Local burlesque troupe dances for charity and empowerment
MUNCIE, Ind. —The worn floorboards of the Mark III Taproom stage buzzed as thumping bass guitar lifted the brassy wailing of a jazz melody, conjuring up the spirit of a dingy speakeasy.
An announcer spoke through the on-stage speakers, his voice filtered almost incomprehensibly through the clamor:
“Please, everyone, welcome to the stage, Mistress of Mayhem ... Lady J!” he drawled.
Just offstage, behind the narrow curtain that separated the bar’s dressing room from blinding stage lights, Jamie Prang was shaking, so terrified it took her a moment to remember that she was, in fact, Lady J.
Dressed in a red, hooded cape that covered a black, leather corset, she steadied herself on towering heels, taking care not to tangle the shimmering, fabric wings that draped from her back as she ascended the wooden staircase.
Prang’s mind scrambled with each heavy step.
“Am I actually going up there by myself?” Prang thought. “Am I actually going to be able to disrobe?”
She stepped into the light. Now, the safety of the curtain felt miles away. Her performance music played. She tossed back her hood and then, total blackout.
“In the blink of an eye, the act was over,” Prang said. “And I couldn’t remember a thing about the last three minutes of my life.”
She watched a video on a fellow dancer’s phone to confirm that the experience was more than an elaborate hallucination. Prang had performed her first burlesque routine.
“It was exhilarating when it was done,” Prang said. “So much adrenaline.”
Prang had defeated stage fright and personal insecurities but the dance felt monumental for deeper reasons.
“I dance to survive,” Prang said.
Not long before she strutted the Mark III stage, Prang couldn’t walk, speak, write, or see. She has Multiple Sclerosis, an erratic disease that attacks the central nervous system. MS impairs mood, memory, problem solving and can fully blind and incapacitate sufferers by disrupting the brain’s ability to communicate with the body.
“It’s a sneaky disease, it’s scary, it comes out of nowhere and can take you down fast,” Prang said. “Performing is exciting on another level for me because I was sick for several years before I had the strength to get on stage.”
Prang burlesques with Muncie’s Fabulous Funcie Femmes, one of hundreds of amateur troupes that have formed throughout the U.S. in the last decade.
On March 9, the Funcie Femmes will be debuting their second Orange Masquerade Ball show at the Mark III Taproom to raise funds for the MS Society, an organization formed to research a cure. According to the Center for Disease Control, more than 2 million people have MS worldwide with women two to three times more likely to contract the disease.
Studies have shown low impact, aerobic exercise helps manage MS symptoms. Prang, who has loved being on stage since she was a child, said burlesque gives her physical therapy, a second chance at life and a platform to help others afflicted with her illness.
She’s been dancing with the Funcie Femmes since the groups inception in 2015.
“Now, when I hear the name ‘Lady J’ announced … it’s like a trigger that kicks up a fire already burning inside me,” Prang said.
Today, there are more amateur burlesque troupes than have ever existed an odd fact considering this particular style of vintage striptease effectively died in the late 1930s.
Then New York mayor Fiorello Henry La Guardia, Pressured by the Society for the Suppression of Vice, struck the fatal blow. Citing burlesque’s “corrupting moral influence” he revoked licenses from all New York burlesque theaters in 1937. Across the nation, other cities followed suit.
But, to the delight of some and frustration of others, burlesque managed to claw its way back from prohibition and cultural obscurity. Beginning in the late 1990s, burlesque has maintained a slow but steady renaissance, flirting, all the while, with mainstream acceptance.
Virtually all amateur burlesque performers, Funcie Femmes notwithstanding, sacrifice time, money and, sometimes, relationships to titillate on stage. The cost associated with the glittery enterprise adds another layer of perplexity for scholars and critics who study its resurgence.
Funcie Femmes founder and owner of Studio Exhale in downtown Muncie, Stephanie Hutchison said, in her experience, there is no universal motive for lacing up a corset and dancing on stage.
“For a lot of people it’s about empowerment,” Hutchison said. “The female body is so politicized, we are constantly told how we should look and what we can and can’t do with our bodies … burlesque is a deliberate slap in the face to that idea.”
Burlesque performances are often aimed at subverting male-driven ideas about sexuality, espousing a message of body acceptance, political satire or a combination of all three. But for many, the motive is simpler.
Hutchison said, as a lifelong dancer and costume fabricator, burlesque is her means of creating with a level of autonomy that wouldn’t be possible through other genres.
“With burlesque, you’re free to play around with whatever idea you want to,” Hutchison said. “It’s more sensual than other styles, the crowd is wilder, you feed off of them and they feed off of you.”
Hutchison’s first exposure to burlesque came during a Star Follies performance at the Muncie Civic Theatre.
“I loved what I saw on stage, the retro style, and really wanted to get involved in it,” Hutchison said.
The Civic’s relatively new offering of yearly burlesque performances is actually a return to form for the downtown venue. Around 100 years ago, burlesque headlined at the Civic when it was the fledgling vaudeville playhouse known as The Star Theatre.
Despite Muncie’s century-old connection to the art, when Hutchison searched for a local entry point into the burlesque scene she came up empty.
So, when Indianapolis-based burlesque pro Pepper Mills, who self identifies as a person “raised by feral drag queens” began offering burlesque workshops, Hutchison jumped at the opportunity and absorbed everything the veteran performer could offer.
A year later Hutchison was operating Studio Exhale.
“I realized, now, I had some experience and the perfect space to offer burlesque classes and get a troupe started,” Hutchison said.
There, in her yoga studio, the Fabulous Funcie Femmes took form. Two months after starting, its founding members were tearing off modified jeggings while donning Dolly Parton wigs during their first group performance at Cracker’s Comedy Club in a Pepper Mills’ production.
“We had no idea what we were doing,” Hutchison said. “We were all just in it to have fun.”
Today, Muncie’s first contemporary burlesque troupe headlines their own shows, devising acts that range thematically from National Lampoon’s Vacation and Krampus to aliens, pet cats, witchcraft and mad scientists among dozens of others.
Over the years, Funcie Femmes shows and Studio Exhale classes have inspired others to bare all.
Femme’s performer “Bettie Nuggs” had no dance or theater experience whatsoever but found herself, just months after encountering the Femmes, casting off elements of a homemade alien costume on stage as the “Mean Green Mother” for an audience at Cornerstone.
“There were burlesque classes being offered at Studio Exhale downtown and I thought, I’ll go check it out just for fun because I was such a big fan,” Nuggs said. “But I could never imagine myself actually getting on stage in front of people and performing striptease.”
Nuggs said, more so than a means of creative expression, she found acceptance and a second family through burlesque.
“I was very self conscious about my body when first starting but there is such amazing body positivity within this community and it has helped me so much with the way I see myself.” Nuggs said.”
The oft-touted essential value that burlesque offers to modern feminism is it’s message of body positivity. But the sometimes precarious harmony burlesque strikes between its identity as contemporary expression and its history as the archetype for the modern strip club make its status as a champion for feminist ideology a topic of debate among scholars and critics.
Dr. Kay Siebler, gender and power studies coordinator and English professor at Missouri Western State University, said first, when making a judgement about performances, you have to distinguish between contemporary “neo burlesque” and traditional burlesque.
“Classic burlesque is only about male sexual pleasure and the male gaze,” Siebler said. “Neo burlesque should be a subversion of this, a redirection to female pleasure and a reclaiming of female sexuality.”
Siebler said, in that regard, she has concerns about the approach many performers take as neo burlesque becomes more mainstream.
“Simply having bigger bodies to objectify isn’t enough to qualify as feminist expression,” Siebler said. “There’s a tendency now to fall into the same patriarchal tropes of traditional burlesque.”
Siebler said there’s little social value in perpetuating many of the same narrow definitions of what is considered sexually attractive in traditional burlesque.
“You can’t resist by floating downstream, just performing in a stylized way is false empowerment … it’s actually disempowerment” Siebler said. “Good burlesque makes the audience uncomfortable … it’s not always pretty but it can be poignant, surprising, funny, or painful.”
Dr. Kari Lerum, a sociology professor and author of the blog “Sexuality and Society”, studies gender and power dynamics at the University of Washington Bothell. Lerum takes a slightly different stance on the art of undress.
She said burlesque doesn’t necessarily have to shock an audience or be performed in a specific way to be empowering to women.
“There’s nothing inherently good or bad about burlesque,” Lerum said. “Like burlesque, marriage and other socially constructed power relations were originally made to benefit men only … just because that was the case then doesn’t mean it is now.”
Lerum said when evaluating whether or not burlesque is socially constructive, you have to consider who it is performed for and how it impacts the performers themselves.
“We know they don’t do it for money, a huge portion of the audience is female, the audience is coached and encouraged to be supportive at shows,” Lerum said. “Across gender expressions, race, age and body type people find it is a place they are welcomed.”
As to whether or not the nearly 180-year old striptease will have cultural staying power, Kerum believes one way or another, it will.
“It might go down again like it did in the thirties and come back,” Lerum said. “But I think the urge to perform and explore sexuality wont’ go away, so burlesque might not look the same in the future but I think it’s here to stay.”
There's a determination to sustain the art that is evident among the Funcie Femmes and other troupes who bear the tension between full-time jobs, family and the constant need to expand and fine-tune their shows.
“I hope to be doing burlesque as long as I can and I have no intentions on quitting,” Hutchison said. “Throughout history there have always been people who have rocked the boat and those who are opposed to it … I’ve always been the kind of person that says just live and let live.”
For many of the Funcie Femmes their passion comes from the idea that burlesque is a personal transformation. It’s as much about shedding clothing as it is about shedding the social constraints and vulnerabilities of a past identity.
To that end, Prang said she doesn’t see how burlesque could be viewed as controversial.
“Some people find empowerment in modesty, some in nudity,” Prang said. “Burlesque is about self love, it's about teaching women in a torn world that we can unify.”
Jordan Kartholl is a photojournalist at The Star Press. Contact him at (317) 217-8681, email@example.com or @kartholl