Pink, bubbly and delightfully cheap, André champagne is a White Lightnin’ burlesque troupe tradition. André as in “André’s here,” “Andre’s waiting for you in the kitchen,” or, with a playful growl, “Are you trying to steal my André?” Tonight’s rehearsal, held at an undisclosed South Knoxville location the troupe furtively refers to as its “secret panty camp,” is no exception.
Seven women, some dressed in sweats and ponytails, others in dangerously short miniskirts and fishnets, sit around the living room before rehearsal begins, clutching pink, plastic cups. Doe-eyed cats tiptoe from lap to lap, tails coiled into question marks, burrowing their noses into armpits and chests.
When it comes to getting the women’s attention, the felines have their work cut out for them. There are three or four animated conversations going on at any given moment, ranging in topic from last weekend’s performance at a hair-stylists’ conference in Baltimore to the finale of Project Runway to the merits of a certain senatorial candidate (“I just want to vote for somebody who parties with Playboy bunnies,” someone quips). But eventually the tangents wind back around to White Lightnin’s current raison d’être: its upcoming performance at Blue Cats on Halloween night, as the featured performers in a KnoxGothic production.
“It’ll have some traditional burlesque and some campy stuff and some Halloween stuff,” explains the troupe’s ringleader, stage name Miz Kitty the Wildcat from Wildwood, a local hairdresser who founded White Lightnin’ in February of this year after seeing a burlesque show in Vegas. The dark-haired beauty sits in the corner, long legs crossed and shrink-wrapped in patent-leather platform boots. “But we can’t give you too much detail. We don’t want to ruin the surprise.”
Details or no, there’s little doubt that White Lightnin’ will surprise, if not shock, the audience at its show.
Burlesque is still a novelty here in Knoxville, a city whose 19th-century vaudevillian roots have since been buried beneath waves of political and religious conservatism (although burlesque was performed at Union Avenue’s Roxy Theatre throughout the ’30s and ’40s under the more acceptable banner of “vaudeville”). Today, we have strip clubs, but any kind of sexually suggestive performance that exists outside them is subject to fairly stringent limitations.
“The laws here kind of restrict us somewhat on what we can and cannot do,” says Rue Morgue, a 20-year-old whose porcelain skin and smoldering eyes are framed by a shock of black dreadlocks. “We can’t get down to pasties like traditional performers, and we can only show a quarter of our butt-cheek—which is really hard for some of us!”
But what the troupe lacks in nudity—and how shocking is nudity anyway in this day and age?—it makes up for with unpredictable, often controversial, theatrics. White Lightnin’ isn’t shy about much, and its stage antics, ranging from the sensual to the satirical, reflect the troupe’s nothing’s-sacred aesthetic. “We have a strong sense of humor,” Miz Kitty says. “We can laugh at ourselves. And we’re not very PC.”
As burlesque entered the 20th century, it began to assimilate other forms of performance: minstrel shows, striptease, comedy, cabaret, and vaudeville. Though it was seen as a tawdrier form of entertainment than vaudeville, widely condemned by the press as “indecent,” some vaudeville performers turned to burlesque during dry spells, performing under assumed names to avoid recognition. Increasingly, the shows took to pushing the envelope nudity-wise, revealing as much of the feminine form as local laws allowed. After a crackdown on burlesque in the 1930s, it nearly fizzled out, giving way to the follies of the ’30s and the girlie shows of the ’40s and ’50s, and ultimately emptying out into the phenomenon of modern-day strip clubs.
Recent years, however, have seen a resurgence of interest in traditional burlesque performance, with its social commentary updated to reflect the changing times. White Lightnin’ follows in that trend, challenging the paradigms and assumptions of 21st century life—especially those that affect women.
One of the troupe’s most palpable targets is the pressure placed on women to conform to Western standards of attractiveness, a precedent set by celebrities with Barbie-doll proportions and reinforced by the media. The curve-proud women in White Lightin’ write such standards off as bollocks, and the confidence they have in their bodies, however deviant from the supermodel prototype, is contagious.
Black Mariah, a buxom woman with plump red lips and chocolate-brown eyes, recalls the audience reaction to the troupe’s first show at the Electric Ballroom last spring. “These girls came up to us after the show and were like, ‘You know, what I love about you guys is you’re not all rail-thin, and it makes me feel like I don’t have to be a size-two to be sexy.’ And at least for me, I was like, ‘You don’t! You don’t have to be tiny. No matter who you are or what you look like, you’re sexy.’”
Fanny De Wang, a former Marine whose “Army-issue ass” is much celebrated by the troupe, says she hasn’t always had the body-confidence she possesses now. It’s only been since she joined the troupe that she began to appreciate her body for what it could do, as well as for what it looks like. “When I first started, I was all like, ‘I don’t know if I should wear that.’ Now I’m like, ‘Yeah! Shake it bad! Watch yourself! I’m comin’ to get ‘ya!’” Kisa Von Teasa, a saucy redhead who looks 10 years younger than her actual age of 35, quips from the corner, “Now when we say, ‘Yes, it does make your butt look big,’ she’s like, ‘Awesome.’”
The women’s performance backgrounds are as diverse as the shapes of their bodies and their personalities. Only a couple of them have had formal dance training, mostly tap, ballet or gymnastics lessons when they were under the age of 10, but most have had some theater experience. As Miz Kitty puts it, “Everybody brings something different to the table.”
“Being onstage is addictive,” explains Kisa. “Those of us with theater backgrounds miss it.” Kisa, for instance, moved to Knoxville in the early ’90s to pursue acting but quickly grew fed up with the politics of the local theater scene. “I didn’t want to do something so structured,” she says.
The silken-voiced Siren Santina likewise came from a formal performance background, as a UT student studying to become an opera singer. But, she says, “I was always being told that I didn’t fit the part of classical roles because I was pierced, or I’d sometimes have pink or purple hair. So when I did get a role, I was being typecast as the weird person in the opera or the weird person in the play. So it’s nice to come to an environment like this where its OK for me to be me, to not have to worry about being the weird one because, I mean…,” Santina glances around, eyebrows raised, and everybody laughs.
With that, it’s time to head downstairs for rehearsal. There’s a chill in the cement-block basement tonight, but that doesn’t keep the women from stripping down to their skivvies or, if they’re in the mood to play dress up, squeezing into a skimpy fringed or sequined concoction from the troupe’s costume rack. There are can-can skirts, impossibly petite satin corsets, a boa made from paper money, and feathery props—all handmade by the troupe members themselves. Offstage, everyone here has a skill, be it hair/makeup or set-construction or prop-design, that they pitch in for the cause.
“Ready?” The women set down their cups of André and line up in formation. When the music starts, everyone comes alive—singing, dancing, tearing clothes from one another’s bodies, barking choreography when they start to lose track. It’s clear from the expressions on everyone’s faces that they’re as comfortable with each other as they are with themselves; it’s an unorthodox kind of sisterhood, but a sisterhood all the same.
“I’m bringing sexy back,” Fanny De Wang sings during a run-through of her solo piece, choreographed to Justin Timberlake’s song-of-the-hour, “Sexy Back.” She swivels around to shake her purple cotton panties at the floor-to-ceiling mirror, and seems pleased with the result. “Them other boys don’t know how to act….”
Here’s to some women who do.
What: KnoxGothic’s 5th Annual Halloween Bash w/ White Lightnin’ Burlesque Troupe When: Tuesday, Oct. 31, doors open at 9 p.m. Where: Blue Cats How Much: $7