Bristol's Badass Burlesque Show
New York State Native and New Orleans Transplant, Moxie Sazerac discusses her introduction to Burlesque, the performers who inspire her and the nuances of telling a powerful story on stage.
My first burlesque act was a blur of shaky legs, pumping adrenaline, and broken glass. It was Mardi Gras, 2007. I hid a shot glass in my bra as part of my act and by the end of the night, it had shattered. Of course it did. I had no idea how to deal with props or costumes that night; I was running on sheer excitement. For a bookish theatre nerd like me, it was a night of make-believe, a glittery escape hatch from reality.
Last month, Roulette Rose wrote in this space about her journey to understand her burlesque identity, which inspired some reflection on my own identity and the kind of acts I’m drawn to. The first four years I spent as a burlesque dancer were also spent as a middle school English teacher. It was an absolute necessity for me to keep my two worlds separate. It would be just as nuts to teach 5 paragraph essays in full makeup and a rhinestoned gown as it would be to do a striptease inspired by my daily, non-glamorous reality of urban education. Burlesque was a break, a place where I could let out the steamy, sexy parts of myself, and I had a great time doing so.
But I left my teaching job last summer to apply to graduate school, and without realizing it at first, my burlesque “identity” began to shift. I started using my real hair more as opposed to the long, curly hairpiece that kept my day and night selves distinctive. I also started exploring more “serious” numbers that reflected the more introspective, reflective, and analytical parts of myself. My troupe in New Orleans, Slow Burn Burlesque, puts on a gore-filled Halloween show every year, and last fall I developed a duet with my real-life partner that was a lot heavier than anything I’d done—a zombie housewife act with dark undertones of domestic abuse and hints at war induced PTSD and depression.
The act was much different than anything I had done before, but it felt good, powerful, and I had audience members telling me that they were truly moved. A few months after that Halloween show, I did my first drag act, dancing as a male soldier who ends up stripping down and shooting at the crowd. I continued to perform the acts I’d developed and loved—cheeky, cute numbers, and sexy gloves-and-gown acts too—but I started to be intrigued by what else burlesque could “do,” besides just tease and titillate.
Around this time I began to be inspired by other performers who brought heavier themes to their acts. I was shaken by a brief segment I saw in the documentary Dirty Martini and the New Burlesque, a duet by Tigger! and my longtime inspiration, Julie Atlas Muz. In the act, which was performed for a 9/11 tribute in New York, the two move in near slow motion dressed as firefighters. It culminates as they embrace, fully nude and covered in fine dust that they’ve poured over their bodies. A chilling, evocative striptease that managed to both celebrate the human form and mourn a national tragedy.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Madame Mae I live, but the video of her “Words” act, which she performed at last year’s Vancouver International Burlesque Festival, is what truly made me a fan. The number is simple, graceful, and clearly grounded in personal meaning. Mae writes with candor about the catharsis this act brings: “Each and every time I perform this act, I hold back tears as I feel the water begin to rinse away the word that has had so much power over me.”
Lady Jack, a Chicago based performance artist, dancer, actor and burlesque performer, also uses water in her act, “The Fool,” which was commissioned by Sammich the Tramp for St. Louis’ Beggar’s Carnivale. Says Jack, “My initial idea was that of a Pagliacci styled sad clown…I had also been toying with the idea of washing away makeup as symbolism and in combining those ideas with the music, I had this image of pouring water over myself in the end in a moment of complete release.”
The number is characterized by Jack’s precise, staccato movements and her nuanced interpretation of the emotional content of the lyrics. The result is a slow-moving train of a burlesque act, less flashy striptease and more…well, what, exactly? Is a striptease still “burlesque” if it invokes feelings of sadness, regret, or even anger?
Lady Jack characterizes this piece as “physical theatre with dance elements,” describing the striptease as a metaphor to serve her overall intentions: “At this stage as an artist I’m interested in attempting as much as I can to let go of labels and create performance pieces that are simply true to the concepts that I want to express.”
In my own creative explorations as a writer, teacher, actor, and burlesque performer, I’m curious about pushing against these labels and figuring out how to be a storyteller while still honoring the strip and the tease. How far will an audience go with me, as long as I deliver bumps and grinds along the way? At what point does burlesque cross over and become something different entirely?
These questions were just starting to form when I performed my farewell piece to New Orleans last month. Preparing for a move to attend graduate school, I knew that I wanted to create something that would honor my seven years in that beautiful, flawed, inspiring city. I’d long had an idea for a burlesque costume that used blue tarp, that iconic symbol of Hurricane Katrina. As I worked on the act, I questioned my right to even do an act about the storm. Having moved to New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, what right did I have, as an outsider, to essentially make light of something that had caused so much suffering?
But my instinct told me to press on, that I could make something that would speak to my own truth about New Orleans—the sadness, sure, but the resilience too, the sense that music and dance and celebration and beauty all played a part in reviving a city too ancient and important to ever be forgotten.
Performing this act left me feeling more raw and emotional than I’ve ever felt on a burlesque stage. It left me with more questions than answers, and as I continue to perform and develop acts and seek out inspiration, I feel more sure than ever that my escape hatch from reality has become a two way door. Burlesque is about satire, humor, sexuality, raunch, and glamour, but what else? What other emotions, feelings, issues, and ideas can we let onto our gutsy, glittery stages?
Moxie Sazerac is a burlesque performer, writer, and educator who recently moved from New Orleans, LA to the NYC area where she is currently pursuing an Masters of Fine Arts in Fiction.