A few weeks ago, burlesque dancer Lady Ginger went through her emotional preparation for taking off her clothes in front of a room full of strangers.
Now she’s back to tell you a little more.
“A woman can’t show anything below the top of her areola,” Lady Ginger said. “So if a woman is wearing a plunging neckline that shows anything on the side, she’s technically in violation of Chicago’s decency laws.”
Lady Ginger and I were looking at ladies.
We were in Studio L’Amour on that stretch of the Near West Side where old factory buildings are starting to host farm-to-table restaurants.
It’s a traditional dance studio with a mirrored wall and windows that let in light. Untraditional in that the walls are lined with photos of Satan’s Angel, Toni Elling, Dusty Summers, Tura Satana, Sally Rand and other burlesque rock stars of times past.
Although that’s traditional too.
“I love the history of it,” the lawyer in the burlesque studio said. “I am kind of a history buff anyway. So I love knowing that we are in some small way, sort of carrying on what these women who, really for their time period — you want to talk about feminists in a really unusual way? These women, they made their own careers, they had their own lives, they made their own money. They lived their lives the way they wanted to. And I love the idea that we’re sort of trying to carry on that same tradition of what those women did.”
Ginger, 44, came to burlesque at 36 when a friend of hers had a boyfriend and the boyfriend suggested sexy belly dance lessons. The friend was researching dance studios for said sexy lessons and asked Ginger to help with the research.
That’s when Ginger met instructor Michelle L’Amour, who mentioned her small but growing burlesque classes. Ginger started going. Ginger got hooked.
“I liked that it was OK to be sexy,” Ginger said. “I was really drawn to sort of the glamour of it. And at that point, especially, I really liked the challenge. It was completely different from anything I’d ever tried before and yet I didn’t feel that it was beyond the realm of me being able to do it.”
Ginger and I were in agreement that the “By day she’s _____, but by night she dances” is a facile and easy story. But there are details that need to be covered.
Lady Ginger, not her real name of course, is a lawyer. She’s a court coordinator who works for a judge. The judge is cool with it and coworkers have even come to see her show, which, in her words, was awkward the next day for a couple of seconds, but everyone got over it.
Now Ginger is one of the mainstays of Michelle L’Amour’s troupe and an instructor at her studio. Her parents come to see her shows.
“My dad’s always loved the whole Rat Pack and all of that stuff. So I think he sort of got what burlesque was from the get-go. We talk about it all the time. And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I get it. It’s an art form. You’re being sexy, but it’s an art form. I get it. Whatever.’ But my mom had to realize that we were being protected, that we were working good venues. That we weren’t out in some dive some place working a show. That we were being paid for what we do. That we have people looking out for us at shows.
“What’s really funny is, the girls in the troupe. They don’t watch me perform. They watch my parents watch me perform. And then I’ll come back and like, ‘Your dad. He was just up on his feet clapping and your mom had a big smile on her face. She just thought you were so cute.’”
We talked about pasty-chafed nipples and we talked about the politics of being sexy. Ginger told me who “Ginger” is on stage.
“Ginger is a super dirty bump and grinder. Like, a real old school, heavy-hipped bump and grind.”
She told me about running errands after shows.
“So I’ve got eyelashes and big red lips and all this crazy makeup. And I’m in a T-shirt and yoga pants and gym shoes and I have to stop at the grocery store to pick something up on the way home. That’s my favorite thing in the whole world. Because the looks you get in a grocery store are awesome. So I actually kind of get a kick out of it. I kind of love re-entering the normal world with just a little bit of the burlesque sort of following me around as I do it.”
Lady Ginger told me about safety.
“We used to have an actual hand signal that we could give if we were in trouble. Not ‘in trouble’ like necessarily someone’s threatening but, like, we just want to get out of this conversation that we’re having. Because it’s just going on too long or getting creepy. And we would use the hand signal, and inevitably one of the husbands would come over and be like, ‘Hey, we need you over here.’ And they could pull you away from this person.”
Then, the big question I end all interviews with. What didn’t I ask? What didn’t we cover that you would want people reading this to know?
By now we were sitting by a couch in a comfortable corner of the studio. Lady Ginger, variously taglined “the Baroness of Bump,” “That’s Why the Lady is a Vamp” and “She Just Doesn’t Give a Fuck” thought for a moment.
“You know, the biggest thing that I think gets lost in with burlesque a lot of times, and is that it truly is an art form. And it is truly, uniquely, American art form. The burlesques that you know today, that are known all over the world, they really did start here in America. And it’s frustrating when you take the time to study it and really work on it and put your time and energy into it, to not have people realize that it’s an art form, you know what I mean?
“It’s more than just putting on a piece of music and taking my clothes off. There’s actual like thought process and whatnot. And if there’s anything in this world that I would love people to know about burlesque, it is, there is an art to it. There is a history to it. There is a uniqueness about it. I would love for people to take more time to realize that.”
Lady Ginger told me what it’s like.