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Ginny Woolf: Progressive, Intellectual, Burlesque Madam

Ginny Woolf on stage

Ginny Woolf on stage (Photo courtesy Zachary T. Spadt)

Last fall, I had the opportunity to attend my first burlesque show, at a small venue in downtown Laramie. The two-hour performance, presented by Tropes Burlesque Laramie, featured music, magic tricks, comedy, an impromptu off-color bingo game, a skilled juggler, and beautiful, lighthearted women in various states of undress. Last Saturday, the Laramie company presented their second performance, this time at the Laramie Civic Center, in front of a standing room only crowd numbering in the hundreds. There were more performers, and everything was more polished, without losing the spontaneity and lightheartedness that made the first show special.

In attending those shows, I have become part of a new global audience witnessing the revival of a time-honored tradition. Burlesque was dormant for decades before it began springing up in cities around the world in the past few years. The spirit of the contemporary revival of burlesque is to give space to “the art of the tease” as an alternative to the explicit nudity and activity of contemporary representations of sexuality.

Ginny Woolf is the Laramie group’s “Madam”—director, promoter, and lead performer. She is comfortable, however, with an egalitarian role in the performances, preferring to present a couple of relatively restrained dances while some of the other performers are louder and more predominant. Ms. Woolf (who also adopts the persona “Bunny Burroughs” in some of her stage performances) is also a scholar, a reader of Chomsky and Hesse, and a committed political progressive. She laments that North Americans are “more comfortable with violence than we are with nudity.” In our interview, I had the opportunity to ask her how she negotiated these beliefs and identities, both on and off the stage.

POLITICALCONTEXT.ORG: Near as you can discern, when did burlesque start? And when was its “golden age?” I know that the Oxford English Dictionary defines burlesque as “a literary, dramatic or musical work intended to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner or spirit of serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects.” But obviously I’m talking about cabaret-style performances with sexual and satirical themes.

Ginny Woolf: When we talk about burlesque as it is most widely known world-wide today, the sexualized cabaret, it is an American take on the European satirical theater that really took its own form in the 1860s. Victorian style burlesque was quickly pushed aside for the racier shows that focused heavily on female striptease.

PC: Tell us when and how you personally developed an interest in burlesque. And, it’s one thing to have an interest. It’s quite another to start an entire troupe and show. What the hell happened with you?

GW: That is a great question – one my parents find themselves asking repeatedly. I wish that I had a more entertaining answer. For my friend’s bachelorette party last summer we attended a show in Denver at Lannie’s Clocktower. In the haze of the evening we started talking about how Laramie needed something like that, something to display the “other” Laramie artists that don’t normally get a chance to perform. With some strong encouragement from my friends, I agreed I would be able to pull it off. After parting ways with the Naughty Pines Derby Dames, I had a huge hole to fill. It was in starting the NPDD that I learned my talent is organizing people, advertising and producing events. Granted it isn’t a traditional creative outlet, but this kind of thing gets my brain flowing. I really needed a distraction from my thesis. Much like roller derby, this is very rewarding work. I get to watch women become stronger, more confident and more comfortable with themselves. Burlesque gives them a chance to become more accepting of their bodies. In addition, they form friendships and support that they would not have otherwise. I don’t think I would be able to pour so much time and effort into something that I didn’t feel was for the greater good.

PC: In the performances I attended, there were at least as many women in the audience as men- maybe more. They were especially appreciative and vocal about the most brazen displays of sexuality and naughtiness in the shows. They seemed much less inhibited than the men in the audience. Explain, please.

GW: I think there are a few reasons for this, but I can really only guess. What I can’t seem to grasp is why gay men seem to love it. Let me know if you find an answer to that one.

I think that the sexual revolution started the discourse for women’s sexuality. To think that men are the only perverts obsessed with sex is ridiculous. Oddly though the concept that women are just as sexual as men seems to have a long road to travel until those women who are open about it are not vilified. So I think one reason there are more women in the audience and one reason they are more vocal is that burlesque is an outlet where women’s sexuality is accepted and encouraged. I also think women imagine themselves in the role of the performer, and it is fun to see fantasies played out. The elaborate costumes and emphasis on sensual elements also seem to be more appealing to women.

My theory on the limited number of men and their lack of vocal appreciation is based on the environment of strip clubs. If men want to see skin they already have a socially accepted place to go. There are not many women in the audience, so maybe they feel more comfortable ogling boobs there. Strip clubs strongly discourage audience participation. You are supposed to sit there quietly and very still and drink your drink. So I think men who have been exposed to that type of environment might carry those expectations with them.

PC: I want to ask about body shapes: The women in your show, and in other burlesque shows, are not fashion-model skinny. And, there’s a lot of variation in size. There’s a sense in which the beauty of your performers violates the norms we are fed by the mainstream media, the corporate fashion industry, and even the corporate fitness industry. Thoughts?

GW: I agree that burlesque violates beauty standards fed to us by the media, and that is what I love about it. If you feel bad about your body you are more willing to buy beauty products, weight loss supplements, the latest fashions and / or join a gym in an attempt to achieve that look. It seems to be in their benefit to make us feel like big, beautiful women are not entitled to feel sexy. I heard all my life that being attractive is an attitude, but I never believed it until I started burlesque. I feel like I robbed myself of a happy sex life and happiness in general because I bought into the myth that I wasn’t attractive ENOUGH. I always felt like I should have had to work on my looks before I could be sexy. I feel like I owe my ex-boyfriends an apology for all the times my self-consciousness kept me from pleasure.

PC: What inspires your choices of music for your shows? Can you list a few classic burlesque musical tracks? Your favorites, or favorites of those in the genre?

GW: I am inspired by the old jazz and blues artists. I let everyone in my troupe chose their own music, so each person has a different inspiration. There are definitely favorites of the burlesque dancers such as “Stripper’s Delight,” “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” and “Harlem Nocturne.” I also love some of the classics like “Big 10 Inch Record,” “It Ain’t the Meat,” and “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl” because they offer a great chance for humor.

PC: There’s a light-heartedness, a little self-parody, and in general a willingness to laugh and feel randy at the same time, at these shows. Is the point that sometimes sex is funny? Or is there a larger point?

GW: I would say it goes with the literary tradition of burlesque in that it gives us a chance to contrast the seriousness with which we often treat sex publicly and in our own personal lives. North Americans in particular seem to be very conservative and serious about sex. We are much more comfortable with violence than we are with nudity, for example. We are afraid to laugh at ourselves. Exposing our bodies, even to someone we love, often makes us feel vulnerable. So many burlesque performers effectively use humor to make us more comfortable with the human form. Underneath it all burlesque is about having a good sense of humor.

PC: What goes into building a burlesque persona? Your performers have unique names, costumes, and personalities. How much are they influenced by historical icons of the genre, how much of it is original? Are there particular archetypes?

GW: Maybe I am a bad madam in that I haven’t really asked my performers why they chose the names they did or created the character they did. So, I can only speak for myself. I was heavily influenced by traditional burlesque performers. I want to produce the atmosphere of sexuality without actually going above and beyond what you can normally see at the beach. I would rather use the audience’s imagination than actually just run around nude. I take issue with many feminists so I emulated Virginia Woolf to kind of thumb my nose at them. I liked that it also alludes to booze, but most importantly I like the symbolism of the wolf. There isn’t much that is more controversial in Wyoming than a wolf.

There are archetypes that characters often fall into. I have two names to portray different attitudes. Madam Ginny Woolf is more serious, traditional and conservative. When I want to be the more humorous and overtly sexualized character I go by Bunny S. Burroughs. There characters that portray pinup models, sultry sirens, dolls, comedians, fetish performers, circus acts, fantasy characters, or you could group them by acts that focus on the strip, the humor, the dance, etc. I guess I don’t even know where to go since there are archetypes in the clothing style, character persona and in the theme of the act.

PC: I want to ask about another variance in the performances. Some of the performers are very comfortable about displaying their goods, laughing at themselves, really going all out. A few, though, seem shy and almost awkward. There’s a certain charm to that awkwardness, but is it just a learning curve, or is it a genuine difference in approach and style?

GW: I have to laugh [at that question] because it is endearing. I think that for some it is a style and more often unfortunately it is a learning curve. The reason I say that is I get to watch performers get progressively more comfortable with being on stage and being exposed each time they perform. I love to see them be more comfortable in their skin, but I love that charm of coming off shy.

PC: I know there’s a term called “neo-burlesque.” What you’re doing is clearly nostalgic, but it also contains elements of modernism and even postmodernism. Is your show “neo-burlesque?” Or is it timeless? Or something else?

GW: I would say that we are neo burlesque because we are so open to a huge range acts: both classic and modern striptease, dance of all kinds, comedy skits and standup, carnival acts, magic and music. My favorite acts are ones that can combine some of these elements. I would say that we are modern in that we lean toward the socially progressive thoughts. I believe that we can reshape our cultural environment into a more positive and healthy mindset. At the same time, we are also postmodern in that we enjoy subverting social norms by playing on the traditional dichotomy of genders, sexualities and power relations. Is there an option for D: all of the above?

PC: You’re a politically progressive individual. Your show supports, and is supported by, GLBT groups, and it’s a very affirming experience. Are there other political overtones or undertones in what you do? Do you think that burlesque has any kind of effect on political consciousness?

GW: I hope that burlesque can have an effect on grassroots political consciousness. I hope that we start a dialogue in the community that allows people to question beliefs and social norms in a healthy and positive way. I hope by questioning our institutions that we can understand how policies are hindering personal liberties and through a better understanding make changes to let us live up to the ideal of the “Equality State.” Our troupe hasn’t really addressed an overtly political topic YET, but other performers certainly create thought provoking, politically minded acts. Please watch this clip of Dirty Martini as an example.

PC: So I know a few fairly progressive, normally laid-back party animal types who are hesitant to come to your shows. They’re embarrassed maybe, or they think it’s silly and uncool. Any theories?

GW: I’ve actually been trying to figure this one out for a while now, and I am still not sure I understand it. I have one friend who is an artist, a liberal, a lover of the ladies and a general party animal who would not even be associated with me on social networking sites because I was a stripper. It is kind of funny considering I haven’t stripped in my acts yet. I also had a fairly open minded and progressive friend who refused to come to either show because her merely being there would make her a participant in the perpetuation of negative stereotypes of women. I was hurt to think that someone who knows me would think that I would create that kind of environment to begin with, but more hurt that she only assumed she would be offended. So maybe there is a confusion of burlesque with the negative social constructs surrounding strip clubs. I can see how the cheesy, campy comedy isn’t for everyone. I can also imagine some people being embarrassed by the topic of sexuality. I guess I am still surprised by how conservative and close minded some of my fellow party animals actually are. Maybe at the end of the day what we do is actually lame.

PC: The 2010 movie “Burlesque” sucked pretty badly, I think. Why did it suck? Or, if you disagree, then argue with me!

GW: I have yet to hear a good review of the movie. I heard it sucked and didn’t bother going. I heard other burlesque performers say that the movie isn’t really anything like burlesque. The cliché of small town girl waiting for her chance at stardom sounded horrible to begin with.

PC: Have you ever encountered criticism by feminists who see burlesque as acquiescence to patriarchal stereotypes? Even if you haven’t encountered that criticism, how would you answer it? Where would you situate burlesque in the feminist theoretical universe?

GW: I would place burlesque as post third-wave feminism. I usually throw a lot of reading their way, ask them to educate themselves on the topic and come back if they still have an argument with what we do. A good place to start is Naked Politics: Erie, PA v the Kandyland Club; The Rise and Fall of American Striptease; and Striptease: The Art of Spectacle and Transgression.

I am an active agent in what I do or do not do. This is my body and my life, and nobody, not men or other women or society, can tell me what I should do or not do with my body. Try and tell me that I am oppressed. I think instead of thinking in terms of male or female we really need to start thinking in terms of people. I don’t have daddy issues. I am sexually monogamous. I am educated. I do what I want to do and have loving and supportive friends and family that respect that it is my right to do whatever I want to do with my own body. I chose to make people think with mine. Saying that I shouldn’t be a burlesque dancer reinforces a patriarchal hegemony. I refuse to play a role in that system.

PC: I know you’re going to keep doing shows in Laramie, and I hope you’ll occasionally blog for us as well. What other projects do you have in the works?

GW: It should make my parents and advisors happy to hear that I plan on finishing my thesis soon and will start applying to PhD programs in the fall. A professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies department approached me about being a guest speaker in her department at the University of Wyoming. I would love an opportunity to speak about burlesque at an academic level and engage some of the critics. I don’t have any community projects in the works right now. Burlesque has eaten my life. I think I will just enjoy that for a while.

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About Matt J. Stannard

Policy Director for Commonomics USA, longtime writer, speaker, and legal & policy consultant on economic justice and public deliberation.