Arts » Theater + Dance

Burlesque: The secret origin


Christine DePriest (left) and Christie Walker - PAUL F. P. POGUE

In the interests of full disclosure, it is worth noting that your humble narrator was at the scene of the crime when the modern Indy burlesque revival began. It started, as many dubious ideas often did, when local scene stalwarts Christine DePriest and Christie Walker (Christie Belle and Sass, as we knew them in those halcyon days) were a bit bored, and it took shape, as many half-cocked plans often did, on the floor of Greg Brenner's living room where bands slept off the rigors of Punk Rock Night.

I don't know exactly which of us came up with the idea, but Walker and I were up irresponsibly late chatting online one night and lamenting that Indianapolis didn't get all the cool stuff like burlesque. Someone said, probably facetiously,"We should get together a bunch of Punk Rock Night girls and do it ourselves!" and the other exclaimed "We TOTALLY should!" and all of a sudden it became an actual thing.

I may claim at least quarter-credit for the mad concept, but Christie Belle and Sass get all the credit for bringing the idea to life. They recruited performers via online message boards and at Punk Rock Night, with Anita Cocktail (still a member of Bottoms Up to this day) as one of the very first conscripts, and proved to be very adept and dedicated creative directors.

"We had boys on the message boards saying there was no way we could ever make this happen," Walker recalls. "But I'd been thinking about this for a while, actually. Women didn't really have a role in the music scene, unless you were a musician. DIY was the big thing in punk at the time, and that really helped us get it going. If we'd had any competition, this never would have gotten off the ground."

Of course, if we'd had any competition we probably wouldn't have come up with the crazy idea in the first place. We had no classes, no guidebooks, no training. Our sole instructional manual was a DVD of Bettie Page performances from the Teaserama era. And as our group of volunteer burlesqueians sat watching the video, one thing became clear to us: This is all a lot weirder than we think. Instead of two hours of Bettie and Tempest Storm dancing in lingerie, we got vintage comedy clips, singers and actual dancers interspersed with the vaguely naughty bits. "It was old-school vaudevillian comedy that would make fun of the upper classes," DePriest says. "Our show turned into more of a play, a variety show thrown together, a bunch of fun with some friends."

We decided early on to donate the proceeds to charity – the West Memphis Three and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund that first year, and later a variety of cancer-support organizations.

"The charity made it something fun, gave us less pressure to be perfect," DePriest says. "The minute you start charging serious money for your shows is when people start to be really critical of your performance."

The very first show, the troupe did a practice run in the afternoon while a women's rugby team had rented out the rest of the Melody Inn. "Those girls were far more lecherous and inappropriate than ANY male you've ever seen," DePriest says. "They totally put us at ease! After I'd gotten catcalls and assgrabs from the girl's rubgy team, I was ready for anything."

And by sundown, the line stretched practically all the way around the block for a show that included everything from superhero skits to Rash the Clown on a four-nail bed of nails and lots and LOTS of fishnets. "We sold out the Mel!" Walker says. "It was a lot of fun, a lot of stress, but it was huge."

Walker, DePriest and several of the girls continued on, eventually taking the name Bottoms Up Burlesque. Walker and DePriest largely retired from burlesque, though they stay involved on occasion; two other members of the original show, Anita Cocktail and Sadiemae Cutebottom, still perform with Bottoms Up.

I bowed out after the first show, as I'm not a natural performer and prefer the view from stageside. But I nonetheless take a certain measure of pride in being in on the ground floor of this thing and seeing it all evolve into something none of us could have imagined – not to mention, obviously, a recurring gig that puts me stageside for every troupe now. We didn't know what we were doing and we didn't know what we were getting into and we wouldn't have changed it for all the world.


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