The stage has been used as a platform, both literally and figuratively, to poke fun, enlighten and challenge contemporary norms for thousands of years. From Ancient Greek theatre to modern stand-up comedy, somebody somewhere has always been trying to make a point, to make the audience think, to challenge someone’s incorrect perceptions. The artform of burlesque started out as a way to parody something, like a caricature, by way of lewd jokes and musical entertainment. Over time, the American version evolved away from vaudevillian sideshow to a tantalizing and alluring form of performance art. It’s alluring because the female performers strip off their clothes on a stage. It’s tantalizing because unlike stripping and pole dancing, the purpose of the performance is not the objectification of the performer.
Cafe Nine in New Haven has played host to a number of burlesque shows in recent years. On Sat., Oct. 26, burlesque meets autumnal celebration with a Day of the Dead Burlesque Cabaret, a night of burlesque performance, games and a costume contest, hosted by local burlesque performer Dot Mitzvah. It’s the third year that New Haven is treated to a Day of the Dead-themed burlesque show, and the first entirely run and organized by Dot Mitzvah. She’ll emcee while Vivienne LaFlamme, Vanil la Frappe, Fruit on the Bottom and Bostonian burlesque artist Ginny Nightshade do their thing on the Nine’s stage. “Cafe Nine is a great venue for burlesque,” Mitzvah says. “It feels right.” This show will introduce Fruit on the Bottom and Ginny Nightshade to the Cafe Nine stage, and will include a tribute to a famous and seasonally appropriate film.
Mitzvah has been performing burlesque for about four years, and recently opened up the Ivy League School of Burlesque here in New Haven. She holds the classes and private sessions at Alisa’s House of Salsa at 817 Chapel St., where students find their persona and learn how to develop a stage presence, something essential to any burlesque performance. “One of the reasons that I fell in love with burlesque, as opposed to any other art form -- because I’m actually an opera singer and a performance artist -- is that burlesque is very body-positive,” she says. “It’s all-inclusive. As long as you can hold the attention of the audience, nobody cares whether or not you’re a size zero or a size 24,” she says.
The body positivity and empowerment of burlesque are two characteristics that separate the artform from traditional stripping. “To perform burlesque on the contemporary stage means that you’re taking your clothes off, but you’re telling a story. You’re not just grinding on a pole,” Mitzvah says. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” she’s quick to add. “I feel like I always have to add that. There’s nothing wrong with that, that’s just not what we do.” Mitzvah says seeing women “of every single shape and size” made her want to perform burlesque herself. “There is no sizeist attitude like there is in theater,” she says.
It seems almost everywhere has some kind of sizeist attitude these days. Women are constantly urged to be thinner, sexier, more desirable to men, and not just for the supposed benefit to our love lives. “Attractive” people make more money, have better career opportunities and are treated better in public, to name a few “advantages.” For women, “attractive” most often means “thin.” Not fitting into the societal beauty standard shouldn’t keep anyone from doing what they love, or what makes them happy. The size of ones body doesn’t preclude the development of talent or a desire to feel good.
Having a child is a life-altering experience that changes a woman’s body. These changes, some noticeable and some unseen, should be championed as a trophy of motherhood. The first Day of the Dead burlesque show at Cafe Nine marked Dot Mitzvah’s first performance back after the birth of her daughter, and she says the experience of pregnancy and motherhood has influenced her performance. “It really made me appreciate my body and how amazing it is for what it does, or what it can do,” she says. Her self-consciousness diminished as well. “Someday little Tot Mitzvah will come to my shows and be my little stage kitten,” she says.
Burlesque is come-as-you-are and be-who-you-are, and despite what pretend feminists say, is both inspiring and empowering. Couple that with an audience that has come to see a performance, not oggle some boobies or throw money in someone’s underwear, and you start to wonder why a performer’s body would even be an available topic for scrutiny. “People who come to see burlesque shows, they’re not the people who go to strip clubs,” Mitzvah says. “They’re not the people who really objectify women or men.” As emcee, Mitzvah makes sure the audience remains civilized throughout the performances, although she says that’s rarely a problem in New Haven. “If somebody’s acting out of line, somebody should call them out, and it shouldn’t be the performers,” she says. “The performers are there to perform. They’re not there to police the audience, and I feel like as the emcee that’s part of my job. To keep my girls happy,” she says. If they weren’t happy, they wouldn’t keep performing.
While the performers themselves will be wearing less as the night goes on, Mitzvah encourages all who attend come decked out in costume. You don’t have to participate in the costume contest if you decide to dress up, but why wouldn’t you want to? Mitzvah is cooking up some ridiculous games, ensuring that everyone who attends will be entertained. On the calendar for next month is a Guy Fawkes-inspired edition of Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School on Nov. 10. Mitzvah is Dr. Sketchy’s headmistress for New Haven, hosting the boozy drawing sessions. Recent political developments led Mitzvah to change the theme of November’s event from the “Scarlet Letter.” “I just got so disgusted and I said ‘We need to have a riot!’” she says.
If anything, modern burlesque is a riot of sorts, albeit a quiet one that really just wants to mind its own business while sticking it to its opponents solely with its existence. Burlesque riots against the norm of body shaming, against the notion that all women removing their clothes are subject to objectification, and against the idea that anything involving a naked female body is inherently pornographic. Rather than making a mockery of stripping itself, burlesque mocks the world its detractors think we all live in. The world where scantily clad women parade around in front of men for their amusement, regardless of what is available to them sexually “at home.” The world where mothers are shamed for breastfeeding in public because some rando is unable to categorize breasts as anything but sexual. The world where one must be under a certain size in order to be taken seriously. And that sounds like a really great place to be.
Day of the Dead Burlesque Cabaret, Oct. 26, 9 p.m., $10.