Spoilers: The art of burlesque involves the removal of clothing. As such, some of the images you see will involve partially clothed performers. You may wish to bookmark this post for later if you’re reading at work.
Say burlesque, and you’ll likely picture a smoky cabaret, thigh highs, live music and beautiful girls who dance seductively into your heart. It’s long been an art form, and long involved elaborate costumes and carefully crafted routines that capture an audience and keep their attention. Once burlesque caught the public eye again with high-profile performers like Dita von Teese, though, it also went through a bit of an evolution. Burlesque always broke some of the rules of “polite” society with its sex positive, nothing-to-hide attitude, but society itself had changed too. Nerd culture was having a moment as well. Suddenly, being a nerd was not the worst thing ever, and people started to embrace the things they loved more fully and out in the open. It was only natural, then, that the nerd world and the burlesque world collided, as they did around 2009, to form something new—nerdlesque. Nerdlesque takes that in-your-face sexuality and confidence and the carefully crafted performances and uses it to bring our favorite pop culture icons into a whole new light. You’ll see sexy Spidermen, salacious Super Girls, grinding Green Arrows, even lascivious Linda from Bob’s Burgers, and, at least if done right, it will be a revelation. Nerdlesque is at once friendly and challenging – creating a draw for those who were a little nervous about attending a straight up burlesque show by enticing them with their favorite characters, and then roping them in (sometimes even literally) with great humor, beautiful performances and straight up sexiness.
The nerdlesque scene has exploded since its infancy, and there are multiple ways you can take part here in Chicago, at bars, cons, comedy festivals and arcades. We headed out to Headquarters Beercade in River North last month to see Bim Bam Boom Burlesque’s monthly nerdlesque show, and we weren’t disappointed. We also got a chance to interview one of the amazing performers we saw there, who goes by Minne Barre, to talk more about what it’s like to be a part of this silly, sexy, empowering world. Find out more about it in our interview with her, and then make plans to head to Headquarters next Thursday for a post-C2E2 nerdlesque show that’s sure to get you going.
3CR: Nerdlesque is pretty amazing. One of the things I took away from my first nerdlesque show was that anything can be sexy. I saw a really great Voldemort at the Stage 773 Nerd Comedy festival this past year. He had a lot of props and potions, and what I expected at first was something tongue-in-cheek and silly. But he actually sexy, too—which is crazy. To me, or anyone who has any kind of insecurities—if you can make Voldemort sexy, I’m pretty sure I can be okay.
Minne: Yes! It is empowering! If you can make Voldemort sexy, you can make anything sexy. Also, though, most women and men and anybody in between who gets up on stage and takes off their clothes, as long as they rehearse their number and are doing it with a good attitude, it’s always sexy. It’s always sexy and empowering to that person who’s on stage, and to the audience members, because it doesn’t matter who that person is. If they put this number together in an intelligent, funny and sexy way, that person is always going to be sexy.
3CR: Yes! 99 percent of it seems to be attitude- that’s what it’s about. So tell me, how long have you been with Bim Bam Boom?
Minne: I’ve been with them since November of last year. But Chris Biddle (Bim Bam Boom’s business manager) was the person who basically grandfathered me into burlesque. When I graduated from college, I was super into burlesque. I’d done a research paper on it. My senior theater major thesis was on burlesque performance—so I was always really interested in it but never knew how to break into it, and didn’t even know it really existed outside Dita von Teese and youtube videos. So I met Biddle and my husband, and one of my husband and I’s first dates was to a burlesque show. My first question after that show was “How do I do it?”
Basically, the rest is history. I started basic workshopping, taking classes and doing all that stuff in 2010 and started performing in January 2011. So it’s 7 years now.
3CR: So as far as nerdlesque- how long has nerdlesque been a thing for you guys?
Minne: Bim Bam Burly—the whole company—is really new. I will say though that everybody, like all of the company members and anybody who’s at a staff level, all of them are nerdy in general. So when this opportunity came about, it was like “Oh yeah, we have to do this, because everybody has at least twice the number of numbers that they can do here than they can do in a straight classic burlesque”
I think nerdlesque, it started around the same time I started performing burlesque back in 2010, at least in Chicago. It’s still a very niche thing, but it gets a lot of really unique responses, and I don’t think a lot of people know about it. A lot of people think of Dita von Teese and sequined corsets, but it’s like, “well, yes, but sometimes a corset can be a Catwoman corset.” It doesn’t need to be beautiful show work.
The difference to me between classical burlesque and nerdlesque is that with classical burlesque you’ll find that a lot of people come from a very dance or musical theater heavy background. You do find people who go from classic burlesque into nerdlesque because they’re nerds, and most people who do burlesque are nerdy as shit. Star Trek vs. Star Wars– everybody has an opinion on this. With nerdlesque, a lot of people come into it from a more storytelling and theatrical background. If you’re doing classical burlesque, you’re doing something that’s very beautiful aesthetically—something very ballet inspired or Fosse inspired, like a classic choreography. With nerdlesque, you’re really just telling a story- what is the story of your character?
3CR: That’s interesting, and I hadn’t thought of that difference. A character I’m loving currently is Tilly from Star Trek: Discovery.
Minne: I have not yet watched Star Trek: Discovery and literally the only reason is because I don’t have the streaming app.
3CR: The app is terrible.
Minne: Star Trek is probably my biggest fandom.
3CR: When I was reading about the history of nerdlesque, one thing I noticed was that they’re talking a lot about nerdlesque being about body positivity, and that where burlesque traditionally may not have been about all ages and shapes and sizes, nerdlesque is more like that. What are your thoughts?
Minne: In my own personal experience, and maybe it’s just because we live in Chicago and Chicago is such an artistic city—I find that all burlesque is about body positivity. I think maybe in Chicago it’s a little different because Chicago is so artsy and is so grassroots artsy on top of that. Here, people are like “You want to start a theater company? Great!” Doesn’t matter who you are, doesn’t’ matter what you look like, doesn’t matter what your credentials are we’ll put you on stage or screen. I could see that in places like LA and Vegas that that might be a little more true, and maybe you’d get into the “you have to be skinny with big boobs and a classical look” thing, but I think in Chicago it really does seem to be well balanced. With nerdlesque though, I think it’s not necessarily focused on that, but it comes with the more narrative, theatrical style vs. The more dance style.
3CR: How do you put together a routine?
Minne: It varies from performer to performer and what each performer’s style is. Some people prefer more improvisation, but for me, I’d say it’s about a month from idea to conception. Once you have the costume you have to give yourself enough time to dance with the costume, because with burlesque it’s not just about the story, it’s about the story you’re telling while you’re removing your clothing
3CR: Nerdlesque is fun and empowering for its audience. Does it feel empowering for you too? What do you get out of it and what makes it fun for you?
Minne: The unlimited creativity. I can be listening to Spotify tomorrow, hear a song and be like “I have a dance, I have a concept, I know what I’m going to do.” And then I can go home and be costumer, be director, be writer, be all of these things. I’m in other areas of performance too, like on-camera acting, but I’m not Nicole Kidman or anything. I can’t demand anything out of my acting contract. I have to show up, look good, say my lines and go home. After 20 hours. I work 20 hours and then go home. There’s a little bit of creativity in that because of course, you’re acting. You have to get into character and do all that acting school bullshit. But there is something really empowering about being on stage and being naked and having people cheer for you, no matter if you’re at your fattest or thinnest or how long your makeup took to do. That positive power, right?
What’s most empowering is that it’s all me from beginning to end. It’s your concept, it’s your choreography, it’s your writing, it’s your vision, from beginning to end. There’s something really empowering about being the creator.
3CR: So it’s agency–you’re able to say “Hey I want to do this and this is how I’m going to do it.”
Minne: Yes. This is how I’m going to do it. And you know what? I submit the number to a show, you don’t want it, I’ll submit it to twelve other shows. It’s the ability to be like “I’ve crafted this little performance piece and it’s all my own.” It’s being the Dick Wolf of your own personal Law and Order, you know?
3CR: Do you encounter negativity? I noticed the show tonight had a very positive vibe. How do you feel safety wise, and do you feel there are negative reactions wot what you do? What challenges do you face in that area?
Minne: That’s a very interesting question. I have been very lucky to not face too much of a challenge in terms of people wagging their fingers or in terms of people feeling too free with performers. There are people who are just too drunk at a show though. A show that I started with and still perform at at the Kiss Kiss Cabaret, they do a photo op at the end of every show with the performers and they set up a couple of chairs and everybody just usually sits there and the performers pose around them. One of my very first shows, one of the dudes who was posing for picture who was really trashed decided he was going to pull me onto his lap and not only that, he wanted to like, dip me, so he pulls me onto his lap and dipped me over, but because he was so drunk and he was the one sitting on the chair, the chair fell over underneath him and he dropped me on the floor.
3CR: That’s definitely bad.
Minne: People who cross the line are very few and far between. We work with a lot of different hosts and all of them have been very good about saying “hey that’s not okay.”
3CR: And what about negative reactions to burlesque/nerdlesque itself? Do you find yourself under fire for this type of performance art in general, because it is so unapologetically sexual?
Minne: I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve not faced too many negative responses from audience members. It took me awhile to tell my mom though. I had to ease her into this sort of performance art, but my mom is now my biggest fan, and when my husband doesn’t come with me to shows, I call her my dance mom, because she will drive me to every performance. Overall, though, it’s a positive reaction, and I love it.
We love it too, which is why we suggest you catch Minnie Barre and her friends at Bim Bam Boom Burlesque at their monthly Nerdlesque performances over at Headquarters Beercade River North. These performances happen every second Thursday of the month, and it’s a night full of sexy, nerdy fun. You can RSVP to Nerdlesque on the Headquarters website.