Friday, August 17, 2018

A Stripper Drops Science: My Interview With a Premier Local Exotic Dancer and Burlesque Performer

Last year, I wrote a blog post poking fun at a stripper pole for sale on Juneau buy-sell-trade. Afterwards, the stripper and exotic dancing community schooled me on a few things, for which I expressed my gratitude here

Ever since, I've wanted to do a profile on exotic dancers. It's a profession that's misunderstood, and one that people have a lot of preconceived notions about. So I sat down (electronically) with my pal Gertrude Edith D'Pall Mall (nee Rachael Byrd, stage name Lucy Bang Bang) a stripper and burlesque dancer here in Juneau, to get down to some stripper science. 

Here's her interview and insights, in her own words, lightly edited for style.

O.H.M.: Okay, so let's start at the beginning. How, when, where, and why did you decide to become an exotic dancer--a stripper?

Gertrude: I started in 2013, in Anchorage, Alaska at the Great Alaskan Bush Company. At nearly age 30, I decided to become an exotic dancer basically for the sake of adventure. Female sexuality has always been enticing to me. I was always a D student in theater class, but for some reason, I don't have stage fright while completely nude.

O.H.M.: Tell me more about the club where you got your start--the Great Alaskan Bush Company (GABC). 

Gertrude: The GABC opened in 1979 [during Alaska's pipeline construction/oil boom]. The club was popular with North Slope oil field workers, and had a flair for theater production beyond the more popular striptease performance style of the late 70's, 80's, and 90's. Over time, the club became nearly as famous for its high production value performances as it was for being one of the oldest, biggest (and sometimes only) dance clubs in the Anchorage area. The GABC remained a more theatrical type strip venue; not many exist like it around the country. It’s kind of a diamond in the rough.

O.H.M.: So let me back up. What is "burlesque" and how does it differ from stripping or exotic dancing?

GertrudeHistorically, American burlesque is a more seductive (in the striptease sense) version of the original Victorian style of burlesque, which focused on parody, humor, song, and comedy. The 1900-1940 American burlesque scene consisted of over 150 clubs nationwide by the '30s. It was extremely popular until New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia shut it down during prohibition for being too risqué and alcoholic. Social and political caricature has always been a staple of burlesque, which I view as a positive for social evolution.

O.H.M.: What drew you from traditional stripping or striptease to burlesque?

Gertrude: Burlesque immediately appealed to me. I noticed that some of the most talented exotic dancers I knew also had the best stage presence, character development, and behavioral comedy. Everything was starting to make sense and come together: burlesque was deeply rooted in the American striptopia, and this was somehow very comforting. I felt like the stripping industry was turning on its own history a bit by denying itself burlesque's classic theater background, which it was linked to anyway through weekly themed acts and performances. It seemed to be relying more heavily on trying to entice the public with the more common American strip club performances that flourished in the 80's and 90's. I think the GABC had sort of an identity crisis as striptease theater changed over time.

O.H.M.: How did you transition from stripping at the GABC to burlesque?

Gertrude: After four years of doing backstage productions and performance at the GABC, I began to visit local burlesque shows. The GABC wasn't really a "burlesque" venue. Instead, it relied on the striptease culture of the 1980s to define itself as a more "Showgirl" style venue, which now seems redundant to me, and not as inclusive in terms of embracing the burlesque culture. 
Seeing a connection, I reached out to the burlesque scene in Anchorage, which seemed to be thriving. I visited every show that VivaVoom Brrlesque or Sweet Cheeks Cabaret had to offer. Learning more through performance exposure and friendship, I played a vital role in introducing GABC to the increasingly popular Anchorage burlesque scene. After all, I'd already begun to produce my own shows at GABC, and ran their social media accounts. At this time, in 2016 and with connections I’d made in the community, the GABC became the notorious party spot and off-record social media sponsor of The Freezing Tassle Burlesque Festival - Alaska’s ONLY burlesque festival. It was here that I was introduced to the many different styles that encompassed what I'd first known as "burlesque." This festival was created and sponsored by VivaVoom Brrlesque, the oldest burlesque troupe in Alaska. It features classical, modern, neo, and the ever-seductive, highly-charged "boylesque" [male burlesque]

O.H.M.: In your experience, what does management at typical strip clubs think about burlesque?

Gertrude: I don't love the fact that strip club owners are so out of touch with the reality of this art; most likely because of money and antiquated social standards. It’s kind of fantastic and oddly captivating that burlesque artists, producers, and communities--who make very little money practicing their craft--have more respect for those in the exotic strip community than their own bosses, coworkers, and peers. I was greatly disappointed to find that a theatrical strip club that opened in 1979 was actually fairly regularly feeding into the negative feedback loop of the ‘emotionally downtrodden’ exotic dancer. I have yet to meet a strip club owner, manager, or anyone in a supervisor position who believes in exotic dancing as an artistic interest. Investing in erotic art could potentially make these businesses more valuable, because sexuality pretty much sells itself. So it seems redundant for the industry to act like sexuality is really the only important part.

O.H.M.: What sort of judgments do you get from others as a result of your stripping and burlesque career?

Gertrude: Starting a strip career in your thirties has its pros and cons, though I never really paid much attention to any negativity from employers, customers, club visitors, the media, or coworkers who perpetuated negative stereotypes of seductive theater. I found that burlesque striptease performers were often more supportive of the strip industry (certainly intellectually so) than my own bosses and peers. I felt at home there. I suddenly felt a strong, happy group of peers welcoming me from the strip club scene. 

O.H.M.: How do the burlesque and traditional striptease scenes interplay?

Gertrude: Well, not all burlesque performers are open to strippers and stripteasers. However, in my experience, most of them are. Not all burlesque performers are into the art of the striptease. Some are singers and comedians and have other equally amazing talents that are not striptease. Many burlesque performers have respect and support for exotic dancers and often don't bother to differentiate between the two. That being said, I don't try to qualify the range of talent I’m watching based on whether there is striptease involved or not. It’s a fantastically beautiful and amazing range of theater and performance that includes too much talent to hem into a specific genre. It’s about being all the "you" that's possible to be within your capacity for imagination. 

O.H.M.: What are some of the "unwritten rules" of burlesque performance?

Gertrude: As with all things, there are important parameters: You don’t copy someone else’s act and say it’s your own.You should include a wide variety of performers because we all live in the same whirling shit box, and life is too short to judge or exclude the LGBTQ/POC talents that exist out there in the world. Burlesque, for many, is a network of support, and it's important to showcase that. Burlesque is an art of self-expression and passion. It shouldn't be used to reenforce or caricature negative judgments or stereotypes, racial or otherwise.

O.H.M.: How do you identify on the LGBTQ spectrum, and how do your partners handle your career?

Gertrude: I’m more in the bisexual/pansexual rainbow. Women partners are often more understanding by miles and yards (for me, at least), maybe because I tend to date lady dancers and industry babes. I avoid jealousy like the plague. I truly find it a toxic human sickness. 

O.H.M.: How do you deal with partners that aren't okay with your burlesque or exotic dancing?

Gertrude: I leave them! It’s like people who refuse to fly. Not gonna invite them on the airplane. If they’re feeling adventurous, good. If they need to get off, see ya around.

O.H.M.: Any last words of wisdom you want to share on all of this?

Gertrude: Go find a creative outlet in this life. Appreciate the outlet others have chosen. Be a nice person, question the world around you, and treat others with respect. Glitter on!

You can catch Gertrude and the Capital City Kitty Burlesque Troupe tomorrow night, August 18, from 7:00-9:00 p.m. at the Alaskan Bar in downtown Juneau in their show "Summer of Love: The Deflowering," produced by the Byrdcage Performance Arts. $15 cover.

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