Burlesque in the Bluegrass

Photo provided
Photo provided

When you hear "burlesque" the names Gypsy Rose Lee or Dita Von Teese might come to mind. You might picture, corsets, glitter — and tassels! And what about late comedian Jackie Gleason, fire dancers and Pacman? Believe it or not, all of the above — scantily-clad dancers, comedians, sideshow performers, and even video game characters — fall under the umbrella term "burlesque."

Burlesque is an artistic work, dramatic or literary, that treats serious or mundane material with light-hearted mockery. It can be funny and/or sexy. It's ludicrous without the lewd.

When you talk burlesque in Lexington, you must mention Siobhan Atomica: dancer, show producer, and Headmistress at Kentucky Academy of Burlesque.

You might ask what it takes to reach the status of headmistress.

"It is the result of many years of work and networking learning the ins and outs of production, marketing and booking/handling talent," Siobhan said.

Siobhan founded Kentucky's largest burlesque event, Bluegrass Burlexpo, which was held last November at Lexington's Downtown Arts Center.

Growing up, she studied theater and dance. In 2008, she got into burlesque.

When she started out, Siobhan says she fumbled through, a combination of lacking self-confidence and resources. Between 2009 and 2011, she performed with Rebel Riot Review, doing two or more shows a week.

To be successful in burlesque, Siobhan says "It's about empowering each other and creating a product that the audience consumes; you can't just be in it for yourself."

Siobhan markets herself as neo-burlesque. She performs classic routines as well as routines like her passionate dance to Nights in White Satin, in which she walks out on stage covered in white tulle. The routine was inspired by the death of a loved one. Siobhan says that her "Nights" dance elicits an emotional response from the audience, and for her it's self-healing.

Siobhan has tried to research the history of burlesque in Kentucky, and Lexington specifically, with little luck.

However, she did find that there used to be a law stating people were prohibited from dancing in downtown Lexington, near the location of Downtown Arts Center.

Why, she asks, would there have been such a law if burlesque wasn't happening in Lexington? She wants to change the way people think about burlesque and present it to Lexington as a legitimate and respected art form that offers something for everyone.

Plans for the 2015 Bluegrass Burlexpo, already underway, include a vaudeville variety show with intermissions in the lobby, and vendors with merchandise for sale.

"It takes an entire year to plan and prepare for the event," Siobhan said. "It is scheduled for the first weekend of November, on the 6th and 7th."