Last Wednesday, the Cat in the Cream was packed with students chatting under the venue’s familiar twinkling lights, nibbling on cookies, drinking tea, and anxiously waiting for their peers to come on stage and take off their clothes.
It might seem unconventional, but shows like these have become a celebrated tradition at Oberlin over the past four years since Oberlin’s own burlesque troupe, OBurlesque, was founded.
Burlesque is a style of performance that is broadly satirical, parodic, and theatrical in nature. The term usually refers to strip routines in which the dancer plays at sexuality through exaggerated character routines or comedic bits.
“So basically, the classic burlesque is kind of old-timey, lingerie, slow-dancing, slowly stripping and teasing the crowd,” said College senior and four-year OBurlesque member Katya Bouazza-Salvá. “Burlesque at Oberlin has kind of really drifted away from that and is more definitely [about] doing stripteases, but is more comedic. It’s more body-empowering.”
At an OBurlesque performance, the acts range from sexy solos to oddball group numbers to dances incorporating circus tricks. The genre is vaguely defined and held together by a similar aesthetic value of exaggeration and camp. On Wednesday, the audience loved it all, hollering in support and roaring with laughter.
The OBurlesque show has been an on-again, off-again tradition at Oberlin since 2006 but was revitalized four years ago and made more popular than ever. The group has come full circle as the then-first-years who helped re-energize the organization completed their final show last Wednesday. Tech Director and College senior Max Robinson explained that past burlesque performances were done infrequently and on a much smaller scale.
“[The Sexual Information Center] did a big Safer Sex Night [in 2015], and one of the things at Safer Sex Night was a burlesque number at [the] Cat in the Cream,” Robinson said, adding that the founders performed at this event, and then “found the [club’s] old charter and decided to reinstate the club, and I was there at the first meeting where they were trying to feel the room on it. So I got in at the ground floor.”
Robinson explained that OBurlesque has come a long way since that first meeting.
“It was very much the sort of underdog story,” Robinson said. “It was all so scrappy, and we just kind of rolled with the punches. There was a charter, but … there was nothing in the charter about how to run a show, what the leadership positions are or what the performers are supposed to do. We’ve just been kind of building that up over time.”
Since the club was re-founded in 2015, the club’s membership has increased dramatically. Some students sign up for just one show, while others become regular performers. The quality of the shows and the organization itself has also changed for the better.
“It’s definitely become more creative in ideas,” Bouazza-Salvá said. “I think we’ve become better at choreography too, because the first few years we really had no idea what we were doing.”
It was easy to see those improvements at the Cat in the Cream on Wednesday. Each performance was electric. There were many comedic acts, and some standouts included: a performance to Justin Timberlake’s “Sexy Back” by a group that dubbed themselves SexyJack and the Hoebot Snaccs, where performers wore robot costumes; and a duet to “The Loophole” by Garfunkel and Oates, a song about Christian women who exclusively have anal sex to save their virginity. Both left the audience shrieking with laughter.
The more traditional stripteases were met with equal levels of enthusiasm. This was the last show for some of the seniors who have been dancing together for four years. They went all out with their performances, choreographing both solos and intense group numbers to songs like “Teeth” and “Another One Bites the Dust.”
It’s clear from this show that OBurlesque has grown as an organization, but behind the scenes the group has helped its members grow on a personal level as well.
“I think I’ve become better at those [traditionally sexy acts] though because I’m more in tune with my sexuality and more confident now,” said Bouazza-Salvá. “Like for the [routine to Lady Gaga’s “Teeth” choreographed by Helen Stern] — she did some [wild] choreography that, if she had brought this up like three years ago, I’d be like ‘there’s no way I’m doing this. I cannot dance like this. I look ridiculous.’ And now I’m just like, ‘OK, let’s do it. Bring it on.’”
Fellow College senior and four-year member of OBurlesque Helen Stern also mentions the confidence she has gained through having ownership over her sexuality in her acts.
“I think that [OBurlesque is] a venue for people to feel sexy for the first time — for themselves,” said Stern. “That’s something that I only feel in burlesque sometimes, because feeling sexy outside of burlesque can feel like it’s sexy for someone else, and usually it is. And creating a piece that you think is sexy, that you don’t care if someone else thinks is sexy, and then putting it on stage, … that’s kind of the idea. It doesn’t always get there, but when it does it’s really nice.”
Despite these significant strides, OBurlesque still has improvements that can be made. The club often gets criticized for its majority white membership. Stern spoke to these concerns by explaining the club needs to be better at encouraging a POC membership and having difficult conversations without losing what the art form has to offer.
“There is such a good thing inside of [OBurlesque],” said Stern. “I want to preserve that while also developing a really interesting, and sometimes heated, dialogue about what this is and what it could be. Because I don’t think burlesque has to go away because historically it didn’t do its job right. I think that there is a future where POC can feel this strong connection with ‘I hold the cards in what I display as sexy’ that, for a POC, I think is very important. Because that doesn’t happen that much. You don’t get to see that all the time. Even in the music industry, everything is kind of dictated — what is sexy, what is appropriate — and questioning that on stage, that’s what burlesque should be about.”
While OBurlesque has work to do, it leaves behind a legacy at Oberlin that will continue to thrive. Now that the original founders are leaving, it’s up to the next round of leadership to continue with this growth.
“I consider the seniors to be the people who I initially looked up [to] and the people who helped me to become at ease in this environment with this thing,” said College junior and incumbent Officer of External Affairs Jack Bens. “And now I just see them as friends that I share this thing with, and it’s really nice, and I wish they were staying.”
At the end of Wednesday’s show, the graduating seniors lined up and each took a bow. The group is an eclectic mix of people who, as many of the members can attest to, may not have known each other without OBurlesque. The audience applauded each senior as they bowed. The final show was an impressive performance and a great way for the seniors to say goodbye to the community they’ve built and celebrate what the club has done as a whole in the last four years.