—Thursday, August 25, 2011—
Burlesque conjured up a number of images in my mind if I sat back for a moment and really thought about the word. I didn’t have a particularly good understanding of it, but I believed it to be part strip show, part side show and part comedic theater. For sure though, I pictured nearly naked women sporting nipple tassels.
This date made its way onto the list after receiving numerous suggestions for a Strip Club Date, and rather than dismiss it completely, I chose to take the spirit of that suggestion (put your date in a socially and sexually uncomfortable situation) and use it explore a kind of theater I’d never seen.
Additionally, burlesque was one of the few acceptable ways to watch women get naked while on a date and I had already tackled one of the other approaches by taking a date to the Museum of Sex.
Elyssa had contacted me directly through the One Hundred Dates website and specifically requested to be my Burlesque Date. She was a friend of 100 Interviews creator, Gaby Dunn, and a writer herself, who had been researching and writing about burlesque over the previous year. We exchanged several emails and I agreed that she would make a fine burlesque date. After all, she would be the expert and I, the student.
Sounded like fun, no?
I met Elyssa for the first time outside of Thai restaurant Sticky Rice, across the street from the burlesque venue. She wore a kind smile and a jacket outfitted with several punk lapel buttons. The host seated us quickly and Elyssa opted for the chair over the booth seat. A surprising move, indeed. In the back of my mind, I wondered if she had read the post in which I mentioned that everyone wants the booth seat, as it was online at the time, and that maybe she was just messing with me. If so, I liked her audacity.
While I had come straight from work in Times Square, Elyssa was coming from the Upper East Side where she both lived and worked. That was interesting. I had never met anyone with an office on the UES. From our previous exchanges, I couldn’t remember exactly what she did for work, other than write, so I had no idea what company it might be.
Elyssa loved exploring the city, its different neighborhoods and its vast selection of dining establishments. That’s what we talked about as we decided on food and drinks. What kinds of cuisine did we both like? Where were our favorite places to go out? Which parts of the city spoke to us and for what reasons? It was clear that she had made the rounds as a writer. The aspect of exploration found in journalism was what I found most intriguing about it as a career.
Then, without having to explicitly ask, my question was answered — Elyssa was a freelance writer, photographer and social media consultant. That explained why she both lived and worked on the UES. Her apartment functioned as her home as well as her office. Elyssa’s writing gigs sent her all around the city, from neighborhood to neighborhood, which she told me was one of her favorite parts of the job. It sounded like she had opportunities to work on many interesting assignments.
I asked her what it meant to “do social media”, which was a phrase I’d heard tossed around over the previous few years. People would say they “do social media” for a company or an artist and all I could imagine was an old CEO calling an intern into his office, saying, “What’s this about a Facebook? Make sure we’re on it. I don’t know how to use the damn thing.”
It was almost rude when I asked about it because I was fairly certain I could work in social media without any kind of training. Was it not just the same things that I did every day for my own purposes? Elyssa told me that it was mostly normal things that I already knew how to do and it was not just old curmudgeons that hired her, but that there were many small companies that simply didn’t have the time to manage their social media. So, they paid her to do it.
Considering that, maybe I should have thought about a career in social media. I wanted to know how to get clients, but she said it happened a variety of ways and that she started out by simply offering to help a small yoga studio with its online presence. It had worked out well for both parties and she just took it from there.
Over food, I learned that Elyssa was from Southern Florida and attended school at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. From what I gathered, it sounded like she had been very involved while in school, helping to run at least a couple different student groups. I related to her in that I was also extensively involved in various student activities while in school. Also, I asked her about Pittsburgh as I’d wanted to go visit it ever since befriending a Pitt student while studying abroad. Her opinion was that it was a great college town but too slow for real life. New York was more her speed.
Looking for something to discuss, it made sense to talk about our mutual connection, Gaby, author of 100 Interviews. Gaby and Elyssa knew each other from Florida where they used to write for the same newspaper in high school and they reconnected once in NYC thanks to a close UES proximity and their shared writing interests. Elyssa’s dad had even been one of Gaby’s interviewees: Someone who doesn’t own a cell phone. I’m always fascinated by the way relationships ebb and flow and how people reconnect, so their story was interesting to hear.
Talking about Gaby led into an entire discussion on improv and how I got into it while in college. I explained how it had come to replace music in my life, as far as performance was considered, which plunged us into a lengthy discussion on music.
At one point, I mentioned how I had been into punk at a certain age and she immediately asked me who my favorite classic punk bands were. I didn’t really have answers for her, when it came to the original wave of punk, other than the most obvious bands. I felt myself caught in a trap of trying to be cool, but not being able to prove it. I moved the eras forward to highlight some of my favorites from high school, and worked backwards from there, identifying subsequent influences. She could tell I was doing my best to backtrack and she was not calling me on it, which I appreciated greatly.
What I was most curious about, was how Elyssa became interested in burlesque. She talked to me at length about what she found interesting, what was fun and what was controversial. I think some people must like it because it’s like this underground club that not everyone knows about. You feel that you’re in on it, that you’re a part of something, which reminds me very much of the alternative comedy scene.
There also seemed to be a very interesting social perception of burlesque. It involved striptease, which white bread Americans found unsavory, but it was also accepted as a novelty act. It would not have been appropriate for me to tell my office that I was going to a strip club that night, but it was completely within reason for me to say I’d be at a burlesque show. With a history so tied to stripping, I was surprised so many people made the separation so easily having never seen it. Truth be told, it didn’t really seem dirty to me. It seemed more like it ridiculed sex because well, sex was funny, right?
Elyssa agreed that a big part of burlesque was the satirical aspect which laughed at our insecurities and sexual imperfections. We extended the topic into a conversation about people’s sexual comfort zones. I told her how I had very different modes of operation depending on which of my friends I was talking to at any given time.
Many of my male friends and I didn’t talk openly about sexual topics. I was almost always more open when talking to women rather than men, and often in talking to strangers rather than friends. There was a part of me that wished many of my friends and I were more open about such things, but once you know someone for a certain about of time, it can become difficult to cross those boundaries.
Elyssa had actually considered doing burlesque before. There was nothing really stopping her other than herself. I would think that on stage, when performing, there would be many times that you’d hardly feel vulnerable because you were in control as the performer. There was a power that came from being the center of attention. Elyssa was confident. She didn’t seem to shy away from eye contact or potentially revealing topics with me. I felt like she would have been able to control a stage just fine should she have chosen to do so.
We sat at the table for a good long time after our food had vanished, carrying on our conversation and waiting for it to be close to show time. As the clock crept towards curtains up, we paid and stepped across the street to Casa Mezcal, where the burlesque would be taking place in its basement lounge.
Elyssa covered my entry fee as I had picked up dinner. Splitting up activities rather than individual bills is my favorite way to go Dutch on a date. There was a squirrelly man working the door who greeted us and told us to “have a good time.”
Once on the staircase downstairs, Elyssa informed me that local burlesque luminary and teacher, Jo “Boobs” Weldon, had been outside. Although unlikely, Elyssa couldn’t help but hope that Boobs might be performing that night. From seeing her for all of 10 seconds, I wouldn’t have been too disappointed if she got on stage and took off her clothes. IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN.
Inside the dimly lit lounge, we found a couple small seats at a little table and claimed them as our own. I bought myself a beer and got Elyssa, who was not drinking, a water. The room was stylized like an old speakeasy but with some updated pieces of furniture. It seemed like the perfect place for a burlesque show. The crowd began to finalize and Boobs sat right up front, which I reckoned must have been quite intimidating for the newer performers. Also, it didn’t look like we’d be seeing her namesakes that night.
The host appeared dressed as a faun — a half goat, half human creature — and his costume was quite realistic given the production value of the event. To his left was his sidekick, a scantily clad card girl type. She seemed like a bit of an airhead but she was also decently attractive, so I doubted anyone would care how well she had done on her SATs.
The master of ceremonies’ whole goat boy act wasn’t very funny and was even kind of awkward at times. Lots of long pauses and bad sexual jokes. Maybe it was all part of it though — it did seem somewhat intentional. After reading the names of each act, he ate a bit of the envelope containing the names. I got it, because he was half goat. Hilarious.
The first act was a mildly out of shape, fake-blonde woman with various tattoos and a few visible bruises. She danced without much grace to an oldies song and stripped down to her pasties. At one point, she had a man in the audience rub tanning oil on her. It was kind of dumb, moderately sexy and all together entertaining.
The second act was dressed all in black and appeared to be a real dancer. This was when it started getting sexy. She did a very enticing and very impressive strip tease. Her eyes were stone cold — an absolute ice queen. Nothing cute for the audience, just the art of seduction.
The third act was already fantastic as he stepped on stage dressed as Pavarotti in clown makeup and a fat suit. He lip synced an opera song while doing flips and splits. It was hilarious — I loved that kind of stuff. He tore himself out of the bulky suit to reveal the tight little body of an acrobat. For his finale, he blew up a long, thin balloon and stuffed it down his throat. I couldn’t tell if I was completely grossed out by what was sure to be a very uncomfortable experience, or just seriously impressed. He joked in his vaguely European accent that it wouldn’t be the same color when it came out.
Then, something completely different. The fourth act was a woman dressed somewhat like a peacock, who stuck needle-tipped feathers in her skin. It was a little fucked up, but I’m sure there was someone out there who was into it. One thing was for certain: she was alienating the audience. I was doing just fine watching the woman prick herself like a pin cushion, but Elyssa was very uncomfortable, even cowering at times, unable to watch. She was far from alone in that reaction.
Luckily, the show reached its half way point after the masochism portion and the audience was given 10 or 15 minutes to collect themselves. I used the facilities and purchased another beer on my way back to my seat. I returned to Elyssa and discussed the first half. I liked it thus far. I could definitely see the appeal of burlesque. The crowd was fairly diverse, which let me know that I was not a freak for liking it or anything like that.
I think most people are freaks to an extent. You just need to figure out which kind you are.
Elyssa and I had been seated in very close proximity the entire time which had led to a little bit of hand on knee action. [VERY STEAMY.] It was hard not to flirt when surrounded by sex, in a dim room and with the seating arrangement we had. It was hard not to be turned on by the very atmosphere. It was hard to keep from kissing Elyssa, so some soft, entirely appropriate kisses were exchanged. Being in a museum was a different story; apparently it was easier to resist in that setting.
The sidekick poked her head out of the curtain, asking to borrow someone’s sun glasses, and Elyssa provided her with a pair. She disappeared again with a “thanks.”
With the second half came new seats for us on an actual couch. It also brought with it a new host, which was the same actor as before, but this time, he was dressed like a Vegas lounge host, wearing Elyssa’s sunglasses. I liked that character much better than the faun. The lineup for the second act was the same as the first, but the shows were different.
The blonde led off with another cute and innocent striptease although her tassel swinging was better the second time around. Then the dancing temptress and the acrobat returned together for a very intriguing set. She, dressed as a snake, charmed the acrobat as they danced and climbed all over each other. It was a very impressive act of sexuality and acrobatics.
At long last, we were back to the masochist and her needles, except this time she was making herself into a human birthday cake, with needle tipped candles. I wouldn’t have thought the whole thing so creepy if the woman had just worn a different expression on her face. She was so serious. So disturbing. Almost like she would have been surprised if you weren’t into it. I don’t know. I was just glad when it was over.
Another intermission signaled that the main show of the night was over. From there on out, it was going to be amateur hour. The second show was for the up and comers on the scene.
Honestly though, I might have liked the second show better than the first. A fairly funny plus-sized woman dressed up like a frog and brought some laughter. A young blonde women covered in golden glitter, who was the best looking lady of the night, got me feeling like I was actually at a strip club. And the only boylesque show of the night, a striptease done to The Candy Man Can, was my favorite act despite the fact that I was not the intended audience. The guy sold it — that’s all I can say.
There was a wrestling match between the sidekick from earlier and the host for the evening. The acrobat returned to the stage, somewhat drunk, to attempt a backflip into a one armed handstand. It took him a few tries, but when he nailed it, it was pretty damn impressive.
There was a break in the action and we decided to leave, as it was getting quite late for a school night. Elyssa walked me to my train and after a kiss goodnight, I disappeared down the stairwell to the underground.
And who did I find there on the platform with me? The human porcupine, Needle Woman herself. She looked so normal out there in the real world without her intense gaze and handful of masochistic needles. If only the other people waiting there knew where she’d come from.
Who knows? Maybe one of them would have been into it.
For Elyssa’s writings and musings on life in New York City, check out Miss Manhattan.