Students in Professor Lisa Phillips’ Literature of Journalism class were assigned to immerse themselves in the unfamiliar. Here’s what they found:
Sabrina Petroski auditions for the SUNY New Paltz burlesque troupe to learn more about the performance and body confidence.
Do you ever walk into a room and feel like you’ve been transported into an alternate version of reality? There are people you recognize, although you don’t necessarily know them personally; they seem different in this setting. I walked into the classroom and a room full of people stared back at me. Out of my element, I smiled.
“Is this the burlesque club?” I asked warily. The girl sitting closest to the door waved me into the room. I took a seat in the back of, hoping to go unnoticed for the rest of the meeting. Spoiler alert, they noticed me.
During the spring 2018 semester, the SUNY New Paltz burlesque troupe had their ten-year anniversary show entitled “Nymphs and Nudes,” which gave the performers a chance to explore themes of nature and space. Part of joining the troupe required creating a burlesque persona and performing in its show.
“You can be anyone you want to be,” said performer John Wayne. “Make your persona the person you’ve always wanted to be but were never confident enough to explore.”
The persona I came up with is Vesper Monroe. She is a 1940’s movie star, with a very classy and confident air about her. She has her hair perfectly curled, her beauty marks filled in, and her red lipstick on. The name was hard to come up with, but I had an idea. When my parents were coming up with names for me, my dad suggested the name Vesper, after the Bond girl in Casino Royale Vesper Lynd, but my mom said no because it “sounds like a stripper name.” It seemed appropriate here. Coming up with the persona made it easier to leave my worries behind when going on stage because technically it wasn’t me going out there, it was Vesper.
Other people had more in-depth personas. One performer, Holden Wood, joined burlesque as a way to explore gender interpretation and to become more comfortable in their skin. The name was chosen purely for the pun, and during many of their performances, they incorporate a stick or something wooden to signify their penis.
“Holden is everything I see my ideal self being: funny and handsome, but silly and curious,” they said. “I gained confidence onstage by recognizing that Holden is an extension of myself who just wants way more attention. I perform to feed the fame monster and keep Holden satisfied.”
Maria Amor joined burlesque to learn how to love her body and come out of her shell. Maria came from her middle name and Amor comes from her latina roots. She feels like she has a lot of love to give. Maria Amor is a lady in the streets, but when the sun goes down she becomes an empowered woman who is not afraid to show off her sexuality. Although she is not a performer, she does work as a kitten, which is a stagehand. They pick up the clothes after each performance and help out backstage with organization to make sure the show runs smoothly.
“I’ve been more comfortable coming out on stage by basically just not giving a f**k what others think,” Maria said. “There are so many big, beautiful women like myself in the troupe, and I love that they will always have my back if I need it. My persona is me breaking out of my innocence and expressing myself in a way that makes me feel sexy.”
Because this show was an important anniversary, the troupe’s Moms, Miss Kitty Carey and Cecilia Sin, had to approve all of the acts. As a dancer, I was able to use my skills as a choreographer to come up with an act. The issue I had was taking off my clothes in front of strangers. The day of the auditions was nerve wracking since I didn’t know anyone yet. Everyone was in their lingerie and makeup, stretching in the dance studio, chatting and laughing with their friends. Some girls were discussing how their Friday night was “lit” and how hungover they were. Others were comparing lingerie and butt sizes.
“Do you think I should start doing more squats? My a** is looking a little flat,” one performer said.
She was wearing a white lace lingerie set with a fuzzy white bunny tail. Her garter belt clung to her hip bones, the straps holding up white thigh high stockings. The other girl slapped her butt lightly and smiled.
“Definitely not,” she responded. “It’s a nice hand full.”
The auditions consisted of the people in the troupe sitting against the back wall, watching the acts one by one. I went somewhere in the middle, and I was shaking like crazy. After every audition the troupe hooted and hollered, yelling things like “yes queen,” “get it b***h” and “you slay.” It made it a lot easier to feel confident when people I didn’t know were cheering for me.
The Alpha Psi Ecdysia burlesque troupe is an official registered troupe, which means there are certain rules they have to follow while putting on shows.
Taking clothes off in a performance styleis a part of burlesque, but not everything can come off. When shows are held on campus, the performers can’t show their nipples, and must have on, at least, an opaque thong. To cover their nipples, performers will wear pasties which can be tape, stickers or more creative stick ons that are held on with a product called Spirit Gum. Alumnae of the troupe, Timid Orchid, took on the role as costume designer for whoever needed her services. She made a beautiful and flowy, multi-piece costume for performer Scorpio Paradise for his performance of the song “Venus” by Lady Gaga, as well as purple and silver pasties with tassels for a group performing to the song “Extraterrestrial” by Katy Perry.
The second rule, despite popular belief, is absolutely no lip syncing. While performing, the burlesquers can’t sing along or mouth the words because it takes away from the act, and the more experienced performers say it is amateurish. People usually don’t know this rule since drag performers lip sync their songs, and even drag performers are told they shouldn’t lip sync until they have at least three years of performing under their belts. Though the two styles of performance are considered sister styles, the performers ability to lip sync is a key difference. This was a difficult rule for me to stick with because the songs are so catchy and mouthing the lyrics helps me remember my choreography- Miss Kitty Carey had to keep reminding me to stop. Because we can’t lip sync, facial expressions are of huge importance.
“Make me feel what you are trying to convey through your facial expressions,” said Strawberry, a drag queen in New Paltz and the founder of the Black Magic Burlesque troupe in New Paltz.
The third rule is to only take off what you’re comfortable with the audience seeing you in. Since burlesque is all about self love, the troupe tries to create a comfortable environment with no pressure on the performers to do more than they want to. Also, the other troupe members were constantly complimenting each other, making sure to tell their friends how great their act was or how nice their outfit is. Some people wore the bare minimum, like the troupe “aunt” Marlena Magdalene. Others, like senior Holly Rodgers, stayed mostly covered. It all depended on how comfortable the person felt in front of people. I went out of my comfort zone and tried taking off a decent amount, so I was just in a bra and underwear at the end of my act.
The last two rules are more for the audience members than the performers, but are just as, if not more, important. The fourth rule is Burlettiquette, meaning how the audience should act during a performance. If a performer takes something off the audience should cheer. If a performer does a cool dance move the audience should cheer. When the performer finishes their act the audience should cheer. And the fifth rule is absolutely no pictures. It is announced multiple times that phones are not allowed to be out during the show. If someone is caught taking pictures or videos they will be removed from the show and they will be forced to delete the pictures and videos they took. It is very strict because the troupe must feel comfortable with what they’re doing; unconsented photographs are not allowed and the use of cell phones is distracting to performers.
The show was held in Parker theater on March 30 and 31. There were 17 performers, including alumnus of the troupe who came back for was the ten-year anniversary show. Before the performers went on, the kittens warmed up the crowd with some go-go dancing, then the hosts came out to start the fun. Everyone was backstage blasting pop-punk music, throwing glitter at each other and stretching. At five-to-curtain we joined hands in a circle and the Moms gave speeches.
“Thank you for making the past four years of my life so special and teaching me how to be confident in myself,” said Cecilia Sin, while wiping a tear from her eye.
“You made my gay, gemini a*** a proud momma,” said Miss Kitty Carey getting a laugh from all of us. “Now let’s go out there and give all the guys boners.”
We then did “pass the pulse.” Participants squeeze each other’s hands, sending it around the circle until it reaches the person who sent it. To try and get rid of some nervous jitters, the group did sixteenths, which is where you shake each limb sixteen times, then eight times, four times, two times and once more for good luck.
I had never been to a burlesque show before, but the audience’s energy was a lot different than that of a dance show. People get very into the performance and are encouraged to hoot and holler. I liked being able to watch the other acts and to cheer on the other performers. I know how great it made me feel, so I like to give it back. Interspersed into the show was audience participation; the hosts Busty Keaton and Prinsex Punk pulled up volunteers and asked them astrology questions.
“How many astrology signs are there?” asked Busty Keaton.
“What month is a scorpio born?” asked Prinsex Punk.
If the participant got the question right they got to stay on stage and take off an article of clothing, and if they got it wrong they were sent back to their seat. The winner of the audience participation got a little gift basket with Easter and nature themed things.
I performed in the first act of the show. I was the third performer following up Cecilia Sin and Timid Orchid’s acts. I performed choreography to the song “Cosmic Love” by Florence and the Machine, but had such bad stage fright I almost chickened out. The lingerie I wore was black and I bought it specifically for the show. I had a lace garter belt, thigh high stockings and black heels. Though I’ve danced my whole life, doing a burlesque act felt completely different. While waiting backstage there were other people from the club giving me words of encouragement and hugging me, which really helped calm my nerves.
“You’re hot as f***,” Miss Em said. “If you forget your choreo, just shake your a**.”
Opening night jitters were worse than the second night. I forgot a whole chunk of my choreography and ended up having to wing it. The second night I felt a lot more confident and was able to perform with ease. The crowd’s energy and cheering helped keep me feel confident while doing something that was so foreign to me.
When I came on stage, there was a blackout. When the lights came on, the music was supposed to start but it didn’t. I stood there for a few seconds, and I could feel my anxiety climbing, but quickly realized that it literally could not get worse than that, so I played along. I started looking around at the audience, and made a hand motion as if to say, “hello, cheer for me.” The crowd started to cheer and my anxiety was gone. Once the music started I was able to push it all aside and perform better than I ever had before.
Originally it was really nerve wracking that there were people in the audience that I knew from class, or that were friends with my brother. It actually really bothered me until I realized that they paid to come see me perform, and I guarantee they won’t find it as awkward as I do.
Burlesque has been a really important part of this semester for me. Although I only started going because I had to pick a subculture to immerse myself in, it quickly became a safe place for me to express myself. Growing up, I struggled with an eating disorder, and I still have body dysmorphia that makes it hard for me to be a confident person in my everyday life, but the people in Alpha Psi Ecdysia have been so supportive and amazing. There are people I was able to get really close to in the short period of time, who I now consider my best friends. I feel so much better about myself now and think Vesper Monroe has seeped into my actual personality. I’ve decided to stick with burlesque for the rest of my college career and to build upon my persona.
The final show of the semester was a house show, held at Cecilia Sins house near Main Street. It was a circus themed walk through experience with four acts in each room. While walking through, the groups could watch three performances: one in the basement, one in the dining room and one in the living room. It was three dollars to get in, but after you paid you could walk through more than once. I did an act with Busty Keaton, where I was a lioness that needed to be tamed. I wore a lace bodysuit with red pasties made by Timid Orchid. Busty Keaton wore leopard print lingerie, and we both drew leopard spots on our faces and thighs. The house show was much more intimate, with the audience being only inches away. The house show was a lot easier for me because I have become significantly more confident as Vesper Monroe as the semester progressed. Busty Keaton and I were the last performance of the night and before we went on we each took a shot of vodka and pinky promised that no matter what happened we would do our best.
Read more about #ImmerseYourself here:
Meg Tohill examines the library and late night study room till 4 a.m., observing and conversing with other students finding a haven in the library.
Matt Schenfeld goes underground exploring house shows and the performers of New Paltz’s music scene.
Trish Mollo stays committed to a 6 a.m. start at the gym to delve into the minds of the gym rats that seem to live there.
Alicia McGowan observes the rugby team and how they handle practices, games, losses and life.
Emily King is a farm girl at heart, but keeps that a secret as she accompanies the Sustainable Agriculture Club on campus and discovers what they think of the future of farming.
Maeve Allen watches puppets perform during a rehearsal of Avenue Q, where the theater department students express themselves through their characters.
Bryan Godwin watches band MoonUnitt who is new to New Paltz perform and light up the house show scene.
Max Freebern is confused about this wave of music new to him called Noise music, but he sits back and lets it surround him.
Sabrina Petroski joined the SUNY New Paltz burlesque troupe for their 10-year anniversary show where she learned more than just the art of burlesque.