About a month ago I ventured south for a long weekend getaway. New Orleans was the main stop on my journey, and before I'd been in the city a whole 24 hours, I found myself in the back of a club, engaged in an impromptu interview with some local talent. Two dancers, a contortionist, a snake handler, and a scantily clad Emcee happily answered all of my questions about the craft of Burlesque between sets, and I left my vacation thinking, "Wow! If only little 'ole Champaign-Urbana had public displays of sexy such as this!" Upon my return home I discovered that our quaint towns have a new burgeoning burlesque scene (detailed here, here, and here), and I was lucky enough to see Carnivale Debauche in action and chat with the talent after the show.
First I spoke with Ken Dahl, sole male dancer in Debauche's Fishnets and Feathers.
Emma Reaux: What is it like being the only male dancer in the troupe?
Ken Dahl: I love being the only male. I love playing with gender roles, and to be honest, I get along with women better.
ER: That James Bond-turned-cross dresser routine was pretty sexy. Did you have any qualms about dressing femininely for the show?
KD: No, I choreographed the James Bond routine myself [and] a couple of the other numbers, including my transformation, Syn Serendipity's solo, and the picnic scene.
ER: You work several jobs and are involved heavily in the CU community, are you nervous about who might see you perform?
KD: Every time I get on stage, I know there will be someone unexpected out there. It's kind of like Facebook — if you don't want people seeing it, don't put it up. If I didn't want people seeing me dance in a Burlesque show or cross-dress on stage, I wouldn't do it. I invited all my family, even grandparents and great-grandparents to the show!
ER: Yes, I saw your parents there! Aside from what people think, are you worried this could negatively impact your future? You're pretty young.
KJ: In my future I see a lot of theatre, and a lot of politics. Theatre is more important. This could ruin a political career, but that's something I'm going to have to deal with. When looking for a job, if someone doesn't hire me because of this, I don't want to work there anyway.
Next, I chatted with Bettie Leigh, the buxom brunette in Fishnets and Feathers.
ER: How did you get involved with this Burlesque troupe?
BL: I have always been fascinated with burlesque, pin up girls and outside-the-box performance art, but never had the outlet or opportunity to explore it more in depth. I auditioned, and countless hours of rehearsal later, I was on stage performing with Fishnet and Feathers!
ER: Were you concerned about how "racy" the show would get?
BL: [We] were definitely concerned with the classiness of the show. With burlesque, the art of the tease is the focus, not the actual nudity (even though that's still a pretty great part). The female form, the movement of the body, and the carefully calculated removal of clothing was at the forefront of every routine. The troupe's co-founders were very adamant that we adhere to the spirit of burlesque and make it about the performance, not the nudity. Knowing that basic burlesque principle, I wasn't worried that it was going to turn into something more obscene that might belong in other venues.
ER: I noticed women of all different shapes and sizes participating equally in Fishnets and Feathers routines.
BL: All bodies are beautiful! The goal is to appeal to a wide range of audience desires, so we have tall, short, smaller, larger, blond, red headed and brunettes — we have it all! No one should be singled out for a physical characteristic because different body types are desirable to different types of people. However, I realize I may not fit into the media's perception of the ideal female figure and I embrace that. So this breaks the mold to show that you can dance with as much grace and take it off with just as much sexiness as the girl half your size. When taking clothes off on stage in front of people, all those body image issues have to take a vacation because there's nowhere to go but to embrace what you have and share it. I said right at the beginning when we were developing our stage personas that I'm going to hold it down for the big girls!
ER: You work a job that might not mesh well with your public display of stockings and corsets. How do you handle that?
BL: Ask me about my hobbies in a professional environment, I'm going to say theater. Ask me over a PBR at Mike 'N Molly's I'll tell you all about the pasties I made. Typically, I'm a very open person, but I also know when to keep my trap shut.
ER: What feedback have you received post-show?
BL: It's been overwhelming! We have generated such a buzz that we have new shows being booked and people wanting to know how they can get involved. Most people I talked to didn't realize the grand scale and variety of acts we were going to offer, so it was awesome to really shake things up and truly entertain. The true test lies within our future performances. We'll see if we were enticing enough to pull the audience back for a second round of sexy!
Troupe co-founder and Ring Master, Billy Boudoir:
ER: Who is in charge of recruiting talent? Did you have tryouts?
BB: With a show like this the talent comes to you. We did have two tryouts in March and there were about four to six people who came up to me after the show and asked, "How do I get involved in this?" People that are interested in being a part of our little Carnivale can email me directly.
ER: What is Billy's/your role in the troupe?
BB: Billy Boudoir is the Ring Master of Carnivale Debauche. As our show develops Billy's role will also increase, and we will add all kinds of things overall. As far as my role in the troupe, I am one of the co-founders so I find rehearsal space, book new shows, offer guidance to the performers, and offer creative input, even when it is not asked for.
ER: With one show under your belt, what kinds of talent would you like to add?
BB: We are looking for stand up comedians, jugglers, contortionists, and ventriloquists. I am also looking to put together a sketch comedy troupe that would perform between acts.
ER: What kind of precaution went into rehearsals to make sure the female performers felt comfortable and respected within the troupe and during the performance?
BB: It is very important with this kind of performance that everyone is comfortable. All of our featured performers knew what they were getting into when they joined. We distinguish between rehearsals with clothes on and dancing with clothes off. On "naked" days we make sure that it is a closed rehearsal, meaning only those directly involved in the production can attend. All of our performers, including dancers and musicians, are professionals. If anyone finds her/himself uncomfortable, we stop, assess the problem, and move on. It is very important to develop trust with the people you are on stage with.
ER: I recently saw a burlesque show In New Orleans where the women lingered on stage a bit longer in their panties and pasties. Did your troupe encounter any regulations that prevented more skin from showing?
BB: We weren't given any restrictions. Audiences that consistently come to our shows will see more and more, and for longer periods of time. We are still testing the waters, but it won't take long before we do cannonballs into the deep end.
ER: You only have one male in Fishnets and Feathers, and he dressed as a female. Combined with the female performances, has anyone confronted you about this genre of art as exploitative of women?
BB: I haven't had anyone bring it up, which is weird. We're not forcing anyone to do anything they don't want to do. The performers want to do this kind of performance. It's very empowering — it's power over men and women. We have strong, intimidating women who get up there and bare all. But it's not a strip show. I would gladly go see an all-male burlesque show, and there are some out there! Boylesque is just as much fun. We just haven't had as many men interested in the tease portion of the show. It's harder for men to get into it because it's so out of their comfort zone.
ER: What did you think about the variety of people that attended your show?
BB: I loved the amount of support that showed up at the Canopy Club that Saturday night. I remember taking a look at the audience before the show and saying to myself, "This is way more people than I expected." I love it when Champaign-Urbana surprises me.
ER: You have two more performances in the next two weeks, not to mention lots of coverage of your troupe. Do you think CU is going to get burnt out on Burlesque?
BB: I don't think so. What's great about CU is that there's no scene here. Burlesque is so different every time you see it and we will constantly have new numbers and new acts in the show. We live in a town that's very transient, so we will always have new performers. Burlesque is making a comeback — there are troupes in Decatur, Evansville, and Chicago. It could be a fad, but I don't think so because it's such a cool performance style that combines many art forms, and allows for collaboration with local artists, musicians and performers!
ER: You received a less than warm review recently. Any final comments about your June 5 performance?
BB: This is our baby; we will nurture it and help it grow. We have professional collaborations with local folks who've done great things as far away as L.A. and Vegas, joining forces with us to make this even better. I am so incredibly excited to be a part of such an amazing group of performers. Carnivale Debauche and the ladies of Fishnet and Feathers will perform twice downtown over the next month. Once at the Cowboy Monkey for the Atomic Cocktail/WEFT on June 23 and then on July 2 in the Beer Garden of Mike 'N Molly's for another all-Carnivale Debauche show. People can go to our website or Facebook for more details.
A special thanks to Ken, Bettie and Billy for taking the time to speak with me about their labor of love. And a big congratulations to everyone of Carnivale Debauche for their amazing performances earlier this month — we're looking forward to more sexy excitement in the weeks to come.
Photos by Carnivale Debauche and Nicole Powers.