The Big Teaze

 

Standing “backstage”—if it can be called backstage when it’s not behind the stage and there is no proper stage — Cat (aka BamBam Chan) feels the belly-churning nerves that she’s felt so many times before. The idea of performing half naked (or more than half) in front of a packed house has never felt more alien than at this moment. She’s never considered herself brave, but in a way that’s the reason why she feels compelled to do this. Her fellow troupe mates are all around her: pressing on their false lashes with trembling hands, or scrambling to change costumes between their performances—a mélange of corset ties and garters and pounding heartbeats…just a typical Saturday.

The thrill of burlesque is more than just the naughtiness—it’s also a connection to the past, a chance to prove to yourself what you’re capable of, or to open doors to hidden parts of your personality. At the core of its enticement is that it’s enigmatic. It’s about revealing the artist while masking the artist. It’s about offering the audience what it wants, but wants to think they can’t have. It’s about what the artists have, and aren’t supposed to want to reveal. It’s essentially ridiculous and creative and sexual—the essence of creation itself—and expressing creation creatively is so damn meta it’s ridiculous. I might need to sit down, all this is making me dizzy.

Burlesque originated in the sixteenth century, a term that meant comedic (often bawdy) satire or caricature, usually of literary or theatrical works. Sort of like if Weird Al were sending up Shakespearean plays and we were all chortling into our neck ruffs. Since then it’s gone through a gradual evolution, making its biggest turn during the age of Vaudeville to become a comedic satire of sexiness itself. There’s a funny thing about performing a caricature of sexiness though: it kind of becomes even sexier.

One of the unique things about this dance (in an even more extreme way than other live performance arts) is the level of symbiosis between the dancer and the audience. Burlesque in a dead room is like one hand clapping (read my Letter From the Editor if you’d like an example). It takes the crowd’s enthusiasm—their overboard reactions to every movement and facial expression—to feed the dancer and fill her up with enough raw energy to reflect it back into the room. True burlesque is beyond a set of dance moves and costumes, it’s a shared experience where the performer is like a conductor moving the whole room in a symphony of howling and laughter.

There are many reasons to take up this art form, and many ways to perform it. The 14 or so members of the Malteazers, a collective of burlesque artists who perform at the Maltese on the first Saturday of every month, have them pretty well covered. With no official choreographer, the creative direction and group performances are an organic process unique to each combination of dancers. They agree on a theme, and then work out their numbers individually or in cooperation. Rumor has it that among the many unique skills that each performer brings to their act, they boast the talents of a professional dominatrix, and a yo-yo master who USES GODDAMN YO-YOs in her act. Several of these bold and lovely creatures were kind enough to share their experiences with me this week— let’s all get to know them!

Who are you people? Why do you do this? 

Sparks: I go by Sparky in normal life, and I usually go by Sparks for burlesque (or Sovereign Sparks, to be classy). I have a theater background, and since I was a kid I was attracted to the stage. I had my first burlesque performance at the Women’s Club last summer with “Everybody in Outerspace Wants to Go to Japan.” My shtick, I guess, is not really doing burlesque in a burlesque fashion. I’ve danced to a range of music: The Mad Caddies, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Marilyn Manson, and Mindless Self Indulgence. It’s just really fun to take it outside the box for me.

Angela Lombardi and Nicola Beattsyerarse (the owner, and the manager of the Maltese) asked if I could get a troupe together in September and keep a show going each month. I agreed, not knowing really that much about what I was doing. I don’t know a lot about burlesque myself—always learning—but the performers never disappoint the crowd.

It was originally just my friends, my girlfriend, and me in the first show—but it took off, and so many more came into the picture: women, men, drag queens, crossdressers, costumers, shy people! The reason I do it now is for the way the performers act after they exit the stage. Their faces glow, they scream, they hug everybody, they say never in their lives have they felt so empowered or pretty or special. And they all say, “I cant wait for the next show!” It always feels like the first time, because there are always new faces, new costumes, new dancers. We all get along so well. I could sit with any of you lovelies on any day. I’m so happy to have you all in my life.

BamBam Chan (Cat Campbell): I do theatre, short films and a little bit of modeling here in Chico. I started doing this at the Chico Cabaret’s Holiday Burlesque in 2010. I have been a member of the Malteazer’s since late last year. I focus mainly on classic burlesque using music from the 40’s and 50’s. I’ve always been fascinated by burlesque ladies. They seem so confident onstage. I don’t consider myself a dancer by any means, but I love the stage. I’m fearful every time I head up to dance, but I feel like it’s something I have to face. I need to feel the fear and embrace it in order for me to make myself a better person. There’s also nothing quite like the roar of the crowd!

Lada Noir (Maddy Westcott): I am an artist, a musician, and have been a part of a few projects around Chico. When I was younger, I took ballet, tap, and irish step dancing. I have been a member of the Malteazers since December. My style is more on the classic side of burlesque as well.

I started because I had recently become single and I wanted to do something drastic and a total self-esteem booster. My first time I was so thrilled and nervous to get on stage, I didn’t know what exactly I was going to do, but once I got up there, I just started dancing! I don’t remember any of it at all. It felt like I was up there for 30 seconds instead of 5 minutes.The whole audience was digging it, and at the end the huge round of applause was pure ecstasy; completely boosted my confidence to do more! After that I was hooked.

It’s also a beautiful art form, and it’s so fun to come up with what character you are going to be and how you will perform. The Malteazers welcomes anyone who wants to try it and see for themselves, which is another reason why I love to be a part of it every month!

Lotus Le’sasche (Annie Eblin): It is totally out of my comfort zone, and literally out of my clothes. And not wearing clothes can be pretty comfortable too. I have absolutely no experience doing anything ever, and Sparks has been so amazingly supportive and inspiring. She even lets me wear my coon skin hat.

Sparks: You look amazing in that hat!

Original Sin (Alyssa Larson): I’m classically trained in ballet, also have a lot of years of modern, jazz, hip hop, etc. and do some local theatre. This is the first time I’ve been involved in a burlesque, and I love it. I don’t necessarily have a schtick per se, except that my numbers tend to be the most technically choreographed.

This is the first burlesque thing I’ve done. What’s really cool about it is that there are no boundaries in terms of how wild or weird you can be, and some of the best stuff happens when you just break down and improv. That’s electrifying. The interaction with the audience is so much better than with most performance types—you’re sort of dancing with them, not at them.

I’ve done two Malteazer shows so far: the “Nightmare Before Christmas” theme, where I played half of the bipolar Mayor, and the “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” where I smeared swampy body paint all over myself onstage. That was a RIOT. Last month, Black Betty (Becky Holden) and myself did a voodoo/witch-doctor/possession themed duet for the “Masquerade” show. I’m not onstage this month because of scheduling stuff, but plan to do many more in the future.

Margaret Jones: I have no stage name yet, but it’ll probably end up being Mistress Magpie or something similar. No shtick, no experience (except for a delightful duo with Alyssa). I enjoy being part of burlesque because of the aspects of freedom and exploration, both in part of the dancers and the audience.

Lula Mae (Mollie Bolin): I moved here from Ohio in 2010 with hopes of one day becoming a part of the burlesque community. I have always loved burlesque, and at the end of 2011, had my first experience with it. Ever since then I’ve been hooked. I’m so lucky to have found a great group of girls who also have the same passion.

I’ve been a fan for as long as I can remember. It’s empowering to show the audience what you have to work with. Burlesque makes me happy; it’s the only thing I’ve got going on these days besides work. I feel beautiful performing on stage. It’s surreal, unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. The rush of performing, all eyes on you, seducing the audience and hearing them cheer you on—it leaves you wanting more.

Rachel Baumer: I don’t think I’ve done anything that has felt so liberating before. Doing this has made me able to embrace my femininity on a whole new level. I have to say, it’s an electric kind of adrenaline rush and there’s nothing quite like it.

Betty Ren (Lauren O’Connor): I’ve been doing theater since high school, and locally in Chico since 2010. I’ve performed with Butte College, the Cabaret Theater, Blue Room, and in Keeping Dance Alive in 2012. My specialty is nipple-pasty tassel twirling (I could teach you, but I’d have to charge…).

I refer to myself as a former misogynist and “born-again” feminist, so for me personally to do this is a statement on owning my feminine sexuality. When I’m up there I’m breaking down the entire mother-whore dichotomy that patriarchal culture chains us women to, and that is the most important thing in the world to me.

This experience is unique in many ways. The audience is pretty much right there in your face; the first time I performed the intimacy shocked me for sure. Also, the spontaneous creative control is exhilarating, and I’ve come to enjoy loosely choreographing and improving in the moment. Once I’m in the zone I literally feel like I’m dancing alone in my bedroom.

Burlesque is about confidence, sexuality, and empowerment; what more could a girl ask for? Traditional vaudeville style involves a lot of sketch comedy, and though our show is more about the dance routines exclusively, I think the underlying history comes through with how we present it.

Satine Sheets (Nicola Beatts): I performed in the first Malteazers show, then had an unfortunate air guitar accident which dislocated my knee [Editors note: WTF?!?]. After that I hosted a show, then bartended a show. I am returning this month to performing. I find it oddly empowering. The ladies I have met through this troupe have become some of my closest friends, and that’s wonderful!

 

The Malteazers perform on the first Saturday of each month at the Maltese Taproom. Admission is a mere $5, starts at 9pm

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Managing Editor for Synthesis Weekly. Amy likes to make clothes, plant flowers, and chase butterflies.