The popularity of contemporary burlesque, aka neo-burlesque, shows no signs of waning, despite a temporary shift to digital venues over the past couple years.
There are three major reasons for the art form’s enduring appeal—even after three decades—says local performer and producer Red Velvet.
First, it’s populist entertainment, meaning it doesn’t go above audiences’ heads or beyond their means. Second, performers can keep things interesting by incorporating dancing, singing, theater, acrobatics, and more into their acts. Third, the shows offer a safe space for entertainers and spectators alike to explore sexuality and desire.
“And it does so on our own terms,” adds Velvet. “We are not stuck portraying the sexuality we see every day in ads or in movies; we get to define our own sexuality. Women are so often told that good girls do not have sexual desires, that we forget that it is actually just a part of being human. So seeing others embrace our sexuality—and embracing our own—is important.”
Velvet, the co-artistic director of the monthly show, DIVA or Die Burlesque, promises plenty of sexual empowerment when more than 30 of the best performers in town take the stage, live and in-person, over the course of four nights at the 3rd-annual Burlesque Extravaganza (Wed/23 – Sat/26).
Each evening will feature a different theme—the radical “All About the ’80s,” the tongue-in-cheek “Silly Strips Laughs Again,” the fanciful “Flora, Fauna, and Fantasy,” and the off-the-cuff “Burlesque Improv” contest—hosted by respective emcees Nella Puddin, Velvet, Sgt. Die Weiss, and If N’ Whendy.
I spoke to Velvet about getting her burlesque bearings, keeping performances fresh, and how the art form continues to honor, support, and further women.
48 HILLS How did you settle on the name Red Velvet?
RED VELVET It was not easy. I started by making a list of possible names. There were other contenders, but I picked Red Velvet because it reminded me of…. (wait for it)… red velvet. That luxurious, deep-red, deep-pile velvet that feels so good when you touch it. I figured it was a classy name, one that could transcend my multiple act personas and suffice for both my more crazy and more constrained caricatures. Plus, red velvet cake. My tagline is “Try a Slice!”
48 HILLS How did you first enter the burlesque world?
RED VELVET I started dancing when I was a child, which was many decades ago. But, I have only been doing burlesque for about one of those decades. I got interested in events because I saw periodic burlesque performers as part of other shows or events I attended. It looked fun. It looked exciting. I told my husband, “I bet I could do that.” He said, “Well, why don’t you?” And then he went out and found me a class on burlesque and signed me up for it. We had a show subsequent to that first class, and it was exhilarating. I was hooked. I am an introvert, but I have always been an exhibitionist.
48 HILLS What do you think about while you’re dancing? What makes you feel sexy and/or empowered while performing?
RED VELVET On bad days, I think about the steps, the costume, what comes next, where is my prop, things like that… and there are moments that those thoughts flash into my head even on good days. A common one is, “I’m not in the light! Where is my light?” But, ideally, I am thinking about the character I play in my act, feeling the things that my character should be feeling, and connecting with myself and the audience. Some days are better than others.
But the thing that makes me feel sexy and empowered while performing is feeling confident in myself, confident in my act, and enjoying what I am doing. I will say, audience response can help the confidence aspect tremendously. Some audiences can be very quiet, but you know you are appreciated when the audience is cheering you on. And that absolutely boosts confidence and subsequently, sexiness.
48 HILLS How do you maintain the values of classic American burlesque (which dates back to the 1860s) while also innovating the art form?
RED VELVET Burlesque has changed a lot over time, but I think all performance types do. At the core, burlesque is tied to our sexuality and confidence. We do bring new energy, new ideas, and new perspectives to it all the time—just like a rock band or a theatrical company. Even a Shakespearean play is different than it was when it was originally written. If nothing else, our perceptions and attitudes change, which results in a change to the impact and complexity of the art we are watching.
One of my dance teachers years ago told a group of us, “The most important thing you bring to the art is yourself.” That is so true for burlesque, as well. But we do bring new things. Classical burlesque doesn’t do Cthulhu or Corgis, both of which are great additions to burlesque, in my opinion!
48 HILLS Are there any misconceptions about burlesque that you’d like to clear up?
RED VELVET Well, there are misconceptions about sexuality, so there are misconceptions about burlesque. Most burlesque does include stripping, but it doesn’t have to. Most of us are strippers. That is OK. The biggest issue is people who still have a problem with stripping, with sexuality, with people being comfortable in their own skin.
Most of us do burlesque for self-expression, artistic growth, self-confidence, sharing our art and our ideas with others. And, yes, part of that is an exploration of our bodies and our sexuality. Any time you get sexy semi-naked women on stage, I think part of the population is going to have a misconception about that.
48 HILLS With National Women’s History Month coming up, how do you think burlesque and your shows honor, support, and forward women?
RED VELVET The Extravaganza supports all genders as does burlesque; however, burlesque has been predominantly molded and performed by women. Burlesque raises the voices and views of women, helps us to be seen on our terms, and lets us embrace our bodies and sexuality—something we are rarely allowed to do without negative repercussions.
Burlesque honors and supports women because it allows us to showcase our entire selves—not a portion of ourselves. The art of burlesque allows for diverse messages, stories, and acts to be portrayed on the stage and provides a mechanism for often serious messages to be heard because they are done so through the use of art. A lot of ideas gain ground by planting seeds through art. Burlesque helps plant those seeds.
Burlesque Extravaganza 2022
Wed/23 – Sat/26, 8pm, $20
EXIT Theatre, SF.