It’s quite easy to catch a burlesque show in Bushwick; last Wednesday, I made it to two. The first was a performance in the back of tiki-themed Dromedary Bar. Later I took a 10-minute Uber ride to Bizarre Bushwick for a packed fetish show set to run until 4 a.m. I probably could have made it to a third, a raw-and-raunchy circus variety show with aerialists and who knows what else at House of Yes, but I didn’t learn about it until the next night.
Burlesque, a predominately female branch of variety show that features striptease and other acts, has become a nightlife staple in Bushwick. It often includes themes: sex-positive, transgender, people-of-color, plus-sized and political burlesque; and you can usually see something new, beautiful, and radical.
“That’s the one thing I do like about the saturation,” said Darlinda Just Darlinda, who is one of the pioneers of the burlesque boom in Bushwick. “You have all types of shows.”
Darlinda has been doing burlesque for 14 years, and she performs three to five nights a week, averaging 15 to 20 shows a month. In 2011, seven years into her burlesque career, Darlinda, who was living in Bushwick, grew tired of lugging her costume and makeup bags on the subway to all the shows in Manhattan. She wanted to be able to walk out her door and hop on stage.
Bushwick Burlesque was born that year at The Morgan, which was soon replaced by Tutu’s. In January 2013, Darlinda and her production partner discovered Bizarre, formed a partnership, and produced shows there for the next four years.
“Literally anything goes [at Bizarre], and that’s why it’s so beautiful here,” Darlinda said. “You can see someone do a beautiful classic striptease, you could see someone do a lip synch, you can see someone pull something out of their pussy.”
Betsy Propane was a year into burlesque dancing when she realized she didn’t actually know what she was doing.
Around 2011, she was singing in a rockabilly cover band on Long Island, where was living at the time. She was first introduced to burlesque at one of her gigs, where the performers gave her a chance to do it.
“I remember my first performance was stripping out of a regular dress,” Propane said. “I needed a proper mentorship.”
Under the tutelage of Jo “Boobs” Weldon, the headmistress at the New York School of Burlesque, Betsy learned about strippable costumes.
“I have friends that pay for costume work, so they can take a dress off without having to pull it over their head. Or have a faster zipper, or snaps or straps,” Propane said. “There’s a musicality to it.”
Her first role was as the floozy daughter of a cowboy, based off a fictional story written by an ex-boyfriend. Propane’s name is not to be confused with real fire, although she did dabble in fire eating.
Now, the 29-year-old Bushwick resident hosts and performs regularly, about three to four times a month, including every third Monday at Beauty Bar in Manhattan. She’s done sing-and-strips and worked the sideshow at Coney Island.
“There’s no other way to live other than creatively,” Propane said as she sat across from me at Variety Coffee Roasters. She had cropped hair, bangs and an undercut, all the color of a cardinal. “I wouldn’t even know what I would do if I was normal. There’s no normalcy about me at all.”
She quit her job as a special education teacher’s assistant to pursue the nightlife scene full time because “it just didn’t feed my soul the same way burlesque did.”
“It’s been really hard to manage and balance the two lives,” Propane said. “They don’t have to be separate, but there’s a different level of professionalism. Being a burlesque performer has changed the way I see myself as a person … I can’t believe I’m getting choked up.”
Propane pulled out a tissue and dabbed her face, explaining that her mother wasn’t present during her teen years.
“Burlesque taught me how to be feminine,” she said through tears. “It taught me how to own my femininity and to demand respect. In an entertaining way and in an empowering way.”
Although Propane didn’t grow up in an open, creative home (she said her family is supportive, but isn’t crazy about her career), she has always been comfortable being nude on stage.
“I’ve never really been ashamed of my body, even if it isn’t a magazine stereotype of what a female’s body should be,” she said. “Especially being tattooed.”
While Propane pays homage to the beauty and glamour of Old Hollywood ladies, being a burlesque performer is not always as glamorous off-stage. There have been times when she tipped the Bryant Park public bathroom attendant to let her put on a full face of makeup. She’s done her makeup around the corner from a show, at the Starbucks on Christopher Street.
“But you make it happen. Sometimes you’re just naked, sitting on the toilet but not peeing, putting your pasties on. That’s one of my favorite things to do after a show: Just sit completely naked and find a chair and sit down on it, just breathe or eat potato chips. I like to be the most glamorous and bizarre piece of work that I can be at all times.”
Living a Double Life
Lucy Buttons still hasn’t bared it all.
“One of my other burlesque friends used to joke that I was the most clothed stripper in all the land,” she said.
Buttons has become more courageous in the latter part of her 12-year burlesque career, switching from dance tights to fishnets, from star pasties to tassles. Her bottoms used to have a fuller back, but now she said she basically flashes her asshole to everyone.
The red-headed bombshell produces “I Love Burlesque” every third Wednesday at Dromedary Bar. She also performs in the beach party-themed show. Last week, she came out in a cheetah-print halter top, twisted at the neck, and long sarang. She called on her ballroom dance training, gracefully gliding around the stage, teasing the audience with seductive smiles and winks as she unwrapped her halter before stripping her clothing piece by piece.
Not everyone knows this is her life or that Lucy Buttons exists. By day, she works in somewhat of a corporate sphere (she couldn’t reveal too much), where she goes by her legal name. Her two worlds are wholly separated — she doesn’t need any more workplace harassment.
“To me it’s so normal [to be performing], but it’s fun to remember that it’s not normal to other people,” she said. “My naughty secret.”
Buttons was drawn to the glamour and initially thought burlesque would become her full-time career.
“Living in a place like New York City, where it’s so expensive, the people — I don’t want to blow off what they’re creating with their characters — aren’t living the most glamorous lives off-stage,” Buttons said. “I would rather have a full-time job and do some burlesque than be a full-time performer and eat peanut butter and jelly. That’s what I did. I was totally broke.”
Buttons was drawn to the artistic freedom of burlesque, the way women celebrated their cellulite and kinks, and the fact that everyone was unapologetically their true selves.
She’s always been open-minded of the strippers, drag queens, people in polyamorous relationships she is friends with today; but today she’s more outspoken. Mostly about women, definitely about sex.
“Especially being where I’m from, it really opened my world,” Buttons said. “I was a feminist but in a different way, and that’s evolved so greatly with the people that I’ve met. And issues that I’ve come to know from the people I know in the burlesque world — that’s a much greater gift than the stuff that I do.”
If she weren’t doing burlesque, Buttons said she would probably have more money, maybe live somewhere else (“my apartment is totally out of control with costumes and things”). She probably would’ve had an easier time dating, although she is now engaged. In the end, she said that putting art out into the world is the most important thing.
“You have to do what makes you happy. Although I do try to live a double life, I can’t hide much,” Buttons said. “I wear my heart on my sleeve, I wear my sadness on my sleeve. I do that for business reasons, but I’m unapologetically myself. That includes burlesque.”
Baring it all
Darlinda has all but replaced her legal name; even her mom calls her that.
It came from a joke, inspired by “Madonna, just Madonna.” She also liked the name Darlinda, which she broke up into Spanish definitions: dar means “to give,” and linda is “beauty.”
“Art is beauty and I can give beauty with my performances, whatever that means,” Darlinda said. “Storytelling is beauty; life is beautiful. That’s my name.”
Darlinda grew up in the hippie town of Mendocino, California, where her parents were on the board of the local theater. She graduated from a California State University with a degree in theater and film.
“We ran around the woods naked,” she said. “Bodies weren’t a place of shame, so it just came naturally to me. ‘Oh, you mean I get paid to take my clothes off?’”
Darlinda is a queer woman who has performed in everything from drag to classic shows. She often teaches at the New York School of Burlesque, and she’s known more for her performance art. The piece she was about to perform last Thursday was from a project called “A Year in Rainbow.” It inspired the upcoming “Untitled Rainbow Project,” which grew out of her need for a new passion as burlesque became her full-time career.
“Burlesque is a very feminist art form, in that it is whatever you want it to be. You don’t have to be Dita Von Teese,” she said. “You can be whoever you want to be. That’s empowering.”
On Thursday night at Bizarre Bushwick, Darlinda was a sultry siren in a red silk robe, in the middle of the stage with her back turned to the audience. She held out her arms, the robe falling into a U-shape, exposing and outlining her backside.
Booty pop, booty pop, booty pop.
She turned around, pursing her glittery red lips at the audience, giving them her bedroom eyes as “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” guided her back to the chair.
She took the pin out of hair, shook her curls and, after a few moments, whipped off her robe, tossing it above the mantle. The crowd roared.
Darlinda turned around, completely nude albeit fishnet leggings. She was ungroomed, confident, and sexy.
She came back to the crowd a few minutes later, suitcase in tow, to catch most of Drag Race before running to Manhattan for her next show.
She bent down to whisper, “That was invigorating.”
Cover image courtesy of Damyrs Alvarez