Bringing Sexy Back

by Stevie Zvereva
Photos by Bayou West Photography

A new burlesque troupe seeks to revive Peoria’s vaudeville days

Playing to a sold-out Apollo Theater in February, Lock and Key Burlesque’s first show, Duck and Cover: A Tribute to Fallout Video Games, featured a little bit of everything—a Las Vegas guest performance, group numbers and solo acts, the pole, hula hoops, trick whips, dancing and striptease. Aimed at reintroducing Peoria to burlesque, the variety-style show was a huge success, says the troupe’s leader, Miss Kitty Catscratch—a stage name she’s channeled through her years performing in Chicago and with Bare Ankle Burlesque in Decatur.

And to that end, the Apollo was the perfect venue. “It’s small and intimate, the price was right, and… it had everything you could possibly want for a burlesque performance—the bar downstairs, the marquee… and it’s historical,” Kitty notes, her sights set on larger dreams. “We’re trying to pull back the history of Peoria with burlesque and vaudeville.”

From Joke to Cabaret
“Peoria has such a rich history of burlesque,” she continues, outlining the cultural shift of a bygone art form that’s been widely misunderstood—and ever-changing—over centuries. Starting as a joke (literally, “burla” means joke in Italian), burlesque acts first served as comic interludes between the grave tragedies and pastoral dramas popular in late 17th- and 18th-century Europe. In London theaters of the 1800s, burlesque turned parodic, featuring rewritten lyrics of popular songs in risqué musical plays that mocked the original works.

When the genre made its way to New York in the mid-19th century, the acts were akin to satirical opera, Kitty says, comparing beginning burlesque to scenes captured in the 1984 period film Amadeus. The female-run productions challenged gender roles, with women taking on patriarchal roles in spoofs, or shocking righteous crowds with a little leg beneath layers of Victorian ruffles.

When it came to Peoria via the early-1900s vaudeville circuit, burlesque acts fit the variety-show bill amongst circus performers, freak shows and other entertainers, an inventive blend of satire, striptease and often vulgar comedy. Eventually, the genre shifted toward straight nudity, Kitty says—“women just standing there… making fun of things in the nude”—but by the 1930s, it reverted back toward the tease.

“That’s when you hear about Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr, all these women who came up in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s who really made burlesque what people know of as true, classic burlesque today,” she explains, describing the “neo-burlesque” revival that followed. The genre’s “shocking and modern twist” unveiled a fine line between sensuality and striptease, hurtling burlesque into an identity crisis as tantamount to stripping.

Tease and Concept
“The art of the tease in burlesque is more of a cabaret-style performance,” Kitty explains. “We’re not about getting nude and rubbing all over people for money… But if you walk into a strip club, you know exactly what you’re going to see. If you come into one of our burlesque shows, you never know.

“We do a full-stage show with a theme—everyone in theater seats, usually—and they’re waiting and watching for something to come off, but it may or may not, and they're just as excited if it doesn’t than if it would have,” she laughs.

Burlesque acts focus on concept, style and being sexy, as opposed to sexual, Kitty says. With Lock and Key, she would like to dispel the negative reputation, drawing on the feminist power of the theater of burlesque. And Peoria’s ripe for it, she says, citing an ongoing burlesque resurgence. “St. Louis has two or three troupes; Chicago has like 10… They’re all around us, but somehow nobody has thought to do them [here]. We’re in the perfect place. We can get performers from all over to visit us on their tours… We’re an epicenter, and we should be an epicenter,” she stresses. But there’s a bonus to operating in a less saturated market. “Whenever you have something that’s new to an area and nobody else is doing it, it really boosts everybody’s excitement, ” she explains. “Nobody around here knows what burlesque is. Nobody’s been to a show unless they’ve traveled for it.”

Opportunity Calls
A self-proclaimed “Jacqueline of all artistic trades,” Kitty is “always seeking a creative outlet,” she explains. So when she followed her husband back to Peoria in 2014, she found fuel by hosting “Girls Night In” burlesque parties, featuring dance lessons for women. Word of mouth spread, and eventually, she got a request from Kimberly Cumming of California Style Fitness Studio, who wanted her to share the burlesque dance workout through its spread of alternative fitness classes.

California Style Fitness is Peoria’s first pole fitness studio, with classes running the gamut from aerial silks to hula hoop, hip-hop, vertical barre, boxing, and even pound fitness—a drumming workout using lightly weighted drumsticks. Burlesque fit the mix.

“[It’s] definitely a workout!” Kitty stresses. Chair dances target the core; boa routines, the arms and back. Between the kicking, balance, stamina and coordination, routines can be full-body workouts. “We think of it as an introduction to pole,” she adds. “So for women who aren’t strong enough for pole, it helps develop those muscles so you can eventually climb a pole.”

The studio is like a big sisterhood, she says, with women often taking the full range of classes to keep workouts fresh and fun. “I always have students—whether it be new students or people who decide to repeat the class over and over again,” she says. “The only thing that I was missing was performing. So I started getting my students ready to do a show and had auditions, and that’s how [the troupe] got started.”

Building a Character
Kitty handpicked eight girls for the troupe’s first show, but she’s always on the hunt for new members. “I want everyone to get the chance to perform, see what it’s about, feel the rush of being on stage and hearing the crowd go crazy.” It’s a blast, she says, but it’s not easy. “First of all, you have to have stage presence, and be interesting to look at because you have to capture people’s attention.”

Then there’s the confidence. Since performers are often standing in front of a crowd in their bare skin, guts are a must. “You can’t have a whole lot of hang-ups, and that’s part of what burlesque is about: accepting yourself and being positive about who you are, inside and outside.”

It’s also about acting, she says, which starts with a stage name. “You need to build a character and be that character.” The name helps girls to emerge from the box society’s put them in, she explains. There’s also practicality in going incognito. Stage names help protect performers from harassment—an unfortunate part of the trade. “You’re going to have fans,” she says with a laugh. “And sometimes fans get a little crazy.

“I always tell my girls, when you get out on stage, you’re not ‘so and so.’ You are Blondie Blacktop,” she offers. “Who is she? What is she? Is she a big-bodied, bold person, or is she coy and cute? You need to play up your character. It’s a theater performance.”

A Performing Town
Along with encore performances of Duck and Cover, Lock and Key has its eyes on larger plans. “We are definitely hoping to build everything up in Peoria,” Kitty says, describing a burlesque festival she’d like to organize in the next year or two, “an entire weekend of performance, competition and classes so people can get better acquainted with it.

“We’re going to try to bring in some of the bigger names in burlesque and lesser-knowns… I hope it makes people more receptive to it,” she adds, so the genre can once more play in Peoria. “There are so many [historic] performers that came through this area that nobody knows about. My goal is to bring us back to a performing town.” a&s

Encore performances of Lock and Key Burlesque’s Duck and Cover: A Tribute to Fallout Video Games will take place at the Apollo Theater on June 3rd and 4th. For more information, follow the troupe on Facebook.