How do you simultaneously raise revenue for a theater, snap people out of the economic doldrums and see women dance seductively? Host a burlesque, of course.
That’s just what Daniel Smith of Astoria has been doing for the past year.
Burlesques involve everything from choreographed strip-teases to side show acts, and have been gaining popularity in the city for the past several years, but Smith’s show is the first of its kind in Queens.
Held every month at Long Island City’s Secret Theatre, the “Secret Burlesques” have been introducing a form of entertainment which had hitherto been confined to Manhattan and Brooklyn. The shows are creative and sexy, humorous and charged with energy. There are women in feathers, magicians in drag, vaudevillian performers and rock-star comedians.
The point? To have fun.
“Every actor is supposed to want to play Hamlet,” said Smith, who appears in plays at the Secret Theatre regularly. “But because of the way that everyone’s lives are right now, with the recession and the unemployment rate and the cost of living here … the idea of putting on a production of ‘Hamlet’ right now seems really silly to me. … Doing comedy right now is the most important thing we can do, because it’s what people need.”
While it may not be immediately apparent, pasties and lacey lingerie can be humorous. Secret burlesques are more than just stripteases.
Each dancer has a carefully constructed persona — a character whose sass, playfulness or steeliness comes through as each article of clothing is discarded. Costumes, props, music and choreography meld to create acts that become almost like stories. Whether it’s the dainty performer Bird of Paradise, flouncing about with pink bows, mischievously flashing a stuffed animal, or the voluptuous, puzzlingly named Grandma Fun twirling a paper umbrella, the intrigue comes from the performers’ creativity.
“It’s an art form,” said Smith, who dubs himself Dapper Dan when donning his emcee hat at the burlesques. “Taking clothes off is just a bonus. … What is really sexy about it is a lot of the performers’ personality comes out.”
Killy Dwyer, a singer, comedian and former burlesque dancer who has performed at two Secret shows, agrees.
“I get a little offended when people call burlesques stripping,” Dwyer said. “… most of the burlesque artists I work with are just such amazing artists, and they put so much effort into what they do, and it’s so choreographed. … You watch art happen … “
Despite the fact that the acts are meant to impart more than sex appeal, burlesque performers often fight against a powerful stigma.
“People judge you for doing this,” said Bird of Paradise, who performs regularly at the Secret and at other shows across the city. “They don’t understand how somebody can take off their clothes and still have dignity.”
That’s one of the reasons Bird of Paradise keeps mum about her burlesque life at the office. Her day job is at a “traditional, stuffy, corporate office,” as she puts it, and her clients are never to know what she does in the evenings.
Not all performers lead dual lives; some make their living performing. But all seem to love what they do on stage.
“It’s absolutely the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done,” said Bird of Paradise, who shifted from ballroom dancing to burlesque when she moved to New York in 2003.
Dwyer’s background is in acting, but she eventually moved away from theater and has found her niche creating her own exceptionally energetic pieces.
“I couldn’t ask for a better life,” she said. “I have a blast doing what I’m doing, because I can do whatever I want onstage.”
Nelson Lugo, a magician who has performed at the Secret several times, agrees.
“I came into this whole performance thing as an actor,” Lugo said. “It was a lot of fun, but there was something that was missing for me. A burlesque is … sort of very real.”
Queens residents appear to find burlesques fun, too. Many of the shows have sold out, and regular LIC theater goers are branching out from Shakespeare and taking in some shimmies.
The theater crowd is a special kind of audience, performers say, because they're used to watching passively, rather than participating in shows. While it may take some encouragement to get them oohing and ahhing, in the end, excitement runs high, making the experience gratifying for performers.
And, Smith says, the burlesques are good for the Secret Theatre and its resident company, the Queens Players. The Players are one of the borough’s most active theater groups, but their venue is tucked away under the 7 train, with a loading dock for an entrance, so the place is easy to miss. Now, with monthly variety shows drawing in new spectators, audiences are growing, and classic theater pieces often play to packed houses.