Their venues are closed and their stages are dark, but New York City’s burlesque performers are itching for the return of feathers, tassels and harnesses.
Written by –Julia Carmel
Liquor was flowing and glitter was abundant as The Maine Attraction stepped onto the stage at Bathtub Gin’s weekly burlesque show. Red sequins dripped from the nape of her neck down to her ankles. But by the time she tore her dress off for the dwindling crowd, it was already the beginning of the end.
“The host of the show came backstage, and she said: ‘All right, everybody. This is our last show for a while — New York just shut everything down,’” Maine said, describing the night of March 15, 2020. “I sobbed like a baby.”
Maine and her fellow burlesque performers were among the more than a million New Yorkers who lost their jobs last spring when the city shut down. As of last December, employment in the arts and entertainment in New York City had declined by 66 percent — the largest drop of any sector of its economy. A year later, their venues are dark and empty and some of their costumes no longer fit.
Many burlesque entertainers pull together a living in New York through a variety of performance gigs, while others use it as a release from more conventional day jobs. The city had been a hub for burlesque for more than a decade; before the pandemic, you could find a show on almost any given night in both Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Twelve local burlesque performers spoke to The Times this winter about the future of their scene. While many were eager to dress up and pose in their old haunts, only their stage names are being published because of the delicacy of the subject with some employers, co-workers, friends and family members.
Burlesque has a rich history in New York. Beyond the flashy diamonds, pearls and feathers, the format allows performers to combine elements that are usually seen on separate stages. There’s room for stripping to meet comedy; for raunchiness to play with tragedy; for the beautiful to face the grotesque; and for the performer to make the audience squirm.
The earliest form of burlesque in the city goes back at least to September 1868, when Lydia Thompson & the British Blondes melded aspects of “leg shows” and minstrel shows for a bustling audience. Sideshows — like the ones still running in Coney Island — are also considered burlesque-like performances.
Starting next Friday, New York’s arts and entertainment venues will be able to reopen at 33 percent capacity, yet burlesque performers are feeling hesitant about returning to their historically intimate and touchy audiences.
Before the pandemic hit, Margo Mayhem and The Samson Night, a couple that performs together as Midnight Mayhem Burlesque, were working eight-show weeks on their respective Broadway shows while also doing about four burlesque shows a week. Some days this meant they would run straight from their Midtown theaters to perform an early show at Times Square’s Le Scandal Cabaret, then down to the Slipper Room on the Lower East Side for the midnight show, before heading back to their apartment in Woodside, Queens.
Samson and Margo have managed to make ends meet since their performance work dried up — after receiving unemployment for a brief period, Margo pivoted into teaching pole dancing, while Samson focused on narrating audiobooks — but they worried about their colleagues with less conventional performance backgrounds, especially as freelancers tried to navigate the unemployment system.
“Performers and artists are like the bastard children of society,” Samson said.
Burlesque often thrives on the fringes of society, cropping up with a vengeance during times of prohibition and oppression, but during the pandemic, even underground art forms have been at a loss. Many performers say they have no idea what burlesque will look like on the other side.
Dandy Dillinger, a 33-year-old baker and burlesque performer living in the East Village, lost both her day job and her performance career when the pandemic hit. The restaurant she worked for closed last March, but nightlife shutting down was far more devastating. By her estimate, she had been making as much as $3,300 a month from burlesque and go-go dancing.
She started an online bakery to pay her rent but found that the emotional void left by burlesque couldn’t be filled by buttercream frosting.
“I lost my sex drive, I lost my sex appeal, I didn’t look in the mirror anymore,” she said. “I put on a good 15 pounds, and none of my clothes fit.”