From sci-fi movies to cartoon ponies to cult TV to best-selling books, every element of pop culture gets a sexy, subversive (but adoring) makeover.
By The Lady Aye
In cabarets, clubs, and comic-book conventions across the country on any given night, it’s geeks gone wild. Women from all walks of life step out onstage and sensually strip away the layers to reveal what they consider to be their most erogenous zone—their brains. This is burlesque’s geeky sister; this is nerdlesque.
But before we get to the naked truth, in the interest of scholarship, let’s define some terms: “Nerds” in this context are those who are some combination of socially awkward, tech-savvy, and passionately dedicated to the study of esoteric pop culture; while “burlesque” is historically defined as entertainment that includes comedy of manners and the art of striptease. Put them together in the supercollider of the burlesque revival and you have “nerdlesque.” The result is evenings that explore everything from sci-fi to Shakespeare, with a maximum of intelligent humor and a minimum of clothing.
If you’re thinking of Dita Von Teese’s retro, rhinestoned striptease in horn-rimmed glasses, think again—glamour takes a backseat to cleverness and there are more lightsabers than long satin gloves. This subgenre of the burlesque revival is also a do-it-yourself affair, with costumes ranging in price and complexity from items culled from performers’ own closets to full-scale, laser-shooting robotics. And nothing is off-limits in terms of source material; it’s open season on everything and everyone from Captain Kirk to Dr. Who. Also, with women in the captain’s chair, pop culture is no longer the exclusive domain of the “fanboy”; nerdlesque is giving “fangirls” a whole new way to let their geek flags fly. According to performer and “rogue” feminist scholar Lydia Ransom, nerdlesque is especially uplifting for female enthusiasts of all types, since “it gives them a chance to connect their bodies with their geekery, and I think that’s powerful.”
A Wallflower Blossoms
Offstage, Lil Miss Lixx is a lithe blonde with a Kewpie-doll face; onstage she’s pure nerd: clumsy, bookish, and way behind the cool kids. In her homage to awkwardness, she stumbles into the spotlight with her copy of Hip-hop for Dummies and attempts to bust a few ill-fated moves. The results are comical, and the clothes come off piece by piece as she valiantly tries to get her dance on (stopping only briefly to take a bump of glue and a hit off her inhaler), and audiences love it. For Lil Miss Lixx, who was voted “Hottest Freshman” at the 2009 New York Burlesque Festival, nerdlesque is less about re-creating her favorite movies or comic books and more about having a laugh at her own foibles as a performer. Growing up near Baltimore, the former “mathlete” trained as a dancer, and found the method she was most drawn to was not necessarily the one she was most suited to. “I took ballet, jazz, modern, tap, and hip-hop growing up,” she says. “I loved hip-hop classes…but something about a five-foot-nine, blonde white girl doing hip-hop looks a little funny.”
Her burlesque background also took a different tack from the traditional feather boas and satin gloves. Starting out in New York City’s vibrant performance scene, she says comedy rather than pure sex appeal became her goal as a performer. “For me, when I saw shows, I responded to the person who made me crack up laughing,” she says. “[I loved] the person who did something superobscure or nontraditionally sexy, and made it sexy through rhinestone pasties and G-strings.” Her own gawky moments became the inspiration for her “most requested act,” one that balances the cheekiness of ruffled panties with the ridiculousness of a rhinestoneembellished asthma inhaler. So what if she sniffs glue and is a dancing fool? It’s all in good fun, and aud i -
ences can see a little bit of themselves (and a whole lot of her) in her “spazzy” striptease.
Bringing the Go-Go to Gadgets
Lola Martinet may be the stripper of the future. The San Francisco–based peeler has used her engineering background to invent costumes that will make the classic burlesque skill of tassel-twirling easier, faster, and more efficient for generations to come. Her signature act, which she has lovingly dubbed the “Stripmaster 9000,” features a surprise ending that brings together technology and tease in a revolutionary way. Bopping along to some retro futuristic eighties pop favorites, she begins her signature piece with her own charming rendition of the robot dance, peels away her party dress, and finally reveals a pair of remote-controlled tassels that spin themselves at the touch of a button. “The funny bit … is that they spin so fast it makes my boobs jiggle a bit, which is fun and hot, and obviously accentuates my chest.”
Unsurprisingly, audiences go wild for the high-tech spectacular and some times even get in on the act. Since the pasties are controlled by a helper backstage, Martinet merely has to point in the direction she’d like to twirl and her assistant makes it happen with a repurposed garage door opener. The occasional bit of audience participation, when a lucky person is selected to control the remote, has made the act a hit with birth day and bachelorette parties, and has even gotten her booked at a wedding, where, as she recalls, “the bride was so excited to get the remote.”
Although high-tech and forward looking, Martinet eschews the phrase “nerdlesque,” preferring to think of her work as just another facet of burlesque’s long history of dazzling performance. She asserts that her electronics-enhanced accessories started out a number of years ago, before the term “nerdlesque” was even coined, as an engineering based solution to the “problems” she saw with traditional burlesque costuming. It wasn’t until the past few years, as the trend for geeky striptease took off, that burlesque producers began applying it to her acts. Still, no matter what you call it, Martinet is happy to entertain and innovate, explaining, “I like having a conversation with the audience and taking something that is common and turning it on its side.”
By far the most popular aspect of the nerdlesque scene are the shows specifically dedicated to fandom, with specific troupes and events popping up all over North America. Not simply casual viewers of their favorite shows, these are the convention-going, fan-fic-reading, mint-in-box-collectible fanatics. From sci-fi movies to cartoon ponies to cult TV to best-selling books, every element of pop culture gets a sexy, subversive (but adoring) makeover. When done right, the performances are about so much more than the source material; they’re about the fun and folly of being an obsessive fan. According to Seattle writer, performer, and “Professor of Nerdlesque” Jo Jo Stiletto, that’s what is at the heart of every act for both artists and audiences. She explains, “What nerdlesque is doing is what burlesque has always done, which is saying, ‘This thing that you’re obsessed [with], this thing that you love—you can turn that into art on the burlesque stage.’ ”
The performers are, after all, fans themselves, so it makes sense that they’d use the framework of nerdlesque as an opportunity to live out their fantasies onstage. For example, Sailor St. Claire, a PhD candidate in English, turned her love of detective fiction into a literal and literary transformation in one of her acts, which takes her from bookworm to femme fatale and back again as she teasingly peels away black stockings, shimmies out of lingerie, and gives the audience tantalizing peeps of her body with an old-school fan dance. Her twist as a reader is to replace the classic ostrich-feather fans with ones crafted from pulp-fiction paperbacks. The porcelain-skinned redhead thinks that a shared passion for pop culture really comes through to the typically coed crowd and has them coming back for more. “I think they really have a built-in connection with that particular subgenre of burlesque,” she says, “and part of its charm…comes from that built-in audience connection.”
Whether it’s Hobbits or videogames, this interpretation of the art of the tease adds an extra level of excitement by finding an entirely new way of enjoying old favorites, as well as revealing the body. Despite the serious level of passion and scholarship, this playful combination of pop culture and nudity is, of course, all about having fun. Toronto-based stripper and burlesque academic Loretta Jean explains how even the most straitlaced of heroes can stand a good-natured kick in the pants. “I feel like there’s a lot of characters that you can do that with, that you can kind of lampoon their sexuality in a way that’s both positive to the character and reinforcing things that are already in the character.” As the driving force behind the work of most nerdlesquers, this combination of sexy and sassy makes these artists some of the superheroes of the stripping world—even when they drop their capes or shimmy out of their utility belts.
Lift & Support: the Audiences
These performing fans themselves, of course, have their own loyal followings, with pop-culture geeks and burlesque devotees flocking to their shows, all of which creates a loving vortex of fandom-on-fandom that results in a fun, supportive, adults-only atmosphere. For a lot of guys who spent hours poring over every issue of their favorite comics and hunting down the rarest action figures, seeing a sexy version of their heroes in the flesh is nothing short of a dream come true. New York City burlesque-scene superfan Tony Guarisco admits he’s a “huge geek,” and says his favorite aspect of the tease may be “seeing performers bring characters I like to life,” although the nudity doesn’t hurt.
Men, however, aren’t the only ones watching. The audience for nerdlesque is every bit as diverse as the performers and the subjects they cover; since these affairs are produced in theaters and bars, and generally by women, the crowd tends to be more coed than your average strip club. Women are not only welcomed, but encouraged, to join in the good-natured hooting and hollering as the costumes come off. In New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, theme shows have become a hot ticket for everything from couples’ date nights to bachelorette parties to anyone looking for a spicy change of pace from the usual dinner and movie. So whether you’re a vampire slayer or a steampunk or just a casual moviegoer, there’s probably a nerdlesque show out there that will let you see your favorite comicbook character, robot, or high school valedictorian in a whole new way.