Two years ago, the producers of the RVA Burlesque Festival were in mourning: the event they had been planning for years fell victim to the pandemic and was canceled just weeks before showtime. But this weekend, with only a few changes to the lineup of performers and new safety precautions in place (audiences will need to be masked and vaxxed), the inaugural RVA Burlesque Festival is finally back on.
“We’re just elated to be able to do it,” says festival producer Ellie Quinn, who also produces shows locally with Ellie Quinn Presents. “We’ve even been able to keep a good majority of our original performers that were selected to perform.”
Originally conceived as a three-day event in March 2020, this new iteration of the festival will include two full days of classes and events, with showcase performances both Friday and Saturday nights. Audiences in attendance either night will have the chance to see not only local burlesque acts, but also national and international performers. The festival has drawn burlesque artists from Seattle, New York and Knoxville to British Columbia, with festival headliners Jacqueline Boxx and Zyra Lee Vanity from Baltimore and Toronto, respectively.
“The beautiful thing about a festival is you get so many different people coming together in one place,” says Murphy Lawless, festival producer and member of local burlesque troupe Burlesque Right Meow. “You get to meet the people that you’ve been idolizing over the internet and learn from them first hand. Seeing the way someone moves in person, for me, is always so much more connecting.”
For the uninitiated, “burlesque is the art of the striptease,” says Scarlet Starlet, festival producer and member of Burlesque Right Meow. “It’s got a long history that goes super-duper far back in America and in Europe before that.” Stylistically, burlesque can be almost anything; it can incorporate any style of dance or movement as well as a variety of entertainment styles. “I do think there’s something there for everyone,” Starlet says.
“It’s like if live theater, cabaret and stripping all had a baby together,” adds fellow producer Sally Stardust, a third member of Burlesque Right Meow. Stardust says she loves burlesque because it’s entertaining, uplifting and empowering.
The Richmond burlesque community is wonderful for its diversity, something Stardust points out is inherent to the artform: “I think the empowering nature of burlesque – accepting yourself and loving your body, building confidence – naturally appeals to a diverse audience.”
But while she and other white producers make inclusion a priority when casting shows, Stardust notes that the Richmond community owes a lot to the work and support of local Black burlesque producers like Venessa Chevelle, who produces one of the only regular showcases for performers of color called Afrotease, and Jo’Rie Tigerlily, a board member of Gallery 5. “Our local scene has reached a more diverse audience and has also encouraged newer performers of color to give burlesque a chance,” Stardust says.
In addition, Stardust is among the many differently-abled burlesque performers who use their platform as a way to bring attention and visibility to disability. She was thrilled to bring on Jacqueline Boxx, whose tagline is “Miss Disa-Burly-Tease,” as a festival headliner. In 2017, Boxx became the first performer to compete in a wheelchair for a title at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender.
Boxx had already begun her burlesque journey when she found out that she needed to stop dancing on her legs, so she “rhinestoned [her] first wheelchair and discovered a new way to move.” At the Richmond festival, Boxx will offer classes in dance for mobility restrictions. “We start with how to change the way we think about our bodies so that they are our partners,” she explains. “Our society encourages a toxic culture of pushing through pain and boundaries with our bodies and my classes aim to change that.”
Boxx says these classes are accessible to anyone who might be interested, with or without a dance background, adding that “we could all use some practice with putting self-love into beautiful action.”
The festival will include a variety of beginner and introductory-level classes for those interested in dipping a toe into the world of burlesque. Class offerings include movement with panels, confidence dancing and strutting in heels, plus a variety of dance styles.
The festival’s second headliner, Zyra Lee Vanity, is an award-winning burlesque entertainer known for taking elements of Afro-Caribbean and hip-hop culture and mixing them with vintage burlesque glamour. Her classes include tutorials on specific styles of dance; ‘“Traplesque 101” is all about mixing burlesque bump-‘n-grind movements with trap music — essentially learning how to tease to trap. “Whining 101” is a fun Caribbean dance class. Vanity says that both are beginner level and accessible to anyone who might be interested.
“Burlesque should be and can be for everyone, regardless of ability, race, sex, gender, all of that,” says Ellie Quinn. She and the producers of the RVA Burlesque Festival hope this festival will create a greater awareness of burlesque as an artform, as well as establish Richmond as a place where burlesque is alive and thriving.
Lawless explains that what they really treasure about the art form is that it’s not quiet.
“The exuberance of burlesque and being able to hear the exuberance is delightful to me, being able to hear a reaction whether it’s someone getting excited and all the variety of meanings for that,” Lawless says. “Or it it’s the ones getting terrified, or if someone has just learned something brand new about themselves, or if they’re just surprised. There’s all these different sounds that people make and I love catching them in those little moments. Like it almost feels like a secret connection.”
After two long years of waiting for it to be safe to perform again, Boxx says that all of the performers “are ridiculously hyped up for this chance to get onto the stage,” adding, “this is going to be an incredible show!”
Richmond audiences who are curious about this art form are encouraged to attend the festival showcases, take a look around and see all that this community has to offer. “And we hope that if people are excited about burlesque that they will continue to support us, you know, in our smaller productions as well,” Lawless adds.
The RVA Burlesque Festival will take place March 25-26, 2022, at Dogtown Dance Theater. For more information, visit https://rvaburlesquefestival.com/