Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Kids These Days! A Report from Alpha Psi Ecdysia

Some of my students from upstate are performing in Manhattan Thursday night! Here's a report on how this came about. I wanted to edit their workshop feedback because I got shy reading it, it was too sweet. But I'm not going to censor the piece because it's too complimentary, that's for sure.

Article by Lucida Sans

Most college Greek societies require creepy hazing rituals or at least four kegs for anyone to take their top off; Alpha Psi Ecdysia needs only to schedule a meeting. That's because Alpha Psi Ecdysia is not a sorority, but the official burlesque troupe of SUNY New Paltz—one of only three burlesque troupes on an American college campus and the only one to operate out of a public university. A.P.E. was born this Spring, when new-girl-in-town Lucida Sans (that’s me—hi!) realized that her sexy and talented classmates--including a champion hula hooper, a fire dancer, a girl with a sexy lobster costume and nowhere to wear it, and some of the most badass coeds you'll ever know--had no outlet for their fabulosity.

Alpha Psi Ecdysia had a few events and field trips during the early part of the semester, but it didn’t really exist until Jo Weldon came to teach an all day workshop on campus.

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“Jo made a bunch of young women feel totally comfortable about jumping around topless in front of full length mirrors, and that's pretty remarkable. I couldn't stop saying, ‘JO IS LIKE, MY HERO. WHEN SHE SAID (insert Jo quote here), I WAS LIKE, I LOVE YOU.’ I'm still more excited about what I did Saturday than anything I've done in a while."-- -Gemma Stone, SUNY New Paltz ‘09

"Thank you so much Jo for taking time out of you exciting, busy life to do this workshop for us! I want to personally thank you for letting me be comfortable and feel sexy in my own body without feeling dirty or guilty. I never really truly embrace my body because by society's standards I am not the ideal picture of sexiness, I'm considered fat and out of shape. You let me embrace the inner ‘me’ and finally feel 100% comfortable in my own body. I felt sexy and desirable for the first time in my life. I by the way, was dying to tell you that when I was a little girl, I also wanted to be a stripper. I thought that it would have allowed me to be sexually validated. Like, men would always desire me if I was a stripper. But, being introduced to burlesque made me desire me. I honestly did not want to keep my shirt on after it came off. I was proud of my body and I was proud of the sexy me. I was in Catholic school my entire life and I would never have even considered doing anything like this, my stripper thoughts alone were scandalous, but I am really happy that I had the opportunity to participate in this. For the first time, I felt at home and in touch with who I truly am.” -- -Virago Sadine, SUNY New Paltz ‘11

The founding troupe and its corresponding debut show formulated organically after the workshop, and by the following month we were papering the town with flyers for our upcoming show. Though we’d experienced no prior opposition to our work, things got a little “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” once we began advertising. A well-meaning theatre professor began pulling individual performers aside to urge them to reconsider their involvement, explaining that she worried they would be viewed as “stripper-trash” and that she was uncomfortably seeing “[her] girls” in this manner. Other professors expressed concern about the performers’ safety and reputation, and were shocked to find that every “what if?” scenario they envisioned had already been considered by the troupe; most were relieved and impressed to find we had already planned precautions for such scenarios—others remained adamant in their opposition.

The biggest shock to the troupe’s system occurred less than 24-hours before the show, when I received a call from the venue telling me that local authorities had ‘gotten hold of’ our posters and were trying to scare them into canceling the show. In spite of the venue’s cabaret license, the police department was looking for loopholes within the local law with which to persecute the company and venue. I received threats that I would be arrested and the venue would lose its liquor license, should the show go on as planned. The venue stuck behind us and vowed not to cancel the show, but asked that we tame the show by wearing no less than full-back panties and bras at all times.

While stage manager extraordinaire Shari Griswold contacted the performers to tell them to be prepared for such changes, I went to Village Hall to petition the issue. After lengthy meetings with various authorities and tireless efforts from myself and others, it was good ol’ Gypsy that saved the day. As soon as the building inspector realized that we were talking “burlesque, like in the musical Gypsy” and not lord-only-knows-what-she-had-imagined, the issue was dropped entirely. The show went on the following night—pasties and all.

The troupe performed its debut show—Alpha Psi Ecdysia: Touched for the Very First Time—at a local piano bar on Friday, May 2nd. Amazingly, the only nervous person backstage was me. The performers remained professionally calm in spite of technical and house management difficulties that turned me into an utter wreck in the minutes before showtime. 120 people squeezed into the 70-seat venue, and 100 others were turned away. In spite of some technical difficulties, the show—which featured fifteen soloists, two group numbers, four go-go dancers, and live music by Anton Jackov and The Threesomesters—was pretty fucking fantastic.
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At the show’s end, the place erupted with sexual joy, devolving into a fabulous dance party that lasted until the bar kicked us out. The audience response was incredible, and gained APE a bevy of beautiful new performers (far more than we could ever book in a single show!). Most fulfilling was receiving emails from students like Lizz Guzman, who wrote: “Each and every woman (and man) who took the stage embodied beauty, sexuality, femininity and a great sense of feline fun. I was so excited to see so many different types of bodies, types of acts...you all really captured the beauty of the female form. […] I think that every woman in the audience learned an important lesson about being sexy and being confident from all of you.”

Performing burlesque has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for the women and men of APE; everyone loves finding new ways to experience music, experimenting with performative sexuality, feeling beautiful and sexy, laughing at the sacred, bonding over bedazzling, and so much more; the same stuff every burlesque performer loves. Unique to APE is the excitement of seeing performers courageously claiming and expressing sexual identities they’ve only begun to explore, and sharing that exploration with the audience; or the thrill of seeing a girl who has never undressed for anyone—even a lover—removing her bra onstage to delighted screams; or a performer’s mother—trepidatious since day one—crying with pride by the end of her daughter’s act; or a performer changing her thesis topic to account for her newfound passion.

As founding members perfect their acts in out-of-troupe performances throughout New York State, new performers have joined the group and begun their exploration. APE has existed for less than four months, and already I can spend a morning teaching incoming freshmen about burlesque and the troupe, the afternoon rehearsing new acts with first-time performers, and the night seeing seasoned APEcdysiasts perform in Hudson, Albany, Brooklyn, and more. SUNY New Paltz is learning that burlesque is an exciting and vital performance form, academic pursuit and tool for personal growth. With six themed, full-length shows planned for the coming academic year, thirty six student participants, and continued support from the university, Alpha Psi Ecdysia plans to continue its productivity as long as there is interest.

Alpha Psi Ecdysia will reprise Touched for the Very First Time at Rififi (332 E. 11th) on Thursday, June 5th at 10pm. Learn more about the gang at http://www.myspace.com/AlphaPsiEcdysia

End of Lucida's Article! Go to the show and see what all the excitement is about!

I am amazed by this story, the way I was amazed when I was on the Sex Workers' Art Show Tour and I saw all the different groups that brought us to the campuses. When I was in college there weren't groups like this. Of course I went to business school and I might have missed something that was going on around me, but I don't think so. I think there really is a lot more openness to this kind of playfulness and exploration than there was when I was their age. I'm so happy to see it!

In just a few hours I'll be leaving for the Burlesque Hall of Fame weekend in Las Vegas. Many of my students will be there. I was thinking about this last year--many of them are the age they'd be if I'd had kids in my twenties, and many of the legends performing and speaking at the show are of the age to have had me in their twenties. That makes me just about the definition of a middle-aged stripper. Who would ever have thought being a middle-aged stripper would make for such a great life?

Posted by Jo Weldon, Headmistress of The New York School of Burlesque, for burlesquedaily.blogspot.com.

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