Proving Des Moines is NOT boring

10 or so questions from Ben Gran: the Iowa School of Burlesque

I enjoy watching women take off their clothes.

So when I was offered the chance to interview the lovely and talented ladies of the Iowa School of Burlesque, I eagerly said “Yes.” (Actually, I didn’t technically say the word “Yes,” but I did nod my head vigorously while making high-pitched whimpering sounds.)

BurlesqueI devoted two full weeks to preparing for this interview by researching burlesque dance videos online, even though it meant ignoring my family responsibilities and abandoning my freelance writing clients. I won’t be able to pay the mortgage this month, but it was totally worth it.

Here is what I learned from my extensive “online research” (ahem) about burlesque:

  • What is burlesque?

Burlesque is a style of dance that combines elements of striptease, comedy and theater. Burlesque dancers slowly strip out of their elaborate, multi-layered costumes in a coordinated and highly stylized fashion. Burlesque is AWESOME.

  • Do burlesque dancers get totally naked?

Almost. The women often keep their tops on, or if they do take off their bras, they wear nipple coverings called “pasties.” Pasties are often sparkly, shiny, or connected to tassels. Pasties are AWESOME.

  • Are burlesque dancers the same as “strippers?”

Not exactly. Burlesque is more complex than what you might see at a strip club. Burlesque truly puts the “tease” back in striptease. Burlesque dancers are coquettish, witty, sly and often a bit humorous. Again, burlesque is AWESOME.

  • Is burlesque “dirty” or sleazy or degrading?

Not unless you want it to be! Rowrrrr! But seriously, the answer is no. Burlesque is a fun, positive thing for women and men to experience together. Burlesque is not just about sex, it’s a unique art form for exploring complex themes of empowerment, body image, self-confidence, gender identity, sexual identity, and much more.

I met with Iowa School of Burlesque founder Phoenix L’Amour and her protégés Leo LaFlash, Mae the Force, Maddie Moiselle and Gin Appropriate (their burlesque stage names) at their dance rehearsal space, where we discussed getting arrested for your art, the true meaning of “sexy,” and the legal definition of “underboob.”

So, what is burlesque all about? What does it mean?

Phoenix L’Amour: It’s about a lot of things – art of striptease, satire, comedy, politics, current events, feelings, artistic expression…

Gin Appropriate: Theater, sparkles, body image.

Why did you want to be burlesque dancers?

Gin Appropriate: I like attention.

YES. Me too. That’s the whole reason I do stand-up comedy.

Leo LaFlash: I was a theater kid, and I saw Dita Von Teese in the Marilyn Manson “mOBSCENE” video, and I’m not a lady-lover but she was really doing it for me in that video. So I read up about the history of burlesque and I fell in love with it.

How long has the Iowa School of Burlesque been around?

Phoenix: 2 years. I started out in Ames, doing some classes in Ames, then realized that the hub for burlesque is in Des Moines. We recently started the Apprentice Program.

We do three big shows a year, called “Underbusted.” Our February and October shows are always themed, and our June shows are everybody’s showcase. We also started a show in Ames called Varietease that goes on twice a year.

Who comes to the shows? Who’s your audience?

Maddie Moiselle: All across the board – students, retirees, moms and dads. You will not find a more unique fan base in Des Moines.

It’s not like, an “R-rated” thing, right? More PG?

Mae the Force: We have done shows with kids in the audience and we toned things down a bit.

Maddie Moiselle: Sometimes we hump the audience members, or make it appear that we’re…squirting things out of our orifices.

I’m not an expert, but I do enjoy watching women get undressed, and I know that with burlesque there are so many variations – subgenres of burlesque, right? Fan dances, balloon dances, classic striptease…

Phoenix: We do neo-burlesque, we try to be new and experimental. Every show we try to one-up our last show.

Gin Appropriate: We’re all different as individuals.

Leo LaFlash: I think it’s cool that we’re all doing different things. Different styles.

Maddie Moiselle: Otherwise it would be just a terrible stripping dance recital.

Phoenix: We try to make burlesque INCLUSIVE of other arts. We often have live bands performing along with us at our shows, we want to make it a bigger thing, strength in numbers.

When did burlesque start, like, Roaring 20s? 19th Century? Earlier?

Phoenix: Different schools of burlesque talk about different starting points, but I believe that the Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes was the original father of burlesque, because he got the audience to laugh at themselves. Burlesque is about humor and mockery.

It does seem like there’s a lot of humor and tease to burlesque – coquettishness. There’s more of a theatrical element to it.

Phoenix: It’s live theater, so anything can happen.

Maddie Moisell: And does.

Is Iowa ready for burlesque?

Phoenix: It’s taken a few years to get everyone on the bandwagon, but I think, 100%, Iowa is supportive of burlesque right now. There are burlesque troupes forming in the Quad Cities and Iowa City. People around the state know who we are, and that’s awesome.

Phoenix, did you, um…get arrested one time for doing burlesque? Are you comfortable talking about that?

Phoenix: I didn’t technically get arrested, but a few years ago I got a citation for exposing my “underboob.” The City Code says you can’t show “your nipple or below thereof.” So you tell me what that means.

Mae the Force: But only for women. Doesn’t apply to men.

Phoenix: The case got continued for 6 months because the police couldn’t find the video. And then the judge said, “This is stupid,” and dismissed the charges.

Wow, that is high praise – your video was too sexy for the police to take to the judge? The cops were like, “To hell with the case, I’m keeping this video for myself!”

Phoenix: It was very weird. My lawyer and I had been in contact with the police even before I got cited, and I knew that they had some concerns, but it hasn’t been a problem ever since. And I don’t know why we should be singled out for attention, because we’re performing artists, and there are plays put on in Des Moines that have full nudity, even in places that have liquor licenses. To be honest, after it all happened, we got nothing but 100% support of the community. And we haven’t had any problems ever since, and we’ve even done shows in other bars all over the city.

So…Dita Von Teese: greatest woman alive, or greatest woman who has EVER LIVED? Discuss!

Phoenix: She’s an amazing role model. She combines so many elements of what this art form is about. She has studied the art of lingerie and burlesque performance, she designs her own outfits, she’s a former ballerina, she’s a former stripper, and she’s just extremely smart. Once you’re thrown into mainstream pop culture, people tend to dumb you down a little bit, and I think she’s been a strong role model for trying to stay true to her art.

Gin Appropriate: Can I just say, related to the point about Dita Von Teese being really smart – all the people I’ve met in burlesque have been HUGE nerds and really smart – lots of people with Master’s degrees.

Leo LaFlash: Dita’s the only burlesque dancer who really makes money from it. They say that the difference between strippers and burlesque dancers is that strippers make money.

Phoenix: I’m trying to work on that, girls!

What does it say about the cultural moment that we are in, that burlesque is becoming more popular? What about burlesque speaks to people?

Maddie Moiselle: I think it’s refreshing because with so much of what we see in our culture about sex and nudity, there’s no coyness to it.

Leo LaFlash: There’s no romance any more.

Maddie Moiselle: We’ve become so desensitized to bodies and nudity and overt displays of sexuality, BUT burlesque is bringing back a different sense of coyness, and not having the sexuality be so in-your-face.

Leo LaFlash: Burlesque is much more inclusive – all types of bodies, all sizes, all ages.

Maddie Moiselle: There is no Photoshopping on a burlesque dancer.

Gin Appropriate: Body-type wise, we are very diverse, and we’re becoming more racially diverse, and I love that about this group. I have people come up to me after shows who come up to me and say, “I never believed that confidence is what makes you sexy, but I saw that in you.” We all have different body types, but we all rock it.

Phoenix: I’ve had women come up to me and say “thank you for doing that show.” We’re helping women not to feel ashamed about their bodies – showing them a model for how to be confident and vulnerable at the same time.

How can people get involved with burlesque? You have classes and workshops and shows coming up soon?

Phoenix: Come to our shows! Check out our classes!


Next show:

Feb. 16 – Red & Black Ball at the Blazing Saddle

Next burlesque workshop:

Feb. 17 – time TBD


Check out the Iowa School of Burlesque on Facebook for all the details about upcoming burlesque shows and classes in Des Moines.


Ben Gran is a Des Moines freelance writer and comedian. He has never gotten arrested or exposed his underboob in public. Follow Ben on Twitter or Facebook

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