Soul Strip

Tucson’s burlesque scene proves it’s more about soul than skin

It's another hot summer night in Tucson, and the air is thick with this weird thing called humidity. It has somehow found its way to the desert, and just standing still is uncomfortable. However, that doesn't stop the Tucson faithful. One by one, bodies cram into Fourth Avenue's favorite dive bar, the Surly Wench, and wait, beer (or fireball shot) in hand, for the ladies to take the stage. The anticipation grows, the crowd buzzes, and then as if a mating call going out to the surliest of surlies, Montell Jordan's 1996 super hit "This Is How We Do It" blares out over the sound system. Stephka Von Snatch takes the stage and boom! The magic that is Black Cherry Burlesque happens.

Inga KABOOM!, Stormy Leigh, Lola Torch, Diamonda Morgue and Bunny Boom Boom. These ladies are the founding members of Tucson's very own Black Cherry Burlesque and are responsible for the trail of glitter that adorns Fourth Avenue on the first Friday of every month. They shimmy, shake, twirl, bump and grind their way into your heart, and by the time the show is over, not only are you marking your calendar for the next show, but you're writing home to tell the folks about it.

That's right. The folks. The average crowd at a Black Cherry show ranges from age 21 to age 75. There are people in wheelchairs, people on crutches, people who are deaf. Asian, Black, Hispanic, White, Middle Eastern, skinny people, fat people, gay people, trans people, queer people, drag people—they're all at the shows. Out on the street, these people may not ever talk to each other, but inside the Surly Wench, the ladies on stage are the E6000 superglue that holds them all together. The audience glitters and shines just as much as the ladies on stage (and have been for the last decade), thanks to the two bar owners, Inga KABOOM! and Stephka Von Snatch. I recently sat down with these two women, some of the troupe members, and graduates of their mentorship program Burlesque For The Soul, to find out what made them think that burlesque was that "one special thing" Tucson was missing in 2006.

From Punk to Pink In One Night

It was 2005, and the Surly Wench was now home to the old Double Zero crowd. The bar played punk rock and sold Schlitz beer. The bathrooms were covered with graffiti. The crowd was a mix of punk rockers, working-class skinheads (read: NOT racist Neo-Nazis) and rocker/metal heads. These were the pre-rockabilly days when the eyeliner was thick and the skin was thicker. Inga and Stephka were pretty comfortable with their crowd—these were "their people."

Then one day a traveling burlesque group from Canada came to town.

"We brought a traveling troupe to the bar and all of a sudden the entire mood of the crowd changed," says Inga. "It went from too-cool-for-school to happy, smiling faces, from all ages and backgrounds. It was magical."

Once Steph and Inga saw the crowd's intense response, they knew they needed to form a local troupe. Inga recalls a much older man, probably in his mid-80s, pulling her down to his level during that first show with The Fluff Girls.

"He told me that he used to be in the circus as a kid, and he would sneak peeks at the burlesque girls in the tents," she says. "Watching the show that night brought him full circle. He was enjoying it so much that he didn't realize how much he had missed it."

So they did what any good self-promoting business owner did in 2005: They created a MySpace page for the as-yet-nonexistent burlesque troupe called Black Cherry Burlesque. Yes, MySpace. Remember? Where people, pre-Facebook, went to launch music careers, get Friday night dates and keep up with friends. Chances are that if you were in Tucson in 2005, you probably had Black Cherry Burlesque in your "Top 8" MySpace pages.

They created the page as a way to gauge interest. The response was immediate: Questions and comments were flying in from one woman after another, eager to know when and where they could join. Inga and Steph had struck gold.

If You Build It, They Will Come

It was decided at the onset that Steph, aka Stephka Von Snatch, would not be performing with the troupe. If you've ever seen Stephka on stage, it's hard to understand why. She is genuinely hilarious, with a relentless "heckle you back" demeanor.

"I'm too shy," she says. "I've thought about it, and have helped Inga with acts, but I don't know. I'd rather just run my mouth."

And so she became the emcee, while Inga launched into both production and performance. And part of that production effort required recruitment; one pair of pasties—those shimmering rhinestone nipple and areola covers—does hardly a troupe make.

Enter Lola Torch, Stormy Leigh, Diamonda Morgue and Bunny Boom Boom. Or, as some like to call them, The Cherries. Mind you, other Cherries have come and gone, but of the founding members, these are the ladies that still drive you wild on First Fridays. None of them knew each other before joining the troupe, and so it is purely by the glittery blessing of burlesquers past that this group came together.

Lola Torch was already performing around town as a singer and was interested in putting together a cabaret/vaudeville type of show. Life did what it often does: happened. And so she never got around to it, until a friend of hers showed her the now-infamous MySpace page.

"I was so nervous," she says. "I only knew one other person there. I was incredibly shy, but I went forward with it and auditioned to be a singer in a vaudeville show. Two months later I was singing—and stripping." Ten years later, she is singing, stripping and floating high above the stage in a Lyra, as she cleverly (and carefully) disrobes while suspended in mid-air. I remember the feeling of mom-based fear mixed with estrogen-based power the first time I saw it. It is like the Old Pueblo's thunder and lightning—intense, sexy and scary as hell all at the same time.

Stormy Leigh wasn't among the Tucson hopefuls who saw the posting on MySpace. She came to the debut show and immediately knew she had to be on stage. Stormy grew up in the Golden Age of comedy: Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Benny Hill.

"I grew up watching variety shows," she says."There would always be hints of burlesque in the shows. I loved costumes and grew up taking dance, so when I came to the very first show the girls did, I immediately thought: I have to do this."

She's been doing "this"—shaking fake rubber roaches out of her dress for a striptastic version of "La Cucaracha" and turning Frankenstein into the sexiest-ass tasseling stripper you've ever seen—at the Surly Wench Stage for the last decade.

The last two remaining Cherries of the original troupe, Diamonda Morgue and Bunny Boom Boom, were invited into the troupe in 2006 and 2009, respectively.

These two ladies couldn't be any more different.

Diamonda tends towards the darker side of sexy, with acts that call back to A Clockwork Orange and the Tucson tradition of the All Soul's Procession. When she pulls out her rhinestone-encrusted knife for her "Jack the Stripper" act, you wonder why you all of a sudden tingle at the thought of a possible stabbing. Diamonda turns the unthinkable into your wet dream.

Bunny Boom Boom is your classic burlesque performer. She saunters and shimmies and damn near floats across the stage. She also has a booty shake that makes you wonder what exactly she has in that trunk. With homages to Marilyn Monroe and performances as the sexiest cocktail waitress this side of 1965, Bunny Boom Boom is a not to be missed.

She put in the work to get there. When she was coming through the ranks of burlesque, there were no training classes. She spent countless hours watching and learning, helping out during shows and being on the sidelines. She earned her pasties through glitter, rhinestones, and spirit gum.

But today there's a new crop of pastie poppers coming up the ranks, and it's all due to the call for something more in burlesque. Something real. Something authentic. Something for the soul.

All That Glitters Is Healing

In 2013 Inga KABOOM! began Tucson's first ever burlesque mentorship program called Burlesque For The Soul.

"Back in 2006, when burlesque was gaining popularity, it seemed like there was a formula for success that was attainable," she says. "I followed that formula to the detriment of my life. That formula (at the time), was 1: be photographed by the right photographer, and 2: get into the right festival, just to feel legitimized as a producer. I literally believed I had to become someone else just to be taken seriously, and that is where Burlesque For The Soul came from. I wanted to change that mentality. I wanted to, no, needed to believe that I could just be myself on stage and still tear the house down."

The first 10-week session of Burlesque For The Soul back in February 2013 dared would-be burlesquers to peel away any hurt, shame, guilt or fear they had been carrying with them throughout their daily life. The goal was to sort through and free yourself of those thoughts and present your most authentic self on stage. By the time the mentorship ended, the hope was that you were now free of baggage, free of the weight of the world and would be able to convey that through the art of storytelling in burlesque.

Inga threw out the burlesque "rule book", and called on the dancers: "Give me you." She challenged participants each week to step out of their comfort zones through a series of talk sessions, visualizations of peace and freedom (whatever that looked like for the individual) and self-empowerment mantras. In throwing away the burlesque rule book, she also made room for beauty in all its forms. There were tall women and short women. Black women, Asian women, Hispanic and white women. There were women that fit society's mold of what is considered beautiful, and women that would make Ruben eat his paintbrush. There was even a dude. Kind of.

The ALL Souls Parade

Rambo Reza, aka The Glitterpunk Ninja, joined Burlesque For The Soul in the most roundabout way—through Manly Manlesque, Black Cherry Burlesque's hairier, raunchier, less glittery baby brother troupe run by Stephka Von Snatch. She figured if the girls got to love themselves, and tell stories about their lives, so should the boys.

Rambo Reza was brought into the all-boys club, performing with the likes of Rooster Ruiz and Tucson legend Magic Kenny Bang Bang, but never quite felt at home.

"I was never a very conventional male," says Rambo. "I looked tough on the outside, but that was a facade I had built over the years to cover the scared person I was on the inside. One time, after performing with the ladies of Black Cherry Burlesque, Inga pulled me aside and told me that she really loved my performance. I was taken aback because she is a Tucson legend."

Rambo says that a few weeks later, Inga asked him if he wanted to join her mentorship program, He jumped at the opportunity: "It meant a lot to me to be accepted into an all feminine-space."

At the time, Rambo identified as a cisgendered heterosexual male, complete with tattoos, facial hair, muscles, a mohawk, and a badass motorcycle. All he needed was a tattoo of the word "TESTOSTERONE" across his belly, a la Tupac, and he'd win bro of the year. Except the more time he spent exploring his authentic self with Inga and the ladies of Burlesque For The Soul, the more he realized he wasn't a "bro" at all.

"Coming into Burlesque For The Soul and spending time around women, I felt more at ease because I didn't have to present this front around them like I felt I had to around men," he says. "Sitting down and going over our body insecurities and the heartfelt nature of our camaraderie—I felt so touched to be part of this feminine space. I felt accepted and like I'd finally found a home."

Today Rambo identifies as a transgender woman and considers performing as a male to be performing in drag. Though she no longer does that, either. Rambo left Manly Manlesque in May 2016 and now performs solely as a woman with the mentorship graduate troupe, Soul Strip. She says she had no idea at the onset of the mentorship that she would undergo this transition. The stage name "Rambo" was tied to this totally masculine alta-persona that she had created. But then even the name "Rambo" became an act of burlesque. It once represented this strong, hetero male archetype, but she's now a woman. Is that burlesque? You bet your rhinestoned, nether-region-hiding merkin it is.

Rambo wasn't the only non-conventional performer to cross the rhinestoned threshold of Burlesque For The Soul. Full disclosure: I was a member of the Burlesque For The Soul 2.0 mentorship class. Yes, that's right. Adiba Nelson. The non-pastied starlet writing this article. My stage name: The BIG Bang McGillicuddy—part homage to my physics-loving husband, part homage to the incomparable Lucille Ball.

You may be wondering why I refer to myself as non-conventional. And that's because I don't think I'm in any danger of gracing the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition in this lifetime. I am basically the complete opposite of what the media deems "beautiful." I am fat, Afro-Latina, have non-processed hair (i.e., natural hair), and a gap between my front teeth that you could once stick two quarters in. By most standards, there is no way I should have put my behind in some fishnets and pasties and strutted like a peacock. But because I'm maybe a touch of a rebel, mixed with a dash of Las Vegas showgirl, and slathered in a whole lot of "I could care less," I did. And since no one told me I shouldn't, I continue. Going through the mentorship program was one of the most empowering things I've ever done for myself. It has helped me become a strong body positive advocate for my daughter, my friends and millions of women around the world.

There is also Jacqueline Boxx, another mentee from Burlesque For The Soul 2.0, who doesn't fit into the conventional burlesque mould. Jacqueline is disabled (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome) and performs in her wheelchair, with her crutches, and sometimes, just on the stage without assistive devices. She is a force to be reckoned with as she demands you acknowledge not just her disability, but her innate power in spite of her disability. When asked by 3 Story Magazine why she chose to continue with the mentorship program, even after she realized she would need to use a wheelchair for mobility, she relayed an encounter she had with burlesque legend Rose Wood.

"I'll never forget her words: 'Challenge the notion that when people go to a burlesque show, they're there to be seduced. I am not on stage to be what they want me to be; I'm there to be what I need to be.' Those words stuck with me, and when I signed up to do Burlesque For The Soul, I needed power," she told the online magazine.

And power is exactly what she got.

In the time since Jacqueline has finished her mentorship program, she has created quite a name for herself. She has completed a West Coast tour; created a workshop called "Body Language for Burlesque: Performance and Beyond"; performed at the Academy of Burlesque; and is in the planning stages of bringing Burlesque For The Soul to her new home in Baltimore. She is creating visibility for performers with disabilities, demanding space for the performers who may have thought they had nothing left to offer, and giving a voice to the woman in the audience who says, "Oh, I could never do that."

Jacqueline, Rambo and I are proof that you can. And you should.

The proof is in the pastie, folks. There is a rhinestone for every type of body in the world of burlesque. The trans body, the fat body, the disabled body—they are all welcome and have a beautiful, authentic story to tell. Inga KABOOM! and the ladies of Black Cherry Burlesque are healing souls, one shimmy at a time.

The graduates of Burlesque For The Soul now perform regularly in a monthly show called SOUL STRIP. You can catch the ladies at 9 p.m. on the second Thursday of every month. Cover is $5. The next Burlesque For The Soul mentorship program (BFTS 7.0) begins July 18. Find more information on how to enroll here

About The Author

Adiba Nelson

Adiba Nelson is a local word addict, advocating for disability rights and body love/size acceptance. If she looks familiar, you may have seen more of her on stage as a local burlesquer. She is also the author of the children's book Meet ClaraBelle Blue, and is currently working on creating the series to follow...
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