What’s hotter than the fireplace and more intoxicating than your bourbon cider this winter? Queer burlesque! Add some spice to the season by celebrating 10 years of the DC Gurly Show’s tantalizing tease. Since 2005, the District’s queer burlesque troupe has cultivated a supportive space for anyone to explore the art of captivating the audience through their show, in whichever enchanting way they choose.
Miss Kitty Victorian founded the troupe because of her love of burlesque and its noticeable void in our community. According to Sindalicious, a Gurly who’s been part of the troupe from the beginning, “Kitty was teaching burlesque classes and asked several of us, who were performing in the area, if we’d be interested in starting D.C.’s first queer burlesque troupe. At the time, there wasn’t really any queer burlesque, as such, in D.C. Several performers identified as gay or queer, but generally, the only opportunities for performing were for mostly straight, mostly male audiences.”
She continues, “There was little support for performers who didn’t fit into the pretty, straight, white, trim performer box. Performers of size, of color, or with visibly queer bodies were almost never booked. And, even when they were, generally, the audience’s reactions were less than encouraging. Also, there wasn’t an audience for those of us wanting to put political or social messages into a number. We believed that everyone had something unique to say—making art that was meaningful and authentic—and we wanted to create a supportive space to celebrate our differences. Club Chaos was awesome and gave us a monthly spot, and thus, we exploded into existence.”
Sindalicious points out that Club Chaos had “long been the home of the DC Kings” and that the Gurlies immediately had “an audience and a venue that was instantly supportive.” In 2008, when Chaos closed, the Gurlies teamed up with the DC Kings for a weekly show at BeBar. Adds Sindalicious, “A few months after that, the amazing Angela Lombardi offered us a new monthly home at Phase 1 [the original venue, in Eastern Market]. We have been delighted to be there ever since! They have treated us amazingly, and the crowd is incredible!”
When the troupe began, most of the Gurlies already had burlesque experience. But it didn’t take long to spark the curiosity of their audience. Those who wanted to learn the Gurlies’ seductive ways soon approached them. “We have always had a ‘show up and we’ll help you be awesome’ mentality,” notes Sindalicious. “Anytime an audience member sees a show and gets that spark to say, ‘Hey! I wanna do that!’ we encourage them to contact us and come discover a part of themselves. We’ll provide them with the training and resources they need to confidently take the stage. Several new members have come into the troupe and gone on to have full burlesque careers.”
Miss Kitty Victorian, Coco Monroe, and Private Tails each served as the show’s producer for three years. Currently, Myster E holds that post. “Somewhere during Coco’s producing, we established the articulated jobs that make up our executive board,” explains Sindalicious, “and we now have a yearly election for all positions, including producer. While neither of us has ever held the producer title, Anonymous Childs and I are the last two performers who have been with the troupe from the very beginning.”
Anonymous Childs, who sat front and center for the first DC Gurly Show, became the stage manager by default when he began picking up the Gurlies’ clothes from the stage. Sindalicious notes, “He’s diligently been our ‘Pastie Patrol’ ever since.” Anonymous Childs recalls the first few shows he saw: The Gurlies were doing everything from classic burlesque, to campy or comedic burlesque, to nouveau burlesque. In addition to being a stage manager for the Gurlies, Anonymous Childs has performed as a Drag King and has done boylesque, the male counterpart to burlesque.
“I do identify as male, but I am also a proud transman,” states Anonymous Childs. He has a deep appreciation for the courage of the Gurlies when they perform, despite not knowing how the audience will respond. Childs adds that the DC Gurlies are a “queer-focused, body-positive, sex-positive group” and that he’s “in awe of what the performers are putting on the stage,” embracing and supporting whatever they choose to do. ”Even though the group identifies as a queer burlesque troupe,” he notes, “they are inviting to all, as long as respect is given to all. I’m so proud to call myself a DC Gurly. On top of them being a fabulous queer burlesque troupe, they are my girls, an extended family whom I support and love.”
I asked a few more Gurlies about their personal experiences with the troupe and what they bring to the stage.
Hell O’Kitty joined the DC Gurlies as a 37-year-old mother of two and believes that “beauty and sensuality are lasting qualities that transcend age, race, size, shape, and orientation.” Advises O’Kitty, “To the older women out there who may be thinking that their time has passed, please do yourself a favor: Strip down, stand in front of a mirror, and remind yourself as you gaze over all of your perfect imperfections that all of the universe conspired to create the one and only you! Celebrate that, revel in it, and know that beauty starts first in your own eyes.” She says her age has helped her navigate this art “that involves a level of vulnerability unmatched by many other art forms.”
What’s her favorite part of burlesque? “The T & A, of course! But seriously, I love everything about burlesque: the glittery costumes, the colorful pasties, the tease…the power you feel when you have an audience eating out of your gloved hand! It is all so liberating! And, each time, you get to create yourself anew in the next grandest, sexiest, craziest vision you have.” She adds that “if you haven’t witnessed a DC Gurly Show, make it a priority in 2015. You won’t be disappointed! And, the next time you need a sugar fix, don’t hesitate to come see me, Hell O’Kitty—the sweetest lil pussy in town!”
Myster E is the current producer and chose a name that reflects her diversity as a performer. “I have many sides of [myself] that I want to share with the various audiences I perform for. I could take the stage as Gurly or King with something hilarious and quirky or darkly serious.” Each Gurly Show has a theme, such as nerdlesque, country, and camp, among others. “In the past, the performances have tackled coming out stories, identity struggles, and equality victories that could not be expressed to, or understood by, any other audience,” states Myster E. Regarding choreography, she says that “all a performer needs to do is ask a question about anything, and they will be flooded with ideas and suggestions from everyone.”
New Gurlies are called “Apprenteases.” They go to meetings to learn how the group functions and discover whether it is a fit for them. Training workshops focus on such topics as kittening, designing and fabricating costumes, creating a character, and hosting, among others. Pre-show, fellow Gurlies provide constructive feedback to the Apprentease. Adds Myster E, “Everything is done at the preferred pace of each individual.” As the show’s producer, Myster E oversees the tasks of bookings; marketing, including Facebook and general advertising; video archiving; managing the treasury; and maintaining the website. Constantly on the quest for new opportunities for the troupe, Myster E feels an overwhelming sense of pride toward each and every member. “There is a spark in that discovery that I see time and again, and I never grow tired of it.”
Chè Monique offers a perspective from a performer of size. She mentions concern from others regarding how those in a more hetero-normative audience would receive their performances. “That wasn’t a concern I had, though I have received harassment about my size in such environments. I’ve always been fat, so the occasional fat joke doesn’t derail me. I think I am taken more as a novelty than other performers. We are a society so fat-phobic that the sheer act of me being semi-nude, fat, and confident in public is a spectacle and something people celebrate.”
Chè Monique loves representing a feminine image that is something other than what the media portrays as acceptable or normal. “I sometimes think body image stuff is easier when you’re fat because you’re so off the mark you just have to accept yourself. I weigh a little over 300 pounds. Sometimes, it’s hard because people do look to me to be the image of self-love and bodily acceptance. If I’m having a bad self-image day, I feel like I’m letting people down. Sometimes, I’m scared that people wouldn’t like me as much if I lost weight.” After all, her size plays into her signature act: “It’s a Barbie act to Aqua’s ‘Barbie Girl,’” she explains. “I think the juxtaposition of a large Black woman putting on a blonde wig and dancing around to ‘Barbie Girl’ speaks to a lot of people; also, it’s hilarious.”
Dainty Dandridge, another Gurly, is “head over heels in love with the tease!” and highlights the queer aspect of the Gurly Show: “This troupe preserves the art of queer burlesque. While you don’t have to be queer to perform, we are all about the glorification of queerness within the realm of the tease.” When people think of burlesque, they generally think of female-identified and feminine-presenting ladies doing a striptease. Although this might describe some of the Gurlies, the troupe also “creates a space that directly challenges those barriers that form a cornerstone of our queer identity,” says Dandridge.
“When I first came out,” she recalls, “I remember being very concerned about losing my womanhood. Striptease gave me the opportunity to take ownership of my femininity so I naturally fell in love with it. I could define what being a woman meant—as well as what being a performer meant—on my own terms. One uniquely queer thing I adore about the DC Gurly Show is that we never go on stage without a quick rally and celebration of all of the performers. You can never take [for granted] the opportunity to go up there and live your art out loud, free from fear of being treated like an alien because of who and how you love. You have to bless the space with a hoot and a cheer, you know? It makes it sacred and oh so sexy!”
Aurora Wells brings insight to learning burlesque with the Gurlies. She participated in a Burlesque 101 class with the Gurlies in 2012 and has been with them ever since. “The delicate art of tease and sensuality that can be found from a burlesque performer is something that I craved to exude,” admits Wells. She calls the training process “trial by fire, but in the most positive way” and notes that anyone can practice all day, but being on stage always adds an element of challenge.
“You try again and hone your skills, and you twirl your tassels better, or you bump and grind harder, and see what you can do to really get yourself to be the best burlesque beauty you can be,” shares Wells. “I didn’t have any fears about joining beyond the usual apprehensiveness of being on stage and a fear of showing your body off—especially when you’re dealing with what society would deem an imperfect body,” she adds.
Wells has performed at The Twisted World Convention, at venues in a few other states, and in many bars where she says she receives the same applause from the audience as at Phase 1. Why does Aurora Wells love burlesque? “It’s a release. I love that I can share a piece of myself in a form that I am successful at. And, after that, it’s the dress up factor, the sparkle, the glitter, the makeup, the ability to imagine myself as this sexpot that I may not see every day, but who lives inside of me.”
A sense of family in the troupe, the imperative of inclusion, and a love of glitter seem to be the qualities shared by all of the Gurlies who spoke with me. And, here’s a note from Myster E: “February 2015 marks our 10th year and 120th consecutive month of performing burlesque in D.C. Phase 1 has graciously allowed us to extend our show to include performances from nine current DC Gurly Show members; two group numbers; and special performances from Victoria Vixen, Glam Gamz, and Jasper Hyjinx—all of whom are past members of the DC Gurly Show.”