Undressed to kill

“Everybody gives you fever
That is something we all know.
Fever isn’t such a new thing
Fever started a long time ago.”

— sung by Peggy Lee

A dancer slowly strolls on-stage, keeping time with the sway of her hips, with the flutter and swoop of the pair of feathered fans she wields so sensually.

The dancer teases with the feathers, holding them close to her bosom and peering over them as Peggy Lee croons on. The blend of music, feathers, rhythmic hips and suggestive looks shimmers to a climax when Lee shouts: “Fever!” A deep drum sounds a thump! — and, at that powerful moment, the dancer fluffs her feathers as if steam has risen from her body.

Brave new world

This fever is burlesque, a 19th-century form of entertainment that initially made fun of (“burlesqued”) “the operas, plays and social habits of the upper classes. These shows used comedy and music to challenge the established way of looking at things,” says John Kenrick in his article, “Burlesque: A Misunderstood Genre.”

In the Gale Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, Nick Humez describes a classical play that was burlesqued in New York in 1868: “The chorus, costumed as meteors, eclipses, and goddesses, thrilled the audience by flashing their ruffled underpants in the Parisian can-can style.”

In the days when women’s Victorian fashions smothered them ankle to chin, the sight had to be titillating.

But the feathered scene played out to Lee’s fevered voice was no nostalgia act (ruffled underpants, it must be noted, have given way to thongs). It took place in an aerobics room at a local gym, where 15 women were gathered to plot the revival of burlesque in 21st-century Asheville.

They call themselves The Rebelles — sassy wordplay that’s true to burlesque’s theater-spoofing origins.

Says troupe founder Christine DiBenedetto: “What attracted me to burlesque is the way it buffoons popular culture, politics, sex — topics and issues that are taboo.”

“Between acts that are a little more flirty and fun,” DiBenedetto adds, her group’s upcoming shows will include numbers “that are powerful and strong and make you think about the world we’re living in.”

Perhaps more importantly, the genre “provides different images of what beautiful is. Burlesque opens up the door for women of all sizes,” notes DiBenedetto, who boasts plentiful curves. It is, she says, all about “chutzpah — using your big personality to turn it on. … That’s sexy.”

Burlesque, for The Rebelles, is more of a soul search than a strip show.

“It’s finding out what sexy is to you, and how you channel that into something that’s going to make people laugh … and get turned on.”

Fantasy seduces reality

Combining comedy, sexuality and empowerment requires an artful blending of past and present, reality and fantasy. The performers’ costumes play on burlesque’s Victorian origins but also suggest a gaggle of little girls who’ve broken into grandma’s chest of old clothes. Their stage names reflect characters with history: There’s Alita Loca, Che Guevara’s illegitimate granddaughter; troupe leader — we won’t say “madam” — Frau Lippenstift (“our German dominatrix,” notes DiBenedetto); Bombay Sapphire, a Bollywood star with assassin’s blood; French undercover agent Double Oh Sexy; and brassy Texan Lucky Sweetfire, who notes, “I’ll travel along with any rodeo that’ll take me, but I ain’t anything like Annie Oakley.”

The “Fever” dancer is Simi Rocket, the self-described “princess of plush” and “dame of deviance … she knows what she wants and she’s got what it takes.”

Look closer, though, and Simi Rocket is revealed as DiBenedetto, a local hairdresser who confesses a love for Mae West, Betty Boop and drag queens. Every birthday, her artist grandmother drew her a Betty Boop card, she recalls. So when it came to picking a stage name, DiBenedetto almost went with Betty Boob, but says she “thought better of it, because I’m already sporting the cleavage thing all over town.”

Is that Rocket talking, or DiBenedetto?

Hard to tell. Her character, she insists, is “definitely a goofball, not a sexpot.” She laughs at herself, pointing out that “we’ve put this together on what I call a G-string budget.”

Back in her role as a troupe organizer, DiBenedetto explains that her long love of the genre coalesced during a nationwide revival a few years ago — first at a “Teaseorama” convention in New Orleans in 2001, then at another one in San Francisco. That’s where DiBenedetto saw original burlesque star Dixie Evans strut her stuff — at age 80+.

“People think their grandmothers don’t have a sexual thought in their bodies, and if a grandfather has interest in sex, he’s a dirty old man,” DiBenedetto observes. But Evans’ performance brought down the house, she says, blasting those myths.

Confrontation as an art form

There’s an element of myth-busting to this troupe, too, and it plays right along with the times: A bodacious grandmother up north is currently battling her homeowners’ association, which says she has to wear more than a thong bikini at the club pool. Closer to home, a Madison County woman (all of 58 years old) has won her first round in court. A federal judge agreed with her lawyer’s argument that town leaders’ attempt to ban her from dancing in a provocative manner at the Marshall Depot is “a quintessential deprivation of First Amendment rights.”

The Rebelles’ risk-takers, says DiBenedetto, embody “a certain kind of rebellion. … It’s about freedom — about thinking you don’t have it and then finding out you had it inside yourself all the time, [and providing audiences] with something that is outspoken, rather than coy and sweet.”

Well, the coy part is arguable. As Lucky Sweetfire whispers in this reporter’s ear, “We have a message, and you’ll see it in our tassels.”

Interviewing the character, I somehow feel I’ve been tossed into a campy Wild Wild West episode that’s merged with a NOW convention. Sweetfire mentions that a “little trouble with the Atlanta police” (something to do with her displaying her pistol in public) landed her in jail, where Frau Lippenstift came to her rescue: “I have a little connection with the police and people with money,” the latter divulges in full German accent.

She is, she says, always on the lookout for good, honest girls, because The Rebelles “are putting the tease back into the strip. Usually, sex is handed to you; there’s no tease. But sexy is you, being a woman, using your creativity and your mind and what you have, in a way that is unique.”

As for Double Oh Sexy, she will, she reports, “be naked behind the screen” (the audience will see only her shadow). In her act, she explains, she can’t reach her double-agent contact, G, and she’s dancing out her frustration. On cue, the lone guy in the troupe pushes “play” on the boom box; out comes the Mission Impossible theme.

And the dance … well, let’s just say that even some troupe members gasp at a certain artistry Double Oh displays in the way she drives her derriere.

Seductive politics

But slipping out of character afterward, Double Oh Sexy simply laughs girlishly about the effects of her performance. In real life, she’s a makeup artist who speaks fluent French (really). She also took ballet and jazz dance — “a long time ago, as a kid” — and says it simply made sense to create a character who’s “this French secret-agent person.” But seriously: The slender young woman admits she’s turning 30 this year and “wanted to have an outlet for [my] sexuality in a safe environment.”

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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