Curious about the world of local burlesque? There's more to it than "sex sells." The art form was brought from England to the United States in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and modern burlesque is commonly known as neo-burlesque. It encourages people to become more confident in their bodies. It's also extremely entertaining to watch dancers tastefully tease the audience while also providing a laugh. Let's be clear: It's not stripping. It's more theatrical and, in most cases, not fully nude.
Across the nation and in the Triangle, burlesque has flourished in recent years, as anyone who watches the INDY's events calendars must have noticed. If you follow the scene at all, one name that keeps coming up is Bliss Floccare, aka Miss Bliss. I've known Bliss for years; we worked together to coordinate a series of burlesque dance parties from 2012–2014. Bliss is the founder of the burlesque troupe Boom OR Bust, which performs all over the Triangle, including two Prohibition-era-themed speakeasy shows at Criterion in Durham this Saturday, sponsored by Bedlam Vodka, a new "grain-to-glass" vodka from Durham's Graybeard Distillery.
When celebrity burlesque dancer Dita Von Tease, who gained international attention when she was briefly married to Marilyn Manson, came to the Ritz in Raleigh in April, I thought it would be fitting to interview the Raleigh burlesque queen at the international one's show. She discussed confidence and sexuality and the cultural reasons for burlesque's surging popularity, and she shared a few tricks of the trade.
INDY: How did you get into burlesque?
BLISS FLOCCARE: When I was eighteen, I went to a rockabilly show. I had no idea there would be burlesque performers there, but I was instantly in love. I had been a dancer, model, theater performer, and generally a free spirit my whole life. This art form seemed to embody all of that for me. I started dancing burlesque that year and started my troupe, Boom OR Bust, about two years later.
What makes a great burlesque dancer? What makes an awful one?
Great stage performers usually all have one underlying thing. It's what we call stage presence, pizazz, or simply confidence. If this is missing, it's harder to capture an audience's attention.
When you are on stage, you seem to transform into someone else. Would you say Miss Bliss is your alter ego?
I wouldn't say that Miss Bliss is my alter ego. I'd say that on stage I am at my most confident and unapologetic. A lot of that has to do with creating a space for myself and my performers where we can feel comfortable. I've cultivated my audience and shows over many years to do just that.
What do you look for when you choose someone to perform with Boom OR Bust?
Beyond dance talent and creativity, I love to see some grit in my performers. Burlesque, like anything else, is not always easy or glamorous. I want to know that they can hang if our dressing room is a broom closet, or perform in an awkward situation.
How would someone create their personal burlesque name?
I think most performers choose something about themselves, their career, or their appearance, and tie it in with a fine word. I always encourage my students to research their names before settling on one to make sure no one in the area has the same name.
Who makes your costumes?
Most of us nighttime burlesquers make our own costumes. I can't tell you how many hours of my life I've spent rhinestone-ing, hot gluing, and hand stitching!
What do you find sexy?
I love when I see a hiccup on stage—for instance, a wardrobe malfunction or a music issue, and the performer is able to sail right through it. This takes improv skills and confidence.
What's the best and worst thing a fan has done at a show?
My fans are pretty amazing. They are so supportive, and hearing the influence a show or performance has had on them is always really gratifying.
I've had all kinds of silly things happen at shows: change being thrown at me, women screaming at me to put clothes on. But in the end, those instances don't amount to the positive ones.
What do you say when people criticize burlesque as being degrading to women?
More and more people are learning how important it is to take control of their sexuality. It's not something that should be hidden; it should be celebrated. I hope that even people who have doubts will come see a show and realize what a beautiful, empowering expression burlesque is. And that goes for all sex work. Find someone who works in the industry and just talk to them. We are all humans trying to live our best life. It just so happens that ours include taking our clothes off in public.
Why do you think burlesque in the past five years has become so popular? What makes people respond?
I think this has a lot to do with people becoming more comfortable with self-expression and sexuality. Gender fluidity and sex work are becoming more commonly talked about topics. People want to see the body celebrated, they want a taste of the past, and they want live entertainment.