The club was so packed they were still turning people away at the door when the show started in total darkness. This song started playing, then the house lights came up—and then there she was, sauntering towards us like a sequined panther, wearing red-and-black-striped thigh-high stockings and a red satin shirt that popped off in one piece, tumbles of black hair spilling out of her hat. She was on fire, and she knew it. You could have seen her confidence from outer space.

Sweetpea on fire

Sweetpea afire.

The room was tiny, and the edge of the stage was close to my seat. The dancer smiled at the audience with red-glitter lips and walked her black-gloved fingers slowly down her torso, peeling clothing off as she went. Then she looked right at me and winked in time to the music as she undressed, finishing her number in just her ruffled underpants and a pair of sequined pasties (little tasseled nipple covers). She blew a kiss to the audience and wiggled offstage. The room erupted in cheers and whistles.

I sat there, stunned. My heart was beating so hard you could have actually seen it through my shirt. That was my introduction to burlesque.

My heart wasn’t racing from love, or even lust. It was a sudden, crystalline realization that was making me breathless. I felt like I had found what I’d been looking for all my life without ever realizing it. Over and over, I kept thinking one phrase: THIS IS IT. This was my thing; these were my people. I wanted to do this.

That was in 2003, and even though I had never seen burlesque before, I had heard of it, thanks to a revival of the old-fashioned art form that had been building throughout the ’90s, thanks to performers like Dita Von Teese and Dirty Martini. Known as “the art of tease,” burlesque is a finely honed and time-honored way of taking your clothes off onstage for an audience. It started out in the 1920s as a risqué club act that let men (and some women) see scantily clad women in the flesh, then it exploded into popular culture throughout the next 40 years or so. Classic burlesque, with its props and sets, story lines and elaborate costumes, saw an underground revival in the 1990s and 2000s, when performers like Michelle L’Amour rediscovered the fun, grace and showmanship of tease. While burlesque is stripping, in that you’re taking your clothes off, it also has elements of dance, and of vaudeville comedy (and lots of vaudeville shows included burlesque acts). A burlesque dancer uses her body and face to speak to an audience, who you are allowing to look at you. What she chooses to say to them is up to her.

That first dancer I saw was named Sweetpea. She was a headliner at Lili’s Burlesque Revue in downtown Minneapolis, a little red-painted club with red candles on the tables. After her act the emcee, Nadine Dubois, came onstage in a sparkly dress to announce the next act. There were jugglers and there was a magic act, but really, those acts were just breaks in the program. Everyone was there to see the burlesque dancers.

And, man, all the dancers were good. Each one was so different, but they all had a certain quality I couldn’t quite put my finger on. You couldn’t stop watching them.

By the time intermission rolled around, I was hovering near the backstage door, waiting to ask the emcee if I could audition for the show.

Nadine Dubois smiled at me, a little tipsy, her feathered headpiece wobbling dangerously on her head. “How old are you, if you don’t mind my asking, sweetie-pie?”

“Twenty-one,” I lied.

She arched one perfectly shaped eyebrow. “Come back next Friday at 7 PM with an act,” she said, “and you can try out.”

Nadine, the hostess with the mostess

Nadine, the hostess with the mostest.

That was all the encouragement I needed. I already obsessively collected vintage clothes and wigs, and I already owned a huge collection of vintage undergarments and costumes. For the next week of my life it was like I was possessed—working up my first burlesque act was all I thought about. It was hard, since I knew almost nothing about the form and was starting from scratch. I began by Googling “burlesque songs” and picking, pretty much at random, a song called “Play the Blues for Maisie” off a CD called Striptease Classics. I picked out an outfit: a purple zip-front vintage airline stewardess dress and some white cotton wrist-length gloves. Under my dress I wore a see-though beige stretchy full-body girdle, and under that I had affixed black sequined pasties over my nipples. I could take off the gloves one by one, unzip the dress in one swoop, and end up in the beige girdle, which was the exact color of my skin, so I would look naked-but-not-naked under the lights. Then I could slowly wiggle out of the girdle and finish my act in panties, pasties, and heels. I just had to line up my movements with the beats in the song. Easy, right?

I had never been so wrong. It is actually really difficult to carefully take off items of clothing, one by one, in time to music, in a way that’s interesting to watch, and to finish exactly when the song is finished. Also, every time you practice a burlesque piece, you throw pieces of your costume all over the room, and then you have to find them all again, put everything back on again, and start over. My roommate, a former pom-pom squad dancer, helped by alternately watching and teasing me, offering suggestions between bouts of cracking up. “Why don’t you have any props?” she demanded. “I feel like you should have props. I mean, what’s the story you’re trying to get me to understand here? Why should I watch you?”

She was so right. Why should I watch you? became my mantra. As I practiced, I listened to the song, but I also heard my roommate’s voice in my head. Why should I watch you? I was determined to make it so you couldn’t stop watching me. Because I am not really a dancer, I decided that I should try to create a story for the audience. That became my M.O every time I got onstage thereafter. Lots of dancers just got up and started peeling off layers in a sinuous way to the music. I couldn’t do that gracefully, so I liked to provide a reason—however implausible—that I was taking my clothes off: Whoops! I’m a secretary who’s just spilled coffee on herself. Better get out of these wet things! or Oh no! I’m an airline stewardess who keeps setting off the metal detector before a flight. What could the problem be? (The problem was metal pasties under all the layers.)

I added a storyline to my act. I added a chair. I practiced and practiced and practiced. It took me hours and hours to perfect a two-minute dance.

Finally, I was ready. I went back the next Friday and waited outside the locked club in my first (heavy-handed and terrible) attempt at stage makeup. I didn’t know about fake eyelashes yet, so I just used about 15 coats of waterproof black mascara to make my eyelashes look “long” (they just looked clumpy.) I had drawn thick black eyeliner around my eyes and extended the lashline past the outer tip of my eyebrow, and I added a ton of Wet n Wild lipstick, which was smeared by the time I got to Lili’s.

I sat down outside the club, getting bits of gravel on the backs of my legs, waiting for someone to show up. At 7:55 PM, almost an hour after my scheduled audition time, three women arrived—Nadine Dubois, a dancer I had seen the week before named Ophelia Flame, and a singer named Karen Vieno Paurus. They smiled at me as they unlocked the club doors, apologizing for being late and ushering me backstage, inviting me to use the dressing room to finish getting ready. This was my first real lesson in burlesque—I would later learn that “burly time” is at least a full hour later than all previously agreed upon times.

Getting ready

Getting ready.

For my audition, Nadine, Ophelia, and Karen sat in the empty club where the audience would usually be. They had said to holler when I was ready to come out. I sat backstage, smoothing and re-smoothing my hair, nervously running through my act in my head. What if they hated it? What if they laughed? What if I forgot my act? I had never gotten undressed in front of strangers before.

It was now or never.

“Ready!” I called through the velvet curtains.

Ophelia Flame pushed play and the opening notes of the song I now knew by heart began.

I picked up a vintage suitcase with my white-gloved hand and walked onstage. I smiled at my audience of three, sat down in a chair in the middle of the stage, crossed my legs, and ostentatiously checked my watch. This was the beginning of the act I now called “Waiting for the Train.” I re-crossed my legs. I looked around. This train was not coming. I fanned myself, looking at the audience. Whew, it was hot, wasn’t it? I looked left. I looked right. No one was around. I stood up and pulled off one glove, finger by finger, and casually flung it behind me. Then I pulled the other glove off…with my teeth. I flung it at the audience. Still no train, eh? Oh well. I stood up and sloooooowly undid the front zipper of my dress. The ladies of Lili’s started whooping and yelling for encouragement. I stepped out of my dress. Now I was just in my girdle and heels. In time with the music, I dropped one strap off my shoulder, then the other. I began wiggling out of the extremely tight girdle, shimmying my shoulders and acting like it was so tight it was impossible to get off. I turned around, back to the audience, and the girdle dropped to the floor. I was in my black lace underpants and I turned around, covering my boobs with my hands. As the music ended, I flung my arms open, giving the Lili’s girls a good look my sequined pasties before waving goodbye and trotting back offstage.

I did it! Behind the velvet curtain, I was pressed against the wall, my legs shaking like a baby deer and my heart pounding so hard I thought I might pass out.

The women clapped and yelled for me to come back out. Did I want to start that night, they asked? OF COURSE I WANTED TO START THAT NIGHT.

Right there, on the spot, as I was shivering in my underwear, they helped me choose a name. I was now Ava Dollhaus—Ava because I like the name Ava, Doll because Nadine, Ophelia, and Karen said I looked like a doll, and -haus because we decided that I would be billed as “the only natural blonde in the show” and have a funny fake German background.

I went back to the dressing room and sat down in front of a mirror, stunned at this turn of events. That’s when Sweetpea bounced in wearing jeans and a crop-top and stopped dead in front of me. “Oh,” she said. “You’re in my seat. That’s OK. Who are you?”

Five minutes later, Sweetpea and I had bonded over being queer, and she was showing me how to put on fake eyelashes and politely offering to do my eyeliner so it “looked right.” Lili’s became my home away from home.

The gang at Lili's

The gang at Lili’s.

That night, I danced my audition piece before a sold-out crowd. It was terrifying, and my legs shook uncontrollably the whole time, but people cheered and clapped, and I was hooked. That nervous feeling never really went away—years later, I still got shaky right before I went onstage—but I grew to love the feeling.

Like I said, I’m not a good dancer, but I got to perform in a lot of burlesque shows, thanks to my talented friends who were good at planning events. I was even in a documentary that some people made about burlesque performers around the country.

Your truly in full femme drag.

Yours truly in full femme drag.

Some people see all forms of stripping as demeaning to women, because we’re “selling our bodies.” To me, it’s a feminist act to choose where and when to display your body, and to control when and how people could look. Women would come to our shows having never seen another woman undressed in real life before, and come away thrilled to have been granted permission to just look at another real woman’s un-airbrushed, totally imperfect, totally beautiful body. Burlesque is alllll about body acceptance.

Sweetpea and me at the Miss Exotic World pageant.

Me and Tawnya at the Miss Exotic World Pageant, which is now called the Burlesque Hall of Fame.

I loved every second of doing burlesque. I loved coming up with acts, I loved the costumes, I loved the makeup. Guys, there is so much makeup involved in burlesque. Foundation. Powder. Stage blush. Extreme eye shadow and eyeliner, fake eyelashes like furry black caterpillars. Aqua Net hairspray (on your face!) to set everything in place. Layers of lipstick with loose glitter rolled on top. Body glitter. Glitter on your nails, glitter everywhere. So much glitter that we would joke about “disco turds,” which is when you’ve eaten so much glitter from your own lipstick on a show night that the next morning you crap out poo that glitters, winkingly, up at you from the toilet bowl.

There are wigs, headpieces, and sometimes fishnet stockings over nylons over legs with skin-colored makeup on them to hide any bruises, and there are mile-high heels and giant rhinestone earrings and multilayered costumes and crystals stuck all over everything.

All gold everything.

All gold everything.

With our makeup and costumes on, we were cis women in female drag. We didn’t dress like that in real life; a burlesque performer in full makeup and costume is a clear caricature of femininity. Onstage, it is transfixing. Offstage and up close, all that makeup and artifice can be…a bit much.

At the Pride Parade, from left to right: Lola Bel Aire, Ava Dollhaus, Sweetpea, Coco Dupree, and Switch the Boi Wonder.

At the Pride Parade, from left to right: Lola Bel Aire, Ava Dollhaus, Sweetpea, Coco Dupree, and Switch the Boi Wonder.

Which is why it confused the hell out of me that so many people would hit on me while I was tottering around on four-inch heels, wearing two pounds of makeup and a floofy, patently fake blond wig. This would happen all the time. I never got used to it. Someone would be talking to me after a show, and it would slowly dawn on me: Oh. They’re flirting with me right now.

Offstage, people almost never hit on me. I can count on two hands the number of times someone has approached me to “chat me up” in a public space. Men, especially, don’t even seem to see me when I’m going about my daily life, which is fine with me, as I like girlzzzz, but y’all, it was uncanny. There I would be, a monument to over-the-top feminine presentation, with fake eyelashes, cartoonishly huge foam inserts in my bra, and glitter lipstick so thick it cracked if I smiled, and people loved me. They wanted to date me. They wanted to be my friend.

And when someone would ask me out, I would wonder: Is this how they think I look in real life? I mean, onstage, yes, I get it. The light hits the glitter and the dancers look great. But close up we have a full-on Monet situation going on. Most burly dancers admit it: In full regalia, we are not meant for the daylight hours or very close human contact.

What the fuck? I would think as I’d take off my makeup backstage after a show, using half a box of baby wipes to make a dent in the layers of shellack on my face. Was it that I was such a cartoonish exaggeration of a woman that I was suddenly approachable, like a person dressed as a Disney character or a sports mascot? Was it just that someone had just seen me take my clothes off in public, and assumed that meant I’d be easy to talk to and maybe nail? Or was it (and here’s what scared me) that people just liked the fake me better?

As the years went by, this dichotomy bothered me more and more. I wanted to be known for more than my shimmy, as proud of it as I was. I started spending more and more of my time writing, and doing fewer and fewer burlesque gigs. Sweetpea and Nadine thrived on the performance aspect of their lives, and both became even more successful and well known in the burlesque community. These days, they both cheerfully answer to their stage names in their real lives, and each has successfully melded her onstage and offstage personas into one fabulous life. It actually took me a few minutes to remember Nadine’s real name for this article.

There’s a lot I miss about burlesque. I miss the backstage banter and the excuse to have two totally separate wardrobes and two totally separate personas. The only persona I have now is my own, but burlesque is what helped me find it. Because of my time onstage, I’m now comfortable in my skin, I can own and control my sexy, and damn if I don’t know how to apply fake eyelashes in less than 30 seconds. I don’t miss putting makeup on my legs, though. Not even a little bit. ♦