"Who here has never been to a burlesque show before?" Virginia Scare asks a crowd of eager Raleigh night owls. It's a cold, wintry night, but the Southland Ballroom is toasty, a combination of body heat, alcohol and anticipation.
There's a disco ball overhead, a stand-up bass and drum kit onstage, and about half the crowd—a mix of wide-eyed couples and tatted-up folks with piecey, multicolored hairstyles—wave their hands in the air. Scare adjusts her purple wig and coos at the first-timers. "Ooh, virgins. We love those," she says. "You're in for a treat."
What follows is indeed a treat—a kinky, erotic, thoroughly irreverent burlesque revue featuring plenty of fishnets and crooning and writhing. The Violet Ball, as the evening is dubbed, began as a post-Valentine's Day, purple-themed pub crawl through downtown Raleigh and culminated in this vaudeville spectacular, hosted by Scare, founder and artistic director of the local burlesque troupe VaudeVillain Revue. The icy weather may have dampened turnout for the pub crawl, but judging from the appearance of the crowd at the 11 p.m. start of the show, most were only deterred from the crawling, not the pubbing.
This tipsy energy and the hypersexual, anything-goes nature of the evening jibes with the history of burlesque performance. Cabaret surged in popularity in the late 19th century, especially in France and Germany, a bawdy, satirical answer to repressive regimes and stringent social mores. The tradition lingers on most famously with the continued popularity of the musical Cabaret, which tells the story of performers at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin as the Nazi party rises to power. Tonight at the Southland Ballroom, topless dancing and girl-on-girl action goes on mere blocks from the increasingly diabolical North Carolina General Assembly, where Amendment 1 and, more recently, a proposed ban on female nipple exposure were hatched. It can't help but feel subversive.
The twinkly strums of Scare's ukulele and the musical stylings of bassist Eric Smith, who has muttonchops and dreadlocks down to his ankles, accompany the singing, sensual dancing and masterful hula-hooping that begin the night's acts. But when the beautiful Purrrl Van Dammit takes the stage—introduced by Scare as "bittersweet with a dark chocolate edge, just like Valentine's Day"—the crowd erupts in cheers and applause.
Van Dammit, sporting elbow-length gold gloves and a revealing purple get-up, performs a sultry striptease that leaves every audience member reeling—one very inebriated gentleman's jaw hangs open for most of Van Dammit's performance. She lustily removes her gloves with her mouth; her top flutters off after. She's left in nothing but a purple thong, her nipples encrusted with purple glitter. My stomach feels fluttery. (State lawmakers may have failed to consider whether bare breasts strategically adorned with colorful sparkles count as indecent exposure.)
Then the inexplicably limber, mustachioed banjo rock star Curtis Eller prances around the venue, kicking and leaping, plucking and shaking. "I listen to a lot of gospel records, and they've all got this really annoying Christian slant to their lyrics," Eller says, to laughter.
"This is gospel for those who don't believe in Jesus." The crowd cheers.
Near the end of the evening, the bedroom-eyed Porcelain and the fiercely red-headed Meka La Crème perform an S&M-style lip-synch to "Love Hurts." They pull a man from the audience onstage, blindfold him, strap him to a chair and tickle him with a feather.
Who is this man? Is he a plant? Perhaps. But it is also amusing to wonder, as the women wrap their legs around him, if he's a Raleigh conservative by day, some buttoned-up lawmaker who wandered into the ballroom on a cold winter night, stumbling by accident on to this scene of underground transgression.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Willkommen to Raleigh."