The Politics of Pasties: Not Your Grandmother’s Burlesque
MARCH 25, 2015
“Are you guys ready to see some boobs?”
The crowd erupts in cheers. We’re only a few blocks away from Yale’s campus, but it’s starting to feel like a different world. My friends, a motley crew of a few of my housemates and some fellow members of my feminist comedy troupe, look at one another. Honestly, we’re not sure we’re ready. An hour and a half and one whiskey sour later I’ve seen more boobs than I’ve ever encountered in one setting—other than in a locker room. I’ve also seen a blonde man in a polo shirt get a spanking, a very drunk woman win a hula hooping contest, and a New York City debutante refer to herself as a “delicious dumpling.” It’s all thanks to Dot Mitzvah, the self-described “Juiciest Jewess this side of the Wailing Wall.”
In 1868, a British performer named Lydia Thompson shocked New York audiences with her troupe of “British Blondes,” who performed in flesh-colored stockings. Thompson’s brand of striptease, known today as burlesque, occupied a unique place in New York’s world of performers; every night crowds of blue-collar men gathered to see a show produced and choreographed only by women. Back in Europe, burlesque was becoming popular in cabaret houses where women performed the can-can dance and drew a wide audience, often peppered with notable members of royal families.
Burlesque has led “two lives– one in ancient Greece and then all over Europe, where it was a bawdy form of theatrical satire; the other in America, where it was otherwise known as the striptease,” according to Dita von Teese, who is credited by many with reviving burlesque for modern audiences. While not all burlesque enthusiasts draw this particular geographic distinction, the high-brow/low-brow dichotomy von Teese describes is echoed by many. According to Dr. Charles H. McCaghy, a professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University, while burlesque has a history of being an art form accessible to the masses, and was often enjoyed for its scandalous display of skin, it was also a political art. In his online exhibition on burlesque, “Loose Women in Tights,” Dr. McCaghy writes that “any subject was fair game for the comedic barbs of burlesque performers like Thompson, and they often took sharp aim at social conventions, especially questioning accepted ideas of the proper place of women.”
Today, burlesque continues to test these controversial waters. Dot Mitzvah, a New Haven based burlesque artist, and award-winning performer, says that burlesque is also about subverting expectations. “I try to be as dichotomous as possible,” Mitzvah explains. “I’ll pretend to pick my nose or something, just to break up the monotony of the act.” Mitzvah favors what is known as “neo-burlesque.” “Classic burlesque is fans and costumes,” Mitzvah explains. It’s the burlesque showcased by von Teese, the Pussycat Dolls, and various movies from Moulin Rouge to the 2010 film Burlesque starring Christina Aguilera and Cher. In contrast, neo-burlesque is, as Mitzvah says, “really fucking weird, which I love.” Neo-burlesque performances play more with the expectations of the viewer, often incorporating other genres of dance and music, or experimenting with the grotesque.
Mitzvah mentions some award-winning routines, and when I search for them online later, I find myself entranced by the unique blend of traditional femininity and unusual slapstick comedy. In one of Mitzvah’s performances, she dresses as a 1950s housewife, presents the audience with a neatly baked and frosted cake, and then proceeds to punch the cake until she is covered in icing. As the act continues, she covers herself in more food, from whipped cream to hot dogs. This is not a seductive, naked-woman-strategically-covered in-chocolate-sauce style presentation; Mitzvah described her own performance here to me as “disgusting.” In another act, Mitzvah transforms from a beautiful 18th century European royal to a sweatsuit-clad, mustached disco king. I also watch some acts by Mitzvah’s old roommate—whom Mitzvah refers to as “my Burly Q bestie”—Kitty Katastrophe. In one, Katastrophe strips as the bride of Frankenstein, revealing white lingerie with what appears to be a large amount of fake pubic hair sticking out of it. At the end of the act, Katastrophe pulls the fake hair out of her underwear, and the audience sees that it is, in fact, a fuzzy, halloween-style cut-out of a bat. Then, Katastrophe eats it.
Mitzvah’s and Katastrophe’s neo-burlesque routines remind me of other examples of subversive feminist art. I think of Hannah Höch’s 1929 photomontage Fremde Schönheit, or in English, Strange Beauty. The collage depicts a shriveled, alien-like face on the body of a classically beautiful nude woman. In my art history class sophomore year, I remember discussing the way the image tempts the viewer’s gaze by displaying creamy, reclining breasts, shapely legs, and a shock of pubic hair, but simultaneously repels with its strange and frightening face. It’s been argued that the face on the body is in some ways meant to mirror the monster that looks at it—presumably a man exploiting the female form by seeking pleasure from the image. And, in fact, Mitzvah tells me she was inspired to try burlesque after seeing a friend do burlesque while wearing a wolf’s head mask, a performance I imagine may have been designed to achieve the same effect. Mitzvah also tells me about a performer called “Shanghai Pearl” who tries to subvert her audience’s expectations in a similar way, by performing a seemingly glamorous and sexy routine and then pausing to do unseemly things, like pick a wedgie. “In the middle of this super glamorous thing, she’ll do something so raunchy,” Mitzvah tells me. “She’ll like dip her hand in her underpants and then sniff.” Mitzvah says neo-burlesque is “super feminist” because it’s about subverting expectations of feminine sexuality.
Many burlesque dancers would argue that the strip-tease of classical burlesque, too, is about gaining control of the audience, rather than relinquishing it. To get a sense of the classical burlesque experience, Dot Mitzvah suggests I go see the weekly “Burlesque Sunday Sizzle” show that she emcees at the New Haven jazz club, The 9th Note. I am immediately struck by the recognizable vintage tropes of femininity. Many of the dancers wear cat-eye liquid eyeliner, and curled or flipped 50’s and ‘60s hairdos. The music ranges from slinky jazz tunes to the 1959 hit “Bongo Rock.” These images are familiar to my friends and me; we know them from watching videos of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. But they’re also familiar to me for another reason.
In the 1950’s my grandmother travelled from Montreal to Hollywood to pursue a career as a model/”character” dancer/bongo drum player—a bizarre combination that could only have been a career option in the days of Bing Crosby and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She was fairly successful, and a few years ago, a Garry Winogrand photograph of her leaning seductively over her bongo drums at the El Morocco nightclub in New York City was featured in a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Our family home is peppered with similar images. Grandma in fishnet stockings, a leopard-print bikini, and a witch’s hat, posing for some odd, sexy Halloween photo-shoot; Grandma in a hula skirt and coconut-shell bra, performing with four backup dancers, who all sport identical platinum Marilyn Monroe-style hairdos; Grandma in tights and a bra striking a seductive pose, her pale skin spotlighted and shimmering against a black background. She never stripped, but she had certainly perfected the art of the tease.
At Sunday’s show, many of the classical burlesque dancers strike similar poses. They half-dance, half-posture, running one hand up and down a fishnet-clad leg, while the other hand balances on a pile of blonde curls. One woman even plays the bongo drums. I’m transported back in time to the black-and-white photographs of Grandma winking seductively at the camera. In the sexist world of the 1950s, Grandma’s performances and modeling somehow made sense. Her sex-kitten persona seemed to be one of the only routes to success in entertainment as a woman. But, sitting in The 9th Note, I can’t help but wonder why women want to do this in 2015.
But soon I see another side to the acts. Dottie Dynamo, a burlesque dancer from New York, dressed in vintage black lingerie, coyly shrugs off a bra-strap, and then suddenly turns, thrusting her pelvis at the audience and loudly smacking her crotch. I later learn that this pelvic thrust is a fairly common classic burlesque move. In addition, many of Sunday night’s performers skip from cutesie winks to fierce gritted teeth growls in a matter of seconds. Then, there’s Mitzvah’s emceeing of the event, which is a pastiche of classic and bawdy. She describes the performers as “cute” and “perky” but also refers to some as a “diva bitch,” “a badass motherfucker,” or “a lovable bundle of tits and trouble.” That last descriptor is used to introduce “Dolly Debutante” a former New York City debutante, who shakes off her yellow gown to reveal sizable breasts with glittering tassels.
Midway through the show, Mitzvah subverts expectations yet again, when she calls for volunteers to participate in a hula-hoop contest. The first person to the stage is a light-haired man in a polo shirt, whom Mitzvah is quick to humiliate. “Oh my god you look like a 1950’s wet dream!” she exclaims, and the audience cracks up. “I’m going to call you J Crew,” she tells him, then commands the audience to “Say hi J Crew!” Moments later, J Crew’s girlfriend alerts Mitzvah that it’s his birthday, and Mitzvah squeals with delight and tells him to sit on a chair. J Crew looks mildly excited and sort of beckons for Mitzvah to sit on his lap. I turn to my friends and say, “I think she’s going to give him a lap dance!” But, as Mitzvah was quick to explain at the beginning of the show, “These women strip, but they’re not strippers.” The distinction seems an important one and demonstrates that in the world of burlesque, sex appeal is power, but sex work is stigmatized.
“I’m not gonna sit on your lap!” Mitzvah exclaims, and motions for J Crew to roll over, so he’s lying on the chair, his butt slightly raised in the air. “Everyone sing ‘Happy Birthday, J Crew’!” Mitzvah commands, and as the song commences, she begins to spank J Crew repeatedly. This is not your grandmother’s strip-tease.
Mitzvah never dreamed of being a burlesque performer, dancer, or stripper, and she didn’t fly to Hollywood, New York City, or Paris in search of a dazzling career doing striptease. In fact, when I ask Mitzvah how she ended up in New Haven doing burlesque, she laughs and says, “I don’t know! I keep asking myself that.”
On Mitzvah’s website, she describes herself as being “born from a delirious one-night stand between a rabbi from Flatbush Avenue and a Lotte Lenya impersonator.” In person, she tells me she grew up in southern Florida, and quickly says, “I didn’t do it!” giggling about Florida’s bad reputation. Then, she tells me southern Florida is different. “It’s where all the Jews go,” she says. Mitzvah’s biological father died when she was 16. “Two weeks before my 17th birthday, exactly,” Mitzvah tells me. “He was a singer, a very, very good singer, and I grew up listening to musicals.” From a young age, Mitzvah knew she wanted to use her vocal talents to perform, but was at first unenthusiastic about the classical opera program she was accepted into at Stetson University. “At first I thought opera was so boring, but they gave me a scholarship,” she explains. She then says after studying the art for a few months, she “fell madly in love.” After her undergraduate education in Florida, Mitzvah applied to music conservatories and was accepted to the Boston Conservatory. She tells me she was looking for a program that combined multiple theatrical talents. In Boston, Mitzvah says she “learned how to belt, took a fuck-ton of acting classes, learned how to tap-dance, and had an amazing voice teacher. She rehabbed not only my voice, but my persona.” She does an imitation for me of her “teeny-tiny pointy” voice before she went to the conservatory, and her fuller, louder voice after her training.
After conservatory, Mitzvah tested out a number of theatrical pursuits. In addition to teaching music to young children, and seeking out singing gigs wherever she could, she tried trapeze, and joined a local roller derby team, where she took on her first alternate persona: roller derby diva “Judy Scarland.” It was through this team that Mitzvah learned about burlesque. After watching her teammate’s performance in the wolf’s head mask, Mitzvah thought to herself, “I could do that.” She went home, “did a lot of research and found this amazing grassroots area where people were creating the most beautiful art within three-to-seven minutes.”
Creative control is part of what drew Mitzvah to burlesque. “You come up with the costume, the music, the music editing, the makeup. You have all of these options, and I don’t know any other art form I’ve performed in that has that freedom,” she tells me. “I think that’s what really brought me into loving it.” When creating her burlesque persona, Mitzvah tells me she wanted to honor her Jewish roots, and her grandmother. “My grandma was hugely important to me,” she explains. “She died in 2009. She was this amazing, interesting character. She had a designer clothing boutique in Brooklyn. She was a single mom when single moms were unheard of.” Then, Mitzvah pauses and laughs. “But, she was afraid of water, and bicycles, and dogs. Just this amazing dichotomy. You wouldn’t think somebody who was that confident would be afraid of a bike.” Mitzvah tells me that this strange mix reminded her of the contrasts she was drawn to in neo-burlesque performances. A confident woman who is scared, a sexy woman who is messy, a stripper in wolf’s clothing. It’s a bit funny to me that Mitzvah’s grandmother influenced her burlesque persona, since I, too, have been thinking of my grandmother lately. Of course, in my case, Grandma seems like anything but a bundle of contradictions; on the contrary, if the photos are to be believed, she seemed quite comfortable in her role as a retro Hollywood babe.
We talk in Mitzvah’s living room; she has invited me to visit her at her small suburban house near Science Hill. The surrounding neighborhood is adjacent to Yale’s campus, but more quiet and residential—with the exception of a few university-owned chemistry labs. When I ask Mitzvah why she lives here, she tells me that she and her husband got a great deal on the house. They moved to New Haven from Boston, so he could more easily commute to his work in Manhattan, but Mitzvah has grown to love the city. “It’s good enough for me in size, and Boston’s my favorite American city. It’s similar to Boston without the accent.”
Mitzvah’s home seems relatively unadorned for a woman who lives and breathes sparkles. We perch on a white leather couch, and a sensible wooden table sits in the adjacent room; there is a reddish-pink curtain hanging in the doorway. It’s chilly—Mitzvah tells me she’s waiting for an oil delivery—and we huddle together near a small space heater. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the living room is that it is strewn with children’s toys. Mitzvah apologizes for the mess and the heating problem, unaware that I live in a far-more-dilapidated house, with six housemates and a lot of empty beer cans. On one wall hangs a picture of Dot Mitzvah’s daughter, Nora. Or, as Mitzvah calls her, “Tot Mitzvah.” She tells me that Tot watches her mother practice burlesque all the time, and has even been backstage at a few of Mitzvah’s shows. Once, Mitzvah tells me, Nora even tried on some burlesque garb. “She came up to [my husband] and said ‘Daddy look!’ and lifted up her shirt, and she had a pasty on her breast!” Mitzvah bursts out laughing, explaining that there are always sequins and things lying around where her daughter can get to them. When I ask her if she’ll teach her daughter burlesque when she gets older, she answers, “I would have absolutely no qualms with her performing burlesque. As long as it makes her feel the way it makes me feel. If she wants to be a stripper in the bar, it wouldn’t be my first choice, but if its something that she finds contributes to her authentic self, then I couldn’t possibly stop her.” She pauses, thinking. “But, she says she’s going to be an astronaut vet.”
In addition to being a wife, mother, and burlesque dancer, Mitzvah works at Fashionista Vintage, a nearby clothing store I once browsed when shopping for an outfit for a 1920’s-themed dance. She says they let her borrow clothing sometimes for her acts. She also still works as a professional singer, and teaches some voice and piano lessons when she can. “There’s so many things in my life. There’s so little time,” she tells me. In fact, Mitzvah is so busy, she’s had to put one of her passions on hold—the Ivy League School of Burlesque, presumably named for its proximity to Yale University, just a few blocks away. Mitzvah started the school a few years ago, but recently had to close due to a convergence of unfortunate events; her landlord is moving, and her mother was just diagnosed with cancer.
Despite the hiatus, Mitzvah assures me the Ivy League School will be back up and running soon. “I enjoy it,” she says of teaching, and tells me that her energy helps the clients grow comfortable stripping. “I get very excited about things,” she says. “I have a five-year-old’s excitement level. I bring a lot of enthusiasm into the class, and by the fourth week, we’re all half-naked!” Mitzvah’s introductory course, “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” lasts for four weeks and works its way up from the “art of the bump and grind,” to “how to sexily remove a stocking or glove” to the “five methods of tassel twirling.” “We learn the tenets of burlesque,” Mitzvah tells me, “and you leave with a pair of pasties at the end.” For Mitzvah, there’s something uniquely fulfilling about teaching. “I really enjoy seeing people get it,” she tells me. “Especially when it comes to tassel twirling. Because, someone will be struggling to get it and then all of a sudden one will start moving and then the other will start moving and their face looks up, They’re like ‘Look, look, I just split an atom!””
When it comes to clientele, the group is varied. Students, housewives, and artists alike gather to learn from the burlesque guru. Once, Mitzvah even taught a nuclear physicist—but then again, given the dance school’s name, I guess that’s to be expected. When I ask Mitzvah why she thinks people take her classes, she doesn’t miss a beat. “Curiosity. Just like I did, they thought, I want to try that.”
As I watch videos of Mitzvah and Katastrophe stripping in ways I never imagined, shrugging aside bralettes and corsets with ease, while making often gruesome expressions, I can’t help but understand. I, too, want to try that.
Mitzvah’s school is no longer in session, but she has offered to give me an introduction to the technique and “some pointers” during our interview. Once we’re standing amongst the children’s toys, Mitzvah tells me she’s taught in her living room before. “If it’s one person, and it’s somebody I know, then I don’t mind saying ‘Come in, let’s do act development.’ And I don’t usually charge them, because I don’t pay for the space.” I wonder if act development is what we’ll be working on. It seems a bit advanced for a novice like me.
“We’re gonna talk about bumping and grinding,” Mitzvah says, beckoning for me to widen my stance a little. We’re both in leggings and boots, although hers have a slight heel and mine area little scuffed and flat.
Mitzvah starts explaining the movements. She swings her hip to the right and pops it. Then does the same thing with her left. Then, she rotates her hips all the way around, sticking her butt out. “It’s almost like the really awkward dance you do when you’re drunk in the club,” she tells me. “Think about having really loose hips.” I relax and get into the movement, swinging my hips in a wide circle. It’s fun.
“Really stick your booty out!” she yells as I try to maneuver the grind. I give her my best shake, and she exclaims, “You’ve got a booty going on!” I try to hide the small smile of satisfaction growing on my face. Next, Mitzvah shows me some shoulder rolls. She juts one shoulder forward and then pulls it back. This move doesn’t come quite as easily. I tell her I’m not very good at dancing with my arms, because I did Irish Step Dancing for ten years, and she laughs. “Of course you did,” she says, smiling warmly at me. I get the sense that despite Mitzvah’s praise, she feels I could loosen up a bit.
The next step is a pelvic thrust, the move I saw Dottie Dynamo do in her act. Mitzvah encourages me to place my hands behind my head and bite my lip. “It’s very much about the face,” she says, “So when I do it, it’s like ‘fuck yeah!’” She bites her lip and gives the imaginary crowd a fierce rock n’ roll expression. I give it a shot, and hear her giggle a little. “You’ve got this very angelic face!” She says. I laugh too; maybe rock n’ roll won’t be my burlesque style. Mitzvah tells me she likes to use this pose when she’s playing a male role. She smacks her crotch with both hands and yells, “It’s like ‘suck the d!’” We both laugh. I love the contradictions of her wingtip eyeliner and phallic motion.
Before we move on, Mitzvah tells me to think of a character. “You can be anyone,” she says. “You can be the adorable college student who is trying something new. You can be the old lady who has seen much better days and has been through the shit. You can be the drunk housewife trying to seduce your spouse who is having an affair with an Italian woman.” I think for a moment, and she says, “We’re gonna play with the cutesie stuff, because we’re both adorable.” We both laugh, but I try to get into character. I’ve never really thought of myself as innocent or demure, but I guess maybe in the realm of burlesque that’s what I am. After all, I’ve never stripped onstage, and I’ve never smacked my crotch. I’m not unfamiliar with the ‘drunk in the club’ dance, but the lights are usually dimmer, and I’m generally not the only one doing it. Mitzvah encourages me to make faces at the pretend audience, and I try to channel my character. My grandmother’s granddaughter, but a little more coy. I think of a picture of her in a modest, but form-fitting sweater, her arched eyebrows raised, and her lips slightly parted in a faux-surprised expression. Then, I imitate.
Mitzvah decides it’s time for some music. She tries to play a song from her phone, but it isn’t quite loud enough. She looks around the room, and grabs her daughter’s hot pink Dora the Explorer microphone, which appears to have a built-in speaker. She plugs in her phone and the sound booms out. It’s exhilarating to hear the music, but also a bit bizarre. Now I’m being coy with Dora the Explorer.
We move and shake to the beat, all the while Mitzvah giving me advice and praise. “You have gorgeous legs,” she tells me, before suggesting that I angle them slightly to make them look “even more gorgeous.” She incorporates a shimmy and then watches me try, exclaiming, “Your shimmy is awesome!” I know she’s probably just trying to build up my self-esteem, but it feels great. I imagine how much fun this might be with tasseled pasties.
Finally, Mitzvah gets to what she might argue is the most important part of the choreography: the tease. She tells me to stroke my leg. “This is very important,” she says. “The audience is imagining what it’s like to touch you, what it’s like to stroke you. What your skin feels like, what it tastes like, what it smells like, all of that great stuff. When you go down and stroke your leg, you want to look at the audience. Because they wish that they were doing this to you right now.”
I grasp my leg like Mitzvah shows me and try to look up seductively, while still retaining my innocent college co-ed expression. It’s hard, and honestly a bit out-of-character for me. Shimmying was one thing, but teasing my audience is another. Later, Mitzvah tells me that burlesque is “what you’d be doing in a hotel room, if you were in a hotel room with someone who you should not be in a hotel room with. It’s the teasing and the tantalizing.”
While Mitzvah suggests I imagine an intimate setting to get into character, she also recommends I take a group lesson in burlesque. After some research, I decide on the New York School of Burlesque, where Mitzvah studied. I sign up for a 6:30PM class called “Burlesque Booty.”
The class focuses a lot on the booty. Nina LaVoix, our instructor, teaches us to twerk and isolate our butt-cheeks–moves I am unprepared for by Mitzvah’s short lesson. While different from Mitzvah’s instruction in its hip-hop-esque style, LaVoix’s class still pays strong attention to the tease in striptease. LaVoix yells repeatedly for the students to “tease it out” as we work our hands up the backs of our calves, thighs, and lower butt cheeks. She encourages us to use tension as we grip our legs, echoing Mitzvah’s advice that we should make the audience wish they could touch us. We dance to more contemporary music—Beyoncé, Missy Elliot, Usher—and despite the focus on twerking, the coy undertones remain. Even as I shake my butt suggestively at the mirror, I’m supposed to leave a little something to be desired. I can’t help but imagine my grandmother’s coquettish face on my rapidly twerking body.
This aspect of teasing continues to trouble me. I’m bothered by the way Mitzvah and LaVoix encourage me to present myself. I don’t believe in teasing, withholding, or ambiguity when it comes to sex, whether it be in discussions of sexual assault on campus or in my own sex life. I like the idea of women undressing on their own terms, but the use of the body as bait troubles me. I recall Mitzvah telling me that “burlesque is a striptease, but it’s more tease than strip.” I realize that I’m more comfortable with the strip than the tease.
At The 9th Note, Mitzvah has the crowd warmed up by the end of her hula-hoop, spanking-filled, intermission entertainment session. People are hooting and cheering, and several are noticeably drunk, including one of the hula-hoop contest participants. The last three performances of the show are met with loud roars of approval, and tips when the performers pass a hat around. At the beginning of the show, Mitzvah coached the audience on how to behave, telling us that when one of the performers takes an item of clothing off, we should “Clap, motherfuckers!” When the cheering isn’t loud enough, Mitzvah encourages us to yell. Sitting in the booth with four of my slightly inebriated friends, we are quick to follow Mitzvah’s instructions, but afterwards we all comment that it felt a bit odd to yell. The line between cheering for these women’s performances and heckling at them to undress seems a bit thin, even when you’re in a group of self-proclaimed feminists, eager to learn about the artform. During the video of Mitzvah’s YouTube messy housewife act, you can hear someone behind the camera yelling, “Lick it off!” about the cake and whipped cream. It’s a kind of weird command, and while I want to think it’s encouraging, it also sounds a little too similar to things men sometimes say to me on the subway.
When the show ends, my friends and I stand up, clap, and cheer loudly. The performers were truly impressive, and Mitzvah’s hosting was thoroughly entertaining. She raises a glass in her shiny, blue, 1950s dress.
In the early days of American burlesque, audiences mostly consisted of working-class men, looking to relax with a few drinks and a glimpse of some gartered thigh. After hearing Mitzvah talk about burlesque’s role as an empowering art form for women, I’m excited to see that the group at The 9th Note is much more mixed in terms of gender. A blonde woman in black sits with her bearded boyfriend canoodling in a corner. J Crew is holding hands with his girlfriend, and laughing with some female friends. Another group of women talk loudly at the bar. I recognize one of them as the hula-hooper, and decide to approach. It’s time to find out why these people come to The 9th Note: are they there for the bawdy critiques of femininity? Or, to holler at some boobs?
The women at the bar tell me it’s the first time here for most of them. They’re celebrating their friend Tina’s birthday. We bond over both being Sagittariuses—my birthday was a few days before—and I ask them what they thought of the show. “So liberating!” one of them says, and tells me she loved seeing all the different body types. I agree, and explain that that aspect was really refreshing for me too. Another one turns to me seriously and tells me that she feels totally inspired. “How can I be a part of this?” she asks excitedly.
In a different corner, I sit down at a table to talk to two men who look to be in their late-twenties. One of them, Nicholas, is a regular at the show, and the other one, Lee, is seeing it for the first time. Both are familiar with burlesque, however. I tell them it’s my first show and they ask me what I think. “I was really impressed,” I say. “And it was interesting to see women strip in this context.” Nicholas agrees. “You get to see a warm side to the performer—some of their personality.” “It’s sexual…but not,” Lee adds. As I take notes on what they’re saying, Lee comments that I’m writing really quickly. I laugh a little. When I thank them and turn to leave, he calls after me. “Wait—” he says with a grin. “Can you fast write down my phone number?”
For a moment, I’m disappointed in the sudden shift in tone and context. We’ve been discussing the non-objectification of women, and the “art” of burlesque. Both men have told me that they were impressed by the dancers’ ability to empower themselves through their sexuality. Yet, suddenly we are no longer three supportive fans having a conversation, nor a reporter and interviewees discussing a show. I’m a girl at a bar, and this is an opportunity for a pick-up line. I ponder the concept of the “bad fan” and wonder how they really watched the show. I wonder what Mitzvah would do if it was her number being asked for–I’m sure it’s happened before.
Suddenly, I remember her tutelage, and I know. I give him my best college co-ed smile, and coyly shake my head. In a dark bar, alone with two men, a harsh rejection is not always the smartest idea. Sometimes the “tease” is a necessary art to master, after all.
Fiona Lowenstein is a junior at Yale College. She is the Editor-in-chief of Broad Recognition.