance setting, almost everything can be controlled" and by exercising control over her body and environment, Tamale is able to hit her audience at a gut level, understanding that attention is largely "driven by sensory cues".
On another level, Tamale earns creativity points for taking something old and dying and turning it into something new, fun, and of the times. A lot of Tamale's burlesque contemporaries are guilty of using the same old acts over and over again. Take for example the champagne number where the dancer bathes in a glass of bubbly, a dusty staple that pops up in seemingly every burlesque revue...
Tamale on the other hand is a self sufficient artist, choreographing completely unique numbers that you won't see danced by anyone else. Her acts are also refreshingly modern and incorporate current themes that make her brand of burlesque applicable to our society. For example, her chocolate act, during which she strategically dribbles Hersey's syrup all over her body...
The act, while delicious and seductive, is also a commentary on drug addiction. The curtain parts on Tamale fumbling around with a piece of tinfoil, shaking like she's got a craving. Then it becomes apparent that her drug of choice is chocolate and...well, you get the point.
The dance is fun and lighthearted, but also has a dark undertone, which allows it to operate both as entertainment and a source of awareness (she dedicates the act to those experiencing addiction).
This gets me to my next point, which speaks more towards the creativity of neo-burlesque as a whole. There's no denying that striptease has some serious negative connotations - objectification and exploitation being two of the most blatant. But where some people see trash, other people see treasure. In a society saturated with a singular image of beauty, artists like Tamale have adopted burlesque with the intent of reclaiming the word "sexy" and reshaping it to apply to all kinds of people. Taking an old dance form most people had lost interest in, modern performers are stripping to celebrate their bodies rather than covering them up to mask their insecurities. As anyone lucky enough to watch a burlesque performance knows, it's not about the looks, it's about the attitude, and when the curtain draws everyone gets whistles and applause. Burlesque is now home to people of all different shapes, heights, colors, genders, and orientations. Tamale's tribe of dancers is a rainbow coalition in the truest sense, and in this day and age, that is refreshingly creative thing.
Hagendoorn, I. Dance, Choreography, and the Brain