Richmond, Virginia is about a hundred miles south of Washington, D.C. and in the central part of a state deeply politically divided. Virginia’s pride is different from that of other areas of the South; it was first, and we exist surrounded by the turbulent colonial history of the United States of America. On my walk to work, I pass the African Burial Ground, upon which the city unsuccessfully (thank the powers that be) petitioned to build a baseball stadium. The church where Patrick Henry declared “Give me liberty, or give me death!” is a few blocks away. The James River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, flows through the center of the city, providing both solace and a sense of flux – the James rises and falls with the tides, a constant reminder of our link to the Atlantic. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, and it’s a majority African American city.
The city was forged on tobacco, iron, slave trade, and fire. Most of Richmond burned in the Civil War, when Confederate forces set fire to the city to deny resources to Union troops. Today Richmond is newly revitalized thanks to a thriving food and art scene, a massive push to reinvigorate the James, an influx of startups and craft breweries, and city-wide arts endeavors like the stunning mural project. GWAR is from here. Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts has the highest ranking ever achieved by a public university’s school of arts and design. In the 1990s, Richmond was named murder capital of the United States, and in 2016 we’re on that list again.
Richmond is gritty and grungy and beautiful. Downtown, bank buildings loom over the James alongside glass and steel high rise apartments, but a mile downstream in my part of town it’s still cobbled and labyrinthine; real gas lanterns light the herringbone brick sidewalks, antebellum row houses, and storefronts. This part of the city evokes a heady atmosphere that no doubt supported the city’s bygone red light districts and speakeasies – and not the kind where the bartenders wear clip-on suspenders and wax their mustaches to a brilliant sheen, but the kind where if you don’t know the password they slam the door in your face. It’s this potent, transgressive feeling that guides Deanna Danger, the city’s reigning burlesque queen and headmastress (as she prefers to be called) of Boom Boom Basics School of Burlesque, where I took a class in shimmying, shaking, pastie-twirling, and stage makeup in 2015. Deanna is woman of many talents: a performer, producer, model, dancer, instructor, and all-around powerhouse.
Her newest endeavor, the Butchertown Burlesque series, refers to the evocative 19th century nickname for an area stretching from Shockoe Bottom to Church Hill in the near East end. “Richmond has always liked to drink, fight, and fuck,” Deanna says, not mincing words. “We are connoisseurs of drinking, fighting, and fucking. And there’s always been so much strife in this area of the world. Fires through the Civil War, fires through the Revolutionary War, people here who lived here for eons that were pushed out of their homes. This is a place in the world that is full of strife. Within that strife, people always find ways to escape. [Burlesque] is an art form that has always existed in Richmond.”
Richmond, in its central location between the coast, D.C., and the Blue Ridge Mountains, is uniquely located not only politically but geographically. It’s close enough to Washington to be easily accessible while also providing privacy for those wishing to satiate more clandestine vices. “Politicians that were in Washington, D.C. were sent to Richmond to the red light district because it was the best around,” explains Deanna.
The Butchertown Burlesque show took place in a dim but warm brick basement venue downtown. Guests wore their vintage best and bartenders served up The Bee’s Knees (with rail gin instead of bathtub) and Highballs. The Butchertown Cats Orchestra provided the sweet, jazzy sound. The immersion was complete. Deanna, Siobhan Atomica, and Lady Borgia treated us to a classic show, infusing their performances with a clear adoration for their burly-q forebears. Siobhan Atomica brings to the stage ardor and panache that draws heavily from exotic dance. She hails from central Kentucky, where she runs her own school of burlesque, seeding the South with yet more “burlesque babies.” Lady Borgia is a consummate professional, her performances intimate and technique impeccably racy. The headmastress herself brought a new act to this show, whirling within a shimmering cape, teasing the audience with occasional peek-a-boos. The three performers bestowed upon us their own unique vision of dance designed to tantalize and titillate.
The art of the tease is alive and well, and these ladies are professional teases – and I mean that in the best way. I got a chance to talk with Deanna after the show, as she cleared away the merch detritus and the crew members fooled around over set drinks. She’s petite and passionate, outspoken and funny. “Where we are now was rumored to be an actual speakeasy,” she tells me. “Richmond did have a sanctified red light district where you could find your brothels, your burlesque houses, you could buy your alcohol, you could do all of that. Richmond has always supported that, and in a very artistic way we’re kind of bringing it back. It’s okay to be sexy, it’s okay to have one too many gins and dance your night away. You should be allowed to do that as a human being in this world.” It’s after midnight and around the stage people are singing, clinking beer bottles, drumming on whatever’s available; most of us have had a little too much gin.
Deanna draws from a variety of performance arts; she grew up dancing tap, jazz, ballet, and lyrical. “I was a dance competition girl, on the dance team in high school! And I didn’t, not in any way shape or form, think I was going to grow up to do this.” Like a lot of us, Deanna discovered burlesque as it began a slow but steady revival in the US. The late 90s and early aughts brought a fascination with pinups and modern burlesque performers like Dita von Teese, and the art of the tease captured her imagination. She notes that Bettie Page opened this door for her, both for burlesque and fetishism. As she says now, “Burlesque beat me over the head and told me you have to do this because it’s your calling.”
For my part, I was drawn to a burlesque class because it seemed a good way to meet new people, celebrate the female form, learn to dance a little (aside from ballet as a small child, my dance experience is nil), and maybe – just maybe – get over my stage fright. (That last definitely did not happen.) I’ve long had a fascination with this reinvigorated version of burlesque, which celebrates all body types, all skin colors, and all styles of dance and performance. “We [women] have a lot in common – we have many strong things in common,” Deanna says. “So when you break down all of the things that make us different, we can find commonality and celebrate that in our own ways, with our own bodies, our own music and costuming choices.” Burlesque is very much about inclusivity, acceptance, and tolerance. As Deanna remarks, “It’s not what you got, it’s the fun you have shaking it. We have performers from different backgrounds, different body types, different skin colors, different sizes. Burlesque shows what all types can look like shaking it!”
Sex work is undergoing a sea change; wherever able, women are taking back their power. Burlesque (or neo-burlesque, if you want to get technical) is no exception. “It’s very feminist-forward. You get to be in charge of your music, your costumes, what you say with your act, what you say with your body, all those things are your choices,” she says. Burlesque can be rough around the edges; it can be polished and classic; it can be brutally affecting or hilarious. “Sexy lady dancing doesn’t have to equal perfectly formed sexy lady dancing. Sexy lady dancing comes from her. It comes from her energy and her prowess, so when a lady’s in charge…it comes out on stage,” Deanna tells me.
What’s the difference between a burlesque dancer and a stripper? an old joke asks. A stripper makes money. “Burlesque, stripping, and even belly dance, all the forms of erotic dance, they all come from the same place,” explains Deanna. “‘Sexy lady dancing’ is not a new concept. So with burlesque, it’s one of those art forms that tells a story… you get to create an entire experience.” This is where training in vaudeville, acting, and comedy come in handy – burlesque is about more than Lucite heels and G-strings (though it can be about those, too!). I’ve seen acts that evoke domestic abuse and BDSM, as well as performers who slapstick with the best of them, or integrate juggling and hoop dance. The tease is key, but so is the art.
Deanna’s approach to burlesque is often classical; her shows and classes generally emphasize vintage moves and costuming. But as with any subculture, burlesque is a spectrum. “Burlesque is as old as time. Sexy lady dancing was probably happening around the campfire, you know, people were like, ‘That’s a very lovely mammoth pelt you’re disrobing from,’” Deanna jokes. “Classic burlesque does emanate from turn-of-the-century America and Europe; vaudeville too, the comedy aspect. You have a little bit less fucks given.” As for herself, she says, “I do err toward the classic burlesque, but I love all kinds. I also do weird burlesque! I’m about to do the one where I dress up as Edgar Allan Poe.” She means The Haunting of Poe, her annual Halloween extravaganza. (Poe spent part of his life in Richmond, and the city happily claims him as its own – yet another marker that it’s embracing its general weirdness.)
“[The vintage style of burlesque] is super fantasy-themed. It was that first era when everybody could just be like, the world is goddamned crazy on the outside, but on the inside, we’re progressive! You’re in charge of your own sexuality!” she asserts. Then in a more subdued tone she admits, “I find a lot of similarities between what was happening in the nineteen-teens and twenties in America and what’s happening now. Some days I wake up and I’m like, ‘what year is it? Because I could swear it’s 1916.’” Although I interviewed Deanna in September, this feels awfully prescient considering recent events. It’s nearly 2017, and women’s rights are still under attack from all sides – particularly from the neon demon headed to the White House in January…or more specifically from his smug underling.
Though burlesque is a nationwide pastime, I wonder what regional differences a traveling showgirl sees on her journeys. “There is a taboo nostalgia here in the South. You go to New York and they’re like, ‘oh it’s a burlesque show. We’ve seen those before; we’ve seen everything.’ In the South a burlesque show is considered cheeky and risqué.” In Burlesque 101, Deanna emphasized the necessity of learning the blue laws. They differ (sometimes vastly) from state to state, and in the South they tend to be far more restrictive. “If I travel to Tennessee, I have to wear something that covers my underboob and my sideboob and the vortex of my ass – and it is legitimately called the vortex. So every different place has different regulations. Some of them are trying to get them turned over, and I would love to see Richmond [do] that, because I think Richmond really understands burlesque now.”
Obviously all of this lent to Deanna’s choice to open her school of burlesque here. “Virginia’s a very conservative state, but it is not,” she says, referring to an odd dichotomy found in conservative areas – repression, as it turns out, often leads to transgression. “Virginia definitely likes – just like Richmond -likes to drink, fight, and fuck. Even if they don’t want to admit it, they want those good times. So the more I can do to instigate those good times, the better. That’s why I call myself the Professional Purveyor of Good Times.”
In its original heyday, burlesque, like almost all other performing arts, was controlled by men. Performers were there to satisfy male desires and they often had little or no power over their own professional destinies. “Many of our burlesque stars, our legends that you can occasionally still see performing today who were alive in the 50s and 60s during the burlesque heyday, they did not get to pick their costume, they did not get to pick their music, their routine, what they got paid,” Deanna says. “They had to conform to a specific body type. They had to fit in. Nowadays we have a lot more luxuries than they had, and we have a lot more understanding and respect for what it means to be a woman in charge of a woman’s sexuality.” Neo-burlesque has come full circle, embracing those who don’t “fit in.” Body mods are a thing you’ll notice at burlesque shows these days; the community welcomes this rebellion, which is a way of reclaiming your body and making it a piece of art in itself.
Empowerment comes in many forms, though. “Modesty empowers some; being scantily clad and twirling your titties empowers others. This is one area that helps women reclaim what they have and not be afraid of the power they possess in their sexuality,” says Deanna. “I’m very spiritually based in how I perform and deal with burlesque. This is a very super magical thing we get to do and share with the world, a very magical power that makes people excited and nervous and titillated and awkward, and it just helps people be people, helps people open up, and it helps others know more about themselves.”
Virginia’s pride is passionate, and it is staid. Beneath it a sense of violence smolders, a remnant of nearly three centuries of battles fought and lost. Richmond, its capital city, is a lot of things: proud, grungy, beautiful, sobering, punk, diverse. If any city can support the Southern burlesque movement, it’s this one, and Deanna Danger is bringing it to the masses alongside many other passionate performers. Twice a year she thrusts new Boom Boom Basics graduates into the world, fledglings in the thriving, diverse, sexy, empowering world of burlesque. And from there she hopes they go forth into Richmond and beyond, spreading the gospel of the tease – and of empowerment.