Go to any of the local burlesque performances and it's easily understood by the standing-room-only crowds that there's a following and that Tucson is a burlesque kind of town.
Yet that doesn't mean most people understand the difference between full-out stripping around a pole and the art in the creation of a striptease. It is about sex? You better believe it, but it's sexy, creative and sometimes funny.
Not knowing the difference between strippers and burlesque performers is one of the biggest challenges for people who give their hearts to the art of the 'tease—finding a venue that understands that and growing an audience that understands that, too.
That's what the Arizona Burlesque Festival is all about, and what its creators from the Don't Blink Burlesque troupe were thinking, plus it exposes an audience already in love with burlesque performers that put their pasties on in other parts of the world.
The festival, which begins today, Thursday, Nov. 13 and continues through Saturday, Nov. 15, brings us 2011 New Orleans Queen of Burlesque, Ginger Valentine; and Lili VonSchtupp, producer and star of the Hollywood Burlesque Festival, along with 30 other burlesque and boylesque performers (See sidebar for more info on the event, schedule and tickets).
Don't Blink Burlesque founder Fanny Galore says she still meets people who don't even know what burlesque is or stay away thinking pole dancing and drink specials.
"I would like to see the audience grow and the number of people performing in Tucson grow, too," she says. "But that audience we do have is so supporting and wonderful. We love them and continue because of them."
Galore, her stage name, was part of Black Cherry Burlesque in 2008, but left to start her own troupe in 2011, first performing at The Mint on Grant Road and while they perform at other local establishments, they call The Hut on Fourth Avenue home. Galore says it's a perfect location, plus the staff at The Hut have been good to them.
"When I first saw (Black Cherry Burlesque) I knew it was something I could really do and wanted to do. I have a BFA in dance performance and I approached it from that perspective. But you can be a theater person, a dance person and you can be a nobody and still make it in burlesque. But for me, it's a dance form."
Once the troupe started, Galore created a series of classes, for those experienced, but with the intention of creating a group of new and upcoming performers for the growing Tucson audience. Those classes now take place at her studio off Hoff Avenue north of Ninth Street at Fanny's Fox Den. Students get showcased in her Fanny's Fresh Meat shows.
"Tucson has an amazing scene, one of the best in the country, in my opinion, and I think the fact that almost everyone gets trained now before they become part of a professional show with us, explains why," she says.
Festivals are big right now in the burlesque community, and as a well-traveled troupe, members of Don't Blink have learned that the standards are high in Tucson and the now perfect opportunity for a festival. The two headliners, according to Galore, are two of the best Don't Blink have seen at national competitions and tours and both are good examples of the differences that exist in the 'tease world. Lili VonSchtupp has a comedic background, so her performances reflect that, but she's still sexy and sensual, Galore says. Ginger Valentine is classic burlesque, serious sexy without the jokes.
Besides convincing bars that burlesque is good fun and growing an audience, Galore says that other challenges exist within the performer's own families at times or explaining to co-workers and bosses that what they are doing really is about art. For Galore, going into burlesque was a way to tap into her sexuality and she's found a lot of women in careers like teaching and nursing, want to explore that part of them that doesn't get recognized.
Galore's husband is extremely supportive and her in-laws, too, but more socially conservative relatives have issues and so what Galore does in her private time, well at some family get-togethers it doesn't get discussed.
"Every performer has some type of family turmoil and I've seen people quit because of it," she says.
Galore describes her styles as a chameleon, with every one of her costumes meant to present a new feel from classic and vintage to a neo-look. "I'm always working on my technique and trying new things. What's great is that people never recognize me in person," she says, smiling.
"I look so different in hair and make-up from act to act, and that's what excited me," she says.
During a Don't Blink rehearsal at her studio, another obvious difference that comes across in burlesque of today is being body positive, recognizing all body sizes as sexy, and bringing boys into the picture, like long-time troupe member Matt Finish, one of only three male "boylesque" performers in Tucson.
Finish has only been in the scene for two years. The retired ballet dancer has a master's in dance and performed in New York for years. Part of his credentials includes a stint with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, a New York-based all male drag ballet corps.
Finish says he knew what burlesque was, but thought of it as "naked women woo-hoo," with no interest until he went with a friend one night to the Surly Wench to watch Black Cherry Burlesque. That was in 2011, and Finish says in about five minutes he changed his mind and later signed up for classes with Galore, joining her a year later in Don't Blink.
"I realized there were no rules and that appealed to me. I could create whatever I wanted and just throw a bunch of rhinestones on it," he says, laughing.
Finish describes his stage persona as the "golden boy of burlesque," funny with some traditional elements, drawing heavily on his ballet training. What he learned during his time with the guys from the Trock is that you can be silly and low-brow without sacrificing beautiful.
Yes, this is striptease and an audience needs to be trained to understand that, from how performers are tipped to the very fact that even if a performer does the best fan work in town, in the very end it's still not about watching fan work—but enjoying the human body, he says.
The third co-producer of the festival is Don't Blink member Scarlotta Sparkle, who came to burlesque as an amateur ballroom dancer and she uses that in her in burlesque, known as the "ballroom burlesque beauty."
Sparkle was one of Galore's first "foxes," taking a class in 2010 with the idea of it helping her Latin dance moves. She was on stage performing a year laer.
"It was different than ballroom and suddenly it was OK to be ridiculous and OK to try to be sexy and that was the point," she says.
"I got hooked and then I was able to take my background doing ballroom for nine years and blend the two together."
Burlesque, being a 180 degree difference from what Sparkle does in real life, is also what the fun is all about. There's the dance, art and sex appeal of the art, but there's also the audience. "They make you feel good when you leave the stage with their hooting and hollering."
"It's not about nudity. It's about sweet and sexy, or raunchy, but never naked all the way, so for some of our audience that makes it OK to enjoy it."
Most of the Don't Blink members make all their own costumes and do their own choreography, and there's an entire history that Sparkle says makes her appreciate the art form even more, like what Gypsy Rose Lee was doing. Now, there's more back story the performers put together, along with themes.
"That's the difference with what we do. We're out to have a good time on stage and we want the audience to have a good time," she says, adding that the entire experience has become something more important to her and other members of Don't Blink.
"We've become family, and that's probably my favorite part."