Columbia-based burlesque troupe Fringe Society Burlesque is trying to create a safe space for people of all backgrounds.
For Glinda Glitterstorm, Fringe Society Burlesque co-producer and performer who prefers to be identified only by her stage name, burlesque is more than just an elaborate strip tease. It's a way of building a queer feminist community and having ownership over her body and sexuality.
"It's not just about the sex appeal and turning people on," Glitterstorm says. "It's really just about the art and the storytelling and the fun of it all."
After an 18-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fringe Society Burlesque will return to the stage Saturday at 8 p.m. at Talking Horse Theatre. The show, Fringe Society Burlesque: The Return!, will feature performers doing their favorite acts from past shows to welcome fans back to the burlesque scene.
Masks will be required during the show, and the theatre will operate at reduced capacity to allow attendees to social distance.
A history lesson in burlesque
When burlesque began in the Victorian era, it was originally a way of mocking society through performance art and challenging gender norms. But Glitterstorm says burlesque became more exploitative of women in the 1950s and 1960s and was run almost completely by men.
Burlesque saw a resurgence in the 1990s, referred to as the neo-burlesque movement, partially due to third wave feminism and the riot grrrl movement. The art form became more women-led and focused on challenging body standards and beauty norms, Glitterstorm says.
"In our burlesque troupe, we have women and gender non-conforming individuals of all races and ethnicities and body sizes," Glitterstorm says. She says audience members aren't just seeing what western society would consider to be a "hot girl." At burlesque shows, Glitterstorm says the audience sees the hotness in "all of us."
The start of the show
Glitterstorm started Fringe Society Burlesque with two other performers in 2014 to keep the community together after another troupe dissolved. She now leads the organization with performer and co-producer Allie Lure, who also prefers to be identified only by her stage name.
Lure says she wanted to step into the co-producer role to show other women of color that they are welcome in the burlesque scene. She says that Fringe Society Burlesque is the first troupe in Columbia to be co-led by a person of color.
"I felt that it was my duty to step into that role and let other people of color know that is a safe space for them," Lure says. "Also, being a larger person, I wanted to let other plus-sized folks know that it's totally okay and people aren't gonna laugh at you."
Fringe Society Burlesque hosts shows, but also trains and mentors performers who are new to the burlesque scene. Before the pandemic, the organization hosted performance workshops and classes to help newcomers refine their act and learn about the art form.
When someone expresses interest in becoming a burlesque performer after shows, Glitterstorm says she reaches out to them personally to ensure they feel comfortable and to help them decide if burlesque is for them.
"It's hard at first," Glitterstorm says. "It's unpacking a lot of our own feelings about our bodies and putting them on display for people. It's very vulnerable. Getting past that hurdle can be really hard for a lot of people, but we also know that if we don't extend that olive branch, people aren't going to do it."
The organization is hoping to start hosting more shows and workshops again as the COVID-19 pandemic eases up.
Returning to the stage
While both co-producers have missed rehearsing and having shows with the performer community, they are also excited to interact with the audience Saturday.
Lure says she misses emceeing and watching the audience react to the other performers.
"There's just such an energy when you're up on stage and people are cheering for you," Lure says. "It's really not like anything else that I've experienced, so I'm looking forward to getting back to that."
While burlesque performances might not be for everyone, Glitterstorm says she's eager to share the art form again with those who connect with it.
"We're really just trying to make a connection with the audience and evoke some sort of feeling in you, and empower you and empower our performers," Glitterstorm says. "It's a really beautiful experience, so I'm just very excited to be able to bring that back."
Tickets for Saturday's event are available through Eventbrite.
"Especially in our society, we see very standardized images of what is considered beautiful," Glitterstorm says. "What I love about burlesque is that it's for everybody and every body."