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The art of entertaining: Burlesque dancers make strides toward acceptance

Erin Tope performs as "Miss Tallulah Creant," doing the splits at Grandma's Sports Garden. She is the director of the dance group. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 10
Burlesque dancer Casey Dunn of Duluth dances as "Stella Blue" during the Duluth Dolls Homegrown Music Festival performance at Grandma's Sports Garden in Duluth. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 10
Danie Jimenez of Duluth dances during the Duluth Dolls Homegrown performance. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 10
Briana Olson of Duluth dances as "Roxxie Nyx" during Homegrown at Grandma's Sports Garden. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com4 / 10
Burlesque dancer Casey Dunn of Duluth dances as "Stella Blue" during the Duluth Dolls Homegrown Music Festival performance. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com5 / 10
Casey Dunn of Duluth, a burlesque dancer, does her hair before the Duluth Dolls performance during the Homegrown Music Festival. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com6 / 10
Jason Nordberg7 / 10
Burlesque dancers April Janssen (left) and Briana Olson, both of Duluth, visit before the Duluth Dolls performance during the Homegrown. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com8 / 10
"Miss Rouri," who would give only her stage name (right), and Erin Tope cheer on fellow dancers during their Homegrown performance. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com9 / 10
Sheila Matthews10 / 10

Briana Olson slipped into her red undergarments.

She asked if anyone had spray adhesive; it helps keep thongs and pasties in place. Other go-tos are eyelash glue or double-stick tape, she said.

Olson, along with other members of burlesque troupe the Duluth Dolls, prepared for a performance last week at Grandma's Sports Garden. On stage, they shimmied and stripteased as part of Homegrown Music Festival. On Saturday, they're hosting a beginner workshop from 7-9 p.m. at JEM Yoga and Massage.

Burlesque is often misconstrued, and the Dolls are making slow progress of being accepted in Duluth as art, said Sheila Matthews, assistant director. "The art is the art of entertaining," she added.

Burlesque is a classic form of striptease, usually involving theatrics, comedy and acrobatics. The emphasis is always on the tease. And although dancers do remove clothing, pasties and underwear are always part of the equation, group members said.

"Stripping, you mostly are doing it for the male gaze and for the money, and you get fully naked. In burlesque, it's more about the dancer and the aspect of owning or reclaiming your sexuality," said Erin Tope, Duluth Dolls director.

Classic burlesque also has a gown, gloves, heels, a panel skirt or a feather boa. What the Duluth Dolls do is technically neo-burlesque because it's more open with its themes, costumes and a mix of modern dance, ballet and hip-hop. "The pasties and the tassels are definitely staples," Tope said.

Instead of pasties, more traditional burlesque is a bra. "That's more my style because of my age, said Matthews, 62. She has been in the group since it started with five or six women in 2012. Today, there are 11 members.

Backstage, Danie Jimenez pasted tassels, or "ass-els" onto her buttocks.

"Are they spinning?" she asked, as she twirled her hips to her group mates' approval.

Many of the members have stage names. Matthews is Velvet Noir; Tope is Miss Tallulah Creant; Olson is Roxxie Nyx; but Jimenez is sans alias. "I used to have a stage name, but I just feel more like myself onstage than anybody else," she said.

Andrea Smith warmed up with the splits. Olson and April Janssen did a power shimmy before the group huddled for a pre-show pep talk. Be confident, smile, shoulders back, Tope said.

The main room at Grandma's Sports Garden was filled with chatter — men, women and light fog. The Dolls lined up by the stage. "It's a very visual show, no touching," said announcer Robert Lee.

During Tope's first act, she ripped open a lollipop. She slowly removed a jacket, jeans to a black leather suit with slits. Slowly, all that was left was pasties and a light purple "slingshot" (V-shaped underwear with suspenders). She did the splits to deep cheers, she handed her lollipop to someone in the front row and before exiting the stage, Tope blew a kiss to the crowd.

Performing didn't always come easily; Tope was shy when she joined the Dolls. "It took me a long time to feel comfortable being sensual and sexual," she said. "It was unlearning all of those lessons that society and media and my parents have taught me about how sex is wrong or sex is shameful, and you shouldn't be proud of your sexuality."

Tope is a classically trained dancer, and what drew her to burlesque is its flexibility. She can be funny, weird or gross, she said.

For Tope, dancing is about getting lost in the movement, being present in her body. When there's an audience, you can feel the energy, and you're both playing off each other.

While they've never had any incidents, they do offer a reminder at the beginning of performances not to touch the dancers. That comforts Tope, who said she relies on an idea of an invisible fourth wall between her and the audience: They can't touch you, and you can't touch them.

As a troupe, the Dolls have incorporated snow boots and overcoats into routines. Anything can be a costume, it all depends on the story you're telling, Matthews said.

She has several beaded bras and belt sets from her years as a belly dancer. In Tope's closet are four or five sets of wings, 10 hats, a lot of boas, unitards, black boots and a whole section of gowns.

Many of the Dolls make their own costumes, and they get pieces from thrift stores. For props, they go online or stock up during Halloween.

Wardrobe malfunction stories include a white gown that wouldn't unzip and an on-stage slip in fur-covered booties, Tope said, but there's always something you can do to save yourself. Whatever happens, she's learned to be kind because most people don't catch a mistake, they only see a performer having a good time.

On the Sports Garden stage, Olson smiled seductively and waved large blue feather fans. Tope and Jimenez bounded in matching outfits for a comedic duet. In a series of seamless motions, Casey Dunn whipped a hula hoop around her hips and feet.

Most people don't quite get what they are, Tope said. "We get called strippers all the time and slut-shamed." In those situations, it's helpful to have a discussion, speak eloquently and disagree in a respectful way. "That person attacking you has feelings, as well," she said.

Burlesque is where you feel the music and interpret it through movement. It's a celebration of the body and a way to express sexuality in a positive way, Matthews said.

And the artform that includes men is called "boylesque."

Jason Nordberg joined the Dolls three years ago. "They were wondering if they should call me something different than doll. No, no, I am a Doll. Guys can be a doll, as well," he said.

Nordberg brings a background of theater experience and staging. He does the graphic design for the troupe, as well as many supporting roles during performances. "You do whatever the show requires," he said.

For him, being onstage is secondary to the creative outlet of conceptualizing a show and working with the Dolls toward the same goal.

His style on stage is humor than sensual. During one performance, Nordberg wore a giant Charlie Brown head made of paper mache. For laughs, he made trying to take off his shirt part of the routine, before ripping it off.

He did wear pasties once, to a great comedic effect, he said. Not taking himself too seriously helps alleviate nervousness. And as far as the striptease, Nordberg has gone down to boxer briefs. "With burlesque, it's more of a show. The end goal isn't to be naked."

He was once asked by a man at a bar how he got to be so lucky to be a part of the Duluth Dolls. His answer, he recalled: "I put in the time. I'm not there so I can get with a bunch of girls ... I'm there because it's fun to put on a show."

Kristen Lemire of Duluth was in the crowd during Homegrown. They filled the room with their confidence, she said. "All body positivity. Makes you feel good when you watch it."

Added Kate Horvath: "It's artful, it's creative. ... Erin, her years of dancing truly show up in her choreography."

Robert Lee said the troupe is empowering and pro self-image. "It's not just a sexualized thing. What they do is tasteful and sometimes raunchy and fun," he said.

Burlesque is for every woman, man, however they identify, Tope said, and the purpose is to empower the dancer and engage the audience.

Their tips were to make eye contact, smile and slow down.

You want to be unbuttoning your shirt the whole time you're moving and still not opening it.

Slow moments change the dynamics of a number. That's where the audience can take in the richness of what's happening instead of being bombarded with movement.

"There's a lot of beauty in stillness," Tope said.

If you go

What: Burlesque for Beginners, hosted by the Duluth Dolls

Where: JEM Yoga and Massage, 16½ N. 1st Ave. W.

When: 7-9 p.m. Saturday

Admission: $20

More info:

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

(218) 723-5346