After a 15-minute intermission, Gallery 5 is packed. It's a chilly Saturday in early March. Rows of chairs in front of the stage are filled with several audience members sharing seats and standing guests spilling into every open pocket.
The standing-only bar area continues to fill up as the lights dim and people place last drink orders. The energy level swells as eyes turn toward the stage. Finally, Lottie Ellington steps on stage to introduce Chou Chou Cherie, the next burlesque performer during the Boom Boom Basics student recital.
The song "Twistin' & Groovin'" comes on over the speakers. Out walks Chou Chou Cherie in a red satin dress, hand-bedazzled by the performer herself, Lucy Clayton. With confidence, Clayton embodies her burlesque persona: She struts onto the stage and begins her New Orleans-inspired tease. She's fawning over a photograph of a World War II soldier, touching herself, biting a silk rose. The crowd cheers her on.
She begins to take off her dress as she shoots piercing glances at the crowd. Underneath, she's wearing silk shorts and bra. Eventually, those come off. By the end of the song, she reveals her high-waisted underwear and breasts, covered only by handmade tassels. The grand finale comes when Chou Chou pulls a silk rose from her underwear. The crowd erupts as they rise to their feet clapping and shouting "Woo."
Clayton has been waiting to show the world this character for months. She's just competed the second level of Deanna Danger's Boom Boom Basics burlesque school. It was one its largest classes yet and is part of a movement that's been growing steadily for nearly a decade in Richmond and other cities.
Danger — yes, her name is now legally Deanna Danger — is seen by many as a mother of burlesque in Richmond. It began in 2009 when she was a dancer at Fall Out, a hub for Richmond's kink community. The club held a burlesque night and the crowd left wanting more. So did Danger. She set out to learn as much as she could about the art form. "There were no classes then," Danger says. "Burlesque was pretty nonexistent."
Within a year, Danger was holding a burlesque class at Fall Out, drawing from her lifelong background in jazz, tap and ballet. She taught attendees a short chair routine. Interest grew. "People wanted to be empowered by their sexy selves," she says. "There wasn't anyone giving people permission to do that here."
Slowly, men and women drawn to burlesque began to band together and form troupes and perform at venues such as the Canal Club and Gallery 5. Early shows featured story lines, mythical figures and boisterous crowds.
"Richmond is a really rebellious city and it's always been that way," Danger says. "Richmond has always liked to drink, fight and fuck."
Danger and others became a league of "motherless mothers" working to grow the burlesque movement around the country. They networked, taught each other production skills and routines, and established ground rules for safety in the industry. Fast forward a decade and Danger has built an entire burlesque school, several dance troupes and performs around the country.
"It's a celebration of life, beauty, love, and movement," Danger says. "It exists on the edge of comedy and people can't help but be drawn to it. It's revolutionary."
Clayton is one of those who couldn't look away. She attended a Butchertown Burlesque show at TheatreLab, one of Danger's creations, and decided she had to find a way onto the stage. She completed the first Boom Boom basics course last year and performed as a group with fellow students. During the 102 course, Clayton and other students develop their on-stage personas and prepare to perform solo.
"Chou Chou is French," Clayton says. "She embodies places and times I love. I love New Orleans and I have a strong affinity toward the '40s."
In many ways, this alter ego is simply an amplification of Clayton's personality. Chou Chou simply allows her to wear her desires and emotions more boldly.
"I give myself permission to be super saucy, glamorous, to be a smart mouth, to be a tease," Clayton said. "I utilize her in my everyday life now. My friends will call me Chou Chou in different scenarios. When I need a confidence boost, I think about what Chou Chou would do."
Like many students, both men and women, Clayton stepped into Boom Boom Basics during a time of transition and self-exploration, bad breakups and loss.
"It's a good way to meet really great people and express yourself," Clayton said. "I feel better mentally and emotionally than I ever have before. I've been able to explore things outside of myself without judgment."
There are challenges facing burlesque students and performers including earning fair wages, cultural appropriation and personal safety.
"It's all about power through vulnerability," Danger says. "We teach students and performers to talk things out in person rather than letting them snowball."
That includes avoiding potentially offensive themes and dangerous sexual encounters. Because burlesque rides the line between kink and consent, sexual misconduct is a regular challenge. In class and as a producer, Danger and her partner Lottie Ellington communicate and report misconduct. Performers sometimes don't speak up when they're uncomfortable or worse.
"They need help to communicate," Danger says. "We talk about it in class a lot, in rehearsal backstage, cast emails, studio guidelines."
But in their vulnerable act of self-discovery on stage, Clayton and other performers bring the audience along with them. During the March 3 recital, friends of performers came dressed in their own interpretive outfits. During an interactive break, three audience members stepped on stage to try out their skills and twirling tassels. The confidence of the performers becomes infectious.
"Loving myself more than I ever did before," Clayton says. "People are attracted to people that love themselves." S
You can learn more about Boom Boom Basics classes at boomboombasics.com. The next Butchertown Burlesque event is April 6 at the Basement at TheatreLab.