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Pierce Freelon: Bull City burlesque

February 11, 2014 

I first became aware of Durham's burgeoning burlesque scene by accident.

A few years ago my band, The Beast, had a show at a local venue but none of my bandmates were able to stick around until bar closed – so we didn't get paid. I had to return to the venue the next night to pick up our cash. When I arrived, I found that the space had been transformed.

What was previously a cold, standing-room-only rock club, now felt like a 1950s night club. With cabaret tables, champagne glasses, and men and women in elaborate costumes, I felt like I had stepped into the opening scene from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” An elegantly dressed man in drag blew me a kiss, as I made my way to the bar to find out what was going on. The bartender told me the cast of “The Lion King,” in town for a run at DPAC, had rented the venue for a burlesque show that night.

I had heard of burlesque before, but had never been to a show. In my ignorance, I thought of burlesque dancers as synonymous with strippers – but something about this show felt more like a theatrical production. I was intrigued by the regality of the performers, the dramatic costumes and decorations, and the earnest sense of anticipation, community and respect in the room. It was a far cry from my last bachelor party experience at Teaser’s Men's Club.

I tried to stick around and watch the show but it was sold out. As soon as I got home, I jumped on my computer to find out what I had missed.

The website description read as follows: “the cast members of The Lion King present an intimate, sexy and saucy night with a Burlesque Extravaganza. With drag performances, contortionist, singers, erotic poetry and hot male and female dancers. Bring your SEXY... because anything goes.”

The "Burlesque Extravaganza" had booked the venue two nights in a row – both had sold out.

Mind blown.

Burlesque was now on my radar. Over the next several months, I would occasionally hear about burlesque shows popping up at local venues, sometimes accompanied by pole dancing, arial fabrics, fire-eaters, hula hoopers and other acts you wouldn't typically associate with a music venue, bar, or rock club. I was never able to make a performance, but I definitely noticed an increase in frequency of burlesque shows being promoted in the area.

Years later, I went to see jazz musician Derrick Hodge perform at an Art of Cool event, and picked up a flier for a show by a troupe called Boom or Bust Burlesque, where the dancers were to be accompanied by a live Blues band. I marked it on my calendar. I invited my wife to the show, but she declined, so I made it a guys night out.

The show was amazing. The charismatic founder of Boom or Bust Burlesque, Miss Bliss, introduced performers who danced, flirted with, and enticed the audience as clothing melted away. Within minutes, my misconceptions about burlesque flew right out the window. Unlike Teaser's, where patriarchal capitalist fantasies play out over the soundtrack of misogynist Top 40 hip hop; where businessmen and groomsmen cluster to toss crumpled dollar bills at women, I found Boom or Bust to be a community affair.

For starters, the audience was much more diverse – it was multi-cultural/generational, and at least half of the attendees were women. I was surprised to see my college roommate, David, in the audience. He was there to watch and support his wife, who was dancing with Boom or Bust under the stage name Simora Cheeks. The strength, athleticism and creativity that went into her performance was astounding. David explained that she is one of the top pole dancers in the state of North Carolina. She's won so many pole dancing competitions, that they don't even let her compete anymore. Cheeks and the other dancers were talented and elegant; entertaining and sexy – but none more so than the mistress of ceremonies herself, Miss Bliss. She had us all wrapped around her finger like a feathered boa, as she led the celebration of the beauty of the human body.

Miss Bliss’s parents were cheering their daughter on from the front row. I met them after the show and learned that, like me, Bliss was a Durham School of the Arts alum – and her older sister was my former classmate of mine.

We talked about the possibility of having my band, The Beast, perform alongside Boom or Bust. My brain began swirling with ideas – The Beast could learn classic ’90s R&B songs and jazz tunes, we could dress up, or maybe even dance ourselves. The following week, we met at Cocoa Cinnamon to discuss the details. We booked The Pinhook for Valentines Day, and the rest is history.

This Friday Feb 14, The Beast and Boom or Bust Burlesque are proud to debut a very special, very musical, very sexy collaboration we call: Beauties and The Beast. Doors are at 8 p.m., show starts at 9 p.m. –and don't forget to bring your SEXY.

Pierce Freelon can be reached at pfreelon@gmail.com and on Twitter @Durhamite.

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