In the spring of 2008, a ragtag group of theater majors, art students, musicians, and feminists met in the campus dance studio of The State University of New York at New Paltz and learned how to strip. Their teacher was Jo “Boobs” Weldon, Headmistress of the New York School of Burlesque, and the lessons they learned that day (how to seductively remove a glove, make love to a chair, twirl nipple tassels) would be put to use in a way that the small college town of New Paltz had never seen. The co-ed collective called themselves “Alpha Psi Ecdysia” (“ecdysiast” meaning one who sheds one’s own skin) and, under that name, designed to seem innocuous as any sorority the Student Association funded, they started the nation’s premier college burlesque troupe. A buzz quickly grew for the group; their first show sold out a small piano bar, subsequent shows packed the campus theatres, their ranks grew from a dozen to over fifty members, they booked gigs in New York, were the subject of a few documentaries, and eventually went on tour across the West coast. The original core of Alpha Psi Ecdysia, or APE as they refer to it, graduated in the next year or two, and continued performing under the moniker Rhinestone Gorilla Burlesque; they left the troupe in the hands of underclassmen, who rose to the challenge of producing shows and educating their peers about the oft-controversial artform. I am a member of that original group, and my experience with APE certainly helped define my college career and life beyond it. I talked with Jenny Weinbloom, the founder, producer, and creative director of APE/Rhinestone Gorilla (who goes by the stage name of Lucida Sans), and Jackie Wolozin, the senior who leads APE in its current incarnation as Kinky Demure, about the unique phenomenon of college burlesque.
Jenny, where did the idea to start a burlesque troupe come from?
Jenny: I started seeing shows as a teenager in New York. By the time I transferred from NYU to New Paltz after my freshman year, I'd already been hanging around the Slipper Room for two years. I missed it when I moved upstate, and I talked about it all the time. I remember standing in a circle doing some stupid exercise with the theatre majors when one of them mentioned that she had been a champion competitive hula hooper as a kid. I told her about Miss Saturn and she got interested in hooping in burlesque. She would later become Equa Fellashio, one of the founding members of our troupe. Honestly, I didn't really intend to start a troupe when I brought Jo up to teach a workshop. I just wanted my new friends to know about this thing I loved so that they'd understand me better. But then they fell in love with it, too, and suddenly we were planning a show. We were a troupe.
Jo Boobs demonstrates how to work a feather boa at the very first New Paltz burlesque workshop in 2008. Photo courtesy of Jenny Weinbloom.
What drew you to burlesque, rather than traditional dance, theatre, or comedy?
Jenny: In retrospect, I had kind of been interested in it my whole life. My sister played Mama Rose in this super precocious, inappropriate 3rd grade production of Gypsy when I was like 3 years old. We had recorded the Bette Midler TV movie off of CBS and we'd watch it all the time…I was always drawn to that moment when Louise first transforms into Gypsy, and she stands in front of the mirror and says "Mama, I'm pretty. I'm a pretty girl, Mama." My awkward years hit early and hit hard, and the idea of being glamorous, beautiful, and wanted was very attractive to me. When the awkward years ended, I'd spend hours in front of the mirror stripping out of too-small dresses, lip-syncing jazz standards. At the same time, I was listening to a lot of Nirvana, getting really into experimental theatre, obsessed with drag queens and attempting to convince my mother that I was a lesbian. It would be a good six years or so until I'd learn that burlesque still exists in the form of neo-burlesque, and that it has absorbed aspects of punk rock, drag culture and performance art. I happened to discover neo-burlesque just as I was growing disillusioned and angered by actor training and the Svengali-like actor/director dynamic. After a number of unpleasant experiences as a young actress in the hands of adult male directors, I was thrilled to discover a female-dominated art form where performers have total control over what they do onstage. I was sick of directors; I wanted to be a self-sufficient, sexually liberated artist, and I found that opportunity in burlesque.
As Rhinestone Gorilla's resident host, Jenny (aka Lucida Sans) tends to say a mouthful. Photo copyright Linus Gelber.
Jackie: I think one of the first reasons I was interested is that I like to shock people, and what better way to shock people and make them uncomfortable? Another more personal reason is that in high school i was very uncomfortable exhibiting femininity and didn't really understand how to feel about my own sexuality. I was very uncomfortable with being feminine, and burlesque really helped me with that by allowing me to be as glamorous as I wanted in a setting where that was acceptable; and then, of course, as strange as I want to be, too!
Jackie as Kinky Demure, a baby-snatching mermaid. Photo copyright Linus Gelber.
Why is burlesque important for college students or young women in particular?
Jackie: I think this is an age when people, women especially, spend a lot of time judging each other and deciding what is okay and what isn't in terms of their sexuality and how they exhibit it. I think it is important for women and college students both have a way to express their sexuality, and I believe burlesque takes the negative connotation away from exaggerated sexuality.
Jenny: I think that women entering college are expected to appear sexually liberated, regardless of whether they actually are. By talking about burlesque at New Paltz, and many of the ideas behind its role in my life, I made myself a kind of lightning rod for sexual angst. Women I was only just beginning to know--women who were seen as sexually mature and self-possessed--were talking to me about feeling uncomfortable with their bodies and, mostly, being unable to orgasm. I was surprised to find that the sexual discourse happening on my campus was really limited, and I was thrilled to see that change, at least in certain departments, once I began the troupe. Alpha Psi Ecdysia became a safe space for sexual discourse as well as a performance ensemble. As an ensemble--as a family--we've helped each other through bad relationships, past traumas and the constant ebb and flow of body image. Whether it's a burlesque troupe or a gay/straight alliance or some other student organization, every campus should have some sort of club where peers can have a healthy discourse surrounding sexuality. What makes a burlesque troupe so effectual in transforming the campus discourse is that a burlesque show tends to be a pretty popular event. A wide percentage of the student body might come to a show with whatever expectations, and find themself witness to all the good work that the troupe has been doing on themselves, and I don't mean as performers. Hopefully, the performance empowers the wider student body to be more vocal and less ashamed of their own sexuality, their own bodies. Young women--and young men--are so rarely in an environment where sexuality is embraced as a good, healthy, vital, complicated part of life. If a campus wants healthy undergrads, they should encourage any avenue through which students can explore and embrace their sexuality, especially if they're expressing that journey through their own awesome creativity.
What challenges have you faced as a troupe? Did you have any opposition from family, friends, or other authority figures?
Jenny: APE was always supported by the administration of our university, but often less so by parents, professors, and local government. I remember walking through the theatre building one day and being summoned into the office of a female professor I hadn't yet met. She told me quite sternly that her students were like her children, and that I had "turned them into stripper trash". I should note that the only part of this statement that's offensive is the "trash" part, and the equation of that word with strippers. A semester later, a fairly forward-thinking theatre professor attended one of our performances and applauded the classic acts--the ones that are all about pretty girls stripping out of pretty costumes to display pretty bodies--and expressed extreme disapproval of the more political acts. Our debut performance was nearly canceled after local government grew concerned that we were operating a strip club out of our performance space, but an 11th hour plea to their memory of Natalie Wood in Gypsy caused them to call off their troops. I remember a sophomore whose mother threatened to stop subsidizing her tuition if she didn't leave the troupe. We never saw her again. For the most part, though, we've faced little opposition. The school generously funded troupe visits to The Boston Burlesque Exposition, Burlycon in Seattle and Exotic World in Vegas. When Christian students expressed outrage over an act in which Mary births then destroys the baby Jesus, the administration defended the act, explaining their interpretation of the act as a statement on post-partum depression and the universal challenge of motherhood. Frankly, we rarely got in trouble for anything worse than letting our shows go overtime and leaving a glittery mess in the dance studio. New Paltz has been so good to us.
Members of APE descend upon Lucida, who is hidden from view and covered in cake, after a show celebrating her graduation from New Paltz. Photo copyright Alyssa Weissman.
How do you come up with ideas for acts or shows?
Jenny: It varies. Sometimes a show theme evolves from a funny title, but more often it comes from a legitimate desire to find out what my friends and troupemates will do with that theme, what it means to them. Like this "When I was 10" theme we're doing for November-- I'm loving learning about who my friends were as kids and what they learned from that period in their lives. Seeing how we all react to a theme is always fascinating. As far as acts go, that varies. Generally a concept drives an act--who I want to be, what I want to say, why I want to get naked--but sometimes there's a song that I just gotta do an act to, and the song drives the concept.
Jackie: I think my ideas for shows tend to come from thinking up ways in which to bastardize people’s ideas of normalcy and polite society, and thinking of ways to disturb people. I do love to disturb people! There are a lot of dead babies in my acts.
A poster for APE's "nerd show." Photo copyright Lauren Peralta, poster courtesy of Jenny Weinbloom.
Who/what have your biggest influences been?
Jackie: This question is easy, and perhaps a little obvious. When I came to campus, I learned about the troupe from two excited girls when I was waiting for my department interview, but it was meeting Jenny that really got me into it. Her passion for the art is contagious, and it as easy for me to see and appreciate it when she was the one teaching us what it was. From the first general interest meeting, I was really excited, and I knew that this was something i wanted to do, and she was someone I wanted to do it with. Now, this is a little strange as you are the interviewer, but I shall speak of you in third person to make it better! [Oh god.] Watching Bridgette (Gemma Stone) perform is inspiring all on its own. Every act is clever and hilarious, or when it's not hilarious, beautiful and always intelligent. I have never seen an act of hers that I didn't love, and they are always creative in an unexpected way. I also greatly admire the persona she has developed. It's not about being glamorous or pretty, it’s rough, gritty, in-your-face and fabulous! I aspire to such general awesomeness.
Gemma Stone (that's me...awkward). Photo copyright Linus Gelber.
Jenny: Tigger!, the original King of Boylesque, is a huge inspiration to me as a performer. He's a tremendously loving performer that manages to take care of his audience, even while shocking them and often making them uncomfortable. The entire New York burlesque community helped me to trust that my friends and I having fun together onstage would be fun for an audience, because watching them have fun was always fun for me. James Habacker, the owner of The Slipper Room, is a huge inspiration to me as a producer and a community organizer. As an educator, Jo and Tigger! inspire me to always embrace my students' ideas and personalities while honoring the history and tradition of burlesque.
Tigger! Photo copyright Leland Bobbe.
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to start a burlesque troupe on her college campus?
Jenny: See burlesque as often as possible, read about it, watch videos. Be as informed as possible, because if you aren’t, how can you teach? Understand that your primary roles are that of teacher and stage manager, and don’t get so wrapped up in performing that you push those to the side. Discourage your kids from falling into lichés, but honor that—at least in the beginning—those lichés are their primary point of reference and they shouldn’t go unexplored. Take your kids to see shows. Most of all, maintain a symbiotic relationship with your campus. You probably depend on them for funding, rehearsal space and possibly performance space. Don’t piss them off unless pissing them off is part of a truly noble political agenda. If their rules are reasonable, play by them. Educate them. When APE began, we never stripped past bras and full-back panties when performing on campus because we liked our school and respected that request. We earned their trust and respect, and soon they let us perform on campus in pasties and g-strings. Also, be a spin doctor. Let’s say you’re petitioning for funding: if burlesque makes the program board groan in disgust, talk about how you’re reviving a forgotten art form while teaching body-positivism. If burlesque makes them giggle in excitement, talk about how you guys are a totally awesome glittery girl squad. If it clearly excites them sexually, talk about how your bad girl strippers and offer them comps. Be a saleswoman and pick your battles [Don’t fight when you’re asking for money]. Also, run a co-ed troupe. Men have so much to contribute. Just try and keep the creeps out.
Where do you see APE/Rhinestone Gorilla going? Do you have plans or hopes for the future?
Jackie: I don't know where APE will go. I think each generation of burlesquers worries that it won't exist after they're gone, and I am no exception. As for Rhinestone Gorilla, I am thrilled out of my pants about it! It is always the most exciting, interesting piece of news I have, and I am always excited about the shows, and proud to talk about them to my friends! I love the troupe, I love what we do, and I am wholeheartedly invested in our troupe for as long as it exists! I'm in it for the long haul!
Jenny: I am thrilled that APE is continuing without me. Avian [Rush, the sophomore co-producer of APE] and Kinky are both talented performers and poised, self-possessed, creative leaders. They and their troupe are doing great, sponsoring workshops, putting on shows, and building relationships. I hope that burlesque will exist on the New Paltz campus long after there's anyone there who remembers me. As far as RGB goes, we're doing monthly shows in New York and are hoping to keep that going for a long time, maybe go on tour within the next two years, produce some major one-off events, and absorb more talented students and graduates from APE.
What items could you not live without as a performer?
Jenny: Red glitter, eyelashes, heels. They're the tools of the trade.
Jackie: I could not live without the eyelashes. I love grandiose, over-the-top, ridiculous eyelashes that make my overall appearance even stranger. I suppose also the hair, but as it is always actually attached in my case, i wouldn't ever have to “go without” anyway!
Burlesque is still a relatively underground scene. What do you think about portrayals of burlesque in mainstream media? Do you see burlesque as having an influence on mainstream culture?
Jackie: The only reference direct reference to burlesque that I can think of is the  movie Burlesque, and I dislike that because it seems like a portrayal of what polite society wants to see burlesque as. I do see burlesque influencing mainstream society in a big way though, whether or not people realize it. The biggest example I can think of is Lady Gaga. Jenny described what she does as “burlesque with a [big]budget,” and I think that her crazy costumes are very reminiscent of burlesque.
Gaga started out at the Slipper Room, too! Has burlesque changed you in any ways?
Jackie: Burlesque has definitely made me a lot more comfortable with my own sexuality. It has made me more comfortable with being a woman, and also more comfortable making other people uncomfortable, one of my favorite pastimes. It makes me feel fine about having a sick sense of humor as well.
What’s the best thing about burlesque?
Jenny: The community. I really love burlesque people. Also, the drag element, the opportunity to embody a femininity outside my own.
Jackie: It’s a place where I can be as strange and shocking as I want, and make people as hilariously uncomfortable as I want, and still look super glamorous and have people love me for it.
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Catch Kinky and some of of APE's newest members in action November 3&4 at "Alpha Psi Ecdysia Takes a Long, Hard Look in the Mirror." 7 pm, McKenna Theatre, SUNY New Paltz campus. $5 students, $10 general.
Take a trip back in time with Rhinestone Gorilla Burlesque as they explore their age-ten obsessions in "Ass From the Past," November 13. 9:30 pm, The Triad Theatre, 158 West 72nd St, New York, NY. $10 w/ 2-drink minimum.
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Top: APE shows usually dissolve into a sloppy, sparkly dance party after curtain call. Photo by Pip Nico.