Burlesque has a long and storied history, but for many years it has existed on the fringes of the arts and entertainment world. But thanks to the efforts of dedicated practitioners, the often risqué art form — encompassing dance, comedy, political commentary, magic and other elements — is experiencing a renaissance. The 12th annual Americana Burlesque & Sideshow Festival takes place Friday, May 25, to Sunday, May 27, at The Grey Eagle and The Orange Peel.
The art form’s racy reputation leads some to miss its empowering qualities. “Asheville’s burlesque boom has been explicitly feminist from the start,” says event organizer Lauren “Madame Onça” O’Leary. She notes that burlesque focuses on body positivity and ideals of empowerment, visibility, history and social justice.
“Asheville was ahead of the wave of this festival-in-every-town movement,” O’Leary says. “When ABSFest started, there were few [burlesque] festivals in the world. Now they’re spread through the West and beyond, with festivals in Iceland, Amsterdam, Italy and more.”
O’Leary launched ABSFest in Asheville a dozen years ago, inspired by burlesque’s qualities of immediacy, interaction and reciprocation. “Every woman in this culture gets blasted with brutal, critical messages that they are ‘too much’: too skinny, too fat, too loud or too mousy, too brown, too pale, too tall or differently abled or slutty or matronly, too assertive or dykey or too vanilla.” She points out that society sends a very mixed message: Women are supposed to look sexy and/or feminine, but if doing so draws unwanted attention, it’s somehow the woman’s fault.
“Instead of collapsing inward from the pressure, burlesque and sideshow acts have set out to make different rules,” O’Leary says. Those new rules reframe the too-this-or-that characteristics as assets, “things to share with confidence.” She notes that burlesque empowers and encourages “people of all genders, ethnicities and body types” to participate. “We work hard to get them all up onstage.”
“And,” she emphasizes, “Asheville loves the weird stuff.” This ABSFest showcases nearly three dozen performers; headliners include magician and storyteller David London, sideshow performer Alex Doll and Oregon Burlesque Fest “Keepin’ it Weird” award winner Natasha Riot.
May Hemmer — known professionally as “The Cocoa Barbie,” a nickname bestowed upon her by fellow burlesque dancer Vita Devoid — tops the bill. Hemmer points out that she is one of relatively few performers of color (her ancestry is African, Puerto Rican and Cherokee) in burlesque.
Hemmer’s background is in ballet and jazz dance, but before launching her burlesque career in New Orleans in 2000, she worked in the corporate world. “I was in banking; I was the only female in my department,” she says. Burlesque gives her more self-determination: Her lavish performances often begin with her garbed in an elaborate gown and end with her wearing little more than a pair of pasties.
“But I’m in control,” she says. “I dictate what I want to do. You might not get to see anything that’s underneath my gown, or feathers, or whatever.” Hemmer recently moved back to her home state of North Carolina. She works less frequently now than she did in New Orleans, but, as a wife and mother, she appreciates the ability to be more selective about choosing gigs.
A victim of domestic violence many years ago, Hemmer says that dance allows her to convey ideas “that I can’t express in words.” Doing so takes a lot out of her emotionally: “I’m sometimes a crying mess when I get offstage, but I can bare myself to people because I do so in the manner that I see fit. It’s freeing and liberating: I’m female, and if I want to take my clothes off, I will.”
On Saturday, at ABSFest, she’ll begin costumed in a 1920s-style dress. “It’s an homage to a historical figure, Stephanie St. Clair. She was the first African-American bookie in Harlem,” Hemmer says. St. Clair used some of the profits from her numbers running to help her community and to fight against police brutality. Hemmer’s routine earned her the Miss Montreal Burlesque title in 2017.
On Sunday, she’ll present an example of nerdy burlesque. “With my Princess Tiana number,” she explains with a laugh, “I’ll ruin your Disney childhood!”
Hemmer adds, “It’s not about taking your clothes off as fast as you humanly can. It’s the tease of it.”
Burlesque is “fun, funny, irreverent and sexy,” says O’Leary. “It’s a form of activism that can engage people from many walks of life, and on many levels.”
She says that the performers focus on presenting material that’s relevant to them. “We explore everything from sexuality and circus skills, the #MeToo movement and the right to decide which bathroom is right for us.”
Burlesque is “an art form largely by and for women who want to see and do something new,” O’Leary says. “And everyone else is invited to enjoy the ride.”
WHAT: Americana Burlesque & Sideshow Festival
WHERE: The Orange Peel, 101 Biltmore Ave., theorangepeel.net and The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Friday, May 25,-Sunday, May 27. See website for shows, workshops, parties and ticketing