On a Saturday night in February, the ladies of VivaVoom Brr-Lesque took the stage at Chilkoot Charlie's for a Valentine's Day show that was every bit as funny as it was risqué. In their first act, two women disguised in men's clothes and sporting Afros and shades had the audience whooping and hollering with their disco-themed dance moves that culminated with them revealing their tassels and tighty-whities.
Performer "Strawberry Stems" had people jazzed over her striptease to Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)," a routine centered around everyday tasks like cleaning and doing laundry. It was a hit with the crowd, which was made up of men and women, young and old.
A few hours later, members of Sweet Cheeks Cabaret -- another burlesque troupe -- sashayed and stripped at Mad Myrna's downtown. Their classy performance was more dance-focused than funny and included the release of a new promotional video.
Burlesque -- usually presented as a variety show with striptease, but not full nudity -- has experienced a revival across the nation since the '90s. And it's reached Anchorage, where there are at least five groups that either dabble in burlesque or fully embrace the provocative art form.
Last weekend, VivaVoom co-produced Alaska's first-ever burlesque festival, which coincided with Fur Rendezvous festivities and featured performers from around Alaska, the Lower 48 and Canada.
A trove of troupes
If you trace the history of neo-burlesque in Anchorage you'll find VivaVoom there from the beginning. These ladies have been teasing audiences for over a decade.
"I think this appeals to a section of your population that doesn't necessarily want to go to the ballet or the opera. They kind of like the low-brow," said VivaVoom's Kamala Stiner, whose stage name is "Lola Pistola." "We're definitely making fun of things, constantly, but we're also talking about things with our bodies that we think are important."
Candy Pie Parfait emerged about five years ago, followed by Sweet Cheeks Cabaret and Frostease Burlesque. Pulse Dance Company has had success with burlesque-themed fundraisers, and the studio arm of Pulse started offering burlesque classes. There's burlesque in Homer, Fairbanks and the Valley, too, Stiner says.
The burlesque dancers say each group has its own niche.
Want sultry, choreographed dancing, reminiscent of the '20s? Check out Sweet Cheeks Cabaret. How about something funny and campy with a well-established following? VivaVoom is a good bet. But what if you want funny and dancey? Give Candy Pie Parfait a try. Think you might be into "nerd-lesque?" Frostease is the troupe for you -- they're busy rehearsing for their cartoon-inspired show in April.
"You think, 'Oh, I'm going to a burlesque show, there will be so many feathers and it will be classy and maybe someone will sing.' And then I do a number where I'm literally eating my costume off of myself to Weird Al's 'Eat It,' " said Frostease's Colleen Bailey with a laugh. "So, we're a little different."
The troupes are also supportive of each other, performers say. They try to avoid overlapping shows and make an effort to attend other troupes' performances. Bailey was at Sweet Cheeks' Mad Myrna's show, for example.
Anchorage's performers take their clothes off for fun and generally have other jobs that don't involve stripping. VivaVoom's Stiner is a nurse. Bailey of Frostease works in radio. Sweet Cheeks Cabaret has an engineer in their troupe.
Key elements of old-school burlesque are there -- the tassels, the makeup, a smattering of singing/comedy and the elaborate costume that seductively gets removed -- but you'll also find a 21st-century twist at the shows around town.
Bolstering body positivity among women is a big part of why VivaVoom's Stiner says she does burlesque.
"They come back because what they see on stage is representative of themselves," Stiner said of VivaVoom's female audience members. All four of the Anchorage troupes say women comprise a big chunk of their support base.
Mikal Preston, creator of Candy Pie Parfait and owner of Studio 49, puts an emphasis on the comedy skits she writes for her group's shows, poking fun at everything from the Palins to Starbucks.
Doing burlesque isn't just for women either. Sweet Cheeks Cabaret has male performers -- "Moscow Mule" and "Turkish Delight."
Finding the right fit
A challenge for all the groups is constructing the right costume -- and figuring out how to take it off. Unfastening bras can be tricky. Men's pants can be a struggle, says Moscow Mule.
"Whoever designed rip-away pants -- genius, genius person," he said.
For Bailey of Frostease, the end product is usually not what she had envisioned when it comes to costumes.
"There's a lot of rigging, a lot of ribbons and snaps and hot glue -- hot glue and desperation," she said.
Stage names are also important.
Bailey is on her fourth stage name. Right now it's "The English Muffin."
"I do have a commitment issue with names," she quipped.
For others, it's easy to find something and stick with it. Julie Jokinen, also of Frostease, pours a lot of her energy into breast cancer awareness -- it's where all the money she makes at shows goes. "Pinky Ta Ta" was perfect for her, she said in a February interview, her hot-pink jacket draped across her chair.
Old meets new
At the Freezing Tassel Burlesque Festival Friday night, men and women of all shapes and sizes stripped for a rowdy crowd at Chilkoot Charlie's.
The biggest applause, however, was for headliner Judith Stein, 68, who performed in Alaska decades ago as a go-go dancer and stripper. Comedy has always been a big part of her acts.
"I used to say I took my clothes off and people laughed," said Stein, who tossed pieces of her costume at a cheering audience Friday.
After being on the road for 17 years, Stein settled down in British Columbia. The explicitness of modern-day strip clubs didn't appeal to her. She started a business selling flannel nightgowns and worked in palliative care.
Then, burlesque started to make a comeback and Stein found herself in the spotlight again, entertaining crowds and sharing tales of her travels.
"It's about being fun and satirical," she said of burlesque.
That sentiment rings true today. But it's also a different era for women.
"I think part of the reason burlesque is enjoying such a resurgence in popularity probably has a lot to do with the rise of feminism in society and this new realization that you don't have to be what society expects a woman to be," Bailey said. "And knowing how to shake it a little bit."
Frostease will present "Toon Tease" at 7 p.m. April 1-2 at Hard Rock Cafe in downtown Anchorage. Tickets $15. see frosteaseburlesque.com for details.
Sweet Cheeks will have a few performances at the annual Fetish Ball at Mad Myrna's. Tickets $20 with proceeds benefiting ?the Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association. 7 p.m.- 2 a.m. Saturday-Sunday, April 2-3. (Search "Fetish Ball 2016" on Facebook for details).
VivaVoom will present "Steel Forget-Me-Nots" Friday-Saturday, April 8-9. Doors at 8 p.m., show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets $20 at brownpapertickets.com.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing