I'm backstage at Room 929 in Broad Ripple, where the members of Pur | The Company are wrapping up after a blowout performance. And glitter … is … everywhere. “I think glitter might literally be in my blood!” remarks troupe leader Jenee’ Michele.
It's not just glitter littered about the space, but other distinctive hallmarks of burlesque — feathers, rhinestones, fishnets and martini glasses — that need to be packed up before calling it a night.
“It’s like Hurricane Andrew went through the stage!” Michele says. “But to me, that shows we’ve had a successful evening. I get to go home knowing we created something really cool and interesting.”
"Possibly the best thing about the burlesque movement that has swept through Indy is its variety. Every group has its own unique take on the form, and you never get the same show twice. Michele describes her style as “nouveau burlesque,” which is characterized by high-energy, stage-based choreography in the vein of the Pussycat Dolls or the Christina Aguilera-starring film Burlesque.
¨“I come by burlesque honestly,” Michele says. “I started dancing in high school and worked as a Las Vegas showgirl. I’d go to school all day and work the casino at night. I left dance eventually, thinking that I just couldn’t do it forever. I’ve seen 35-year-old showgirls, and it’s hard on the body.”
¨But last year, she got caught up in audience participation at a burlesque show, which led to work alongside Crème de les Femmes and Angel Burlesque. Now she teaches burlesque classes several times a week, assembles pin-up photography events — and performs with her principal dancers, Courtney Gunter and Erin Lamb, and in group routines featuring her recent students.
“What hooks me the most about this is taking everyday women and turning them into something very glamorous,” Michele says. “Everybody deserves to have a piece of that. It doesn’t belong to Hollywood elites or reality TV. I love watching my girls come into the studio thinking, ‘Oh my god, what am I doing?’ and walking out with a whole new sense of confidence.”
¨Gunter, who’s been dancing in tap, jazz and ballet since she was four years old, was one of Michele’s earliest recruits.
“I carry myself a different way,” Gunter says. “This has been very good for me. We as women tend to get run down; we put everybody else’s needs before ours. Burlesque belongs just to us. You have that one hour where you’re so empowered.”¨
Lamb, co-owner of a dance studio and veteran Latin dancer, says it's important that there be a dance performance opportunity for adults: “I see so many studios where there’s little recitals for 12-year-olds, and that’s it. For women, there’s not always an option for dance. This gives us something beyond the recital. Without this, it’d just be me dancing in my living room. I like dancing and choreographing and being just a little bit naughty.”
¨Gunter points out that the up close and personal aspect of burlesque, with performers often just a few feet away from the audience, creates a dynamic she hadn't found elsewhere while performing: “I’m used to being way up on stage, with a distance between me and the audience, but in this you’re right up people’s faces. That was nerve-wracking for me at first, but now it’s like acting out a character and getting very playful. I love it. I don’t think I could go back to dancing on a stage.”
¨“You get a good sense of being able to play with the audience,” Michele says. “You can interact more. We do a lot of that, which I think the audience appreciates. It brings them into the story.”
She’s particularly proud that, even with frequent performances scattered throughout the month, no two Pur shows are the same: “There might be one or two numbers we’ve done before, but we always pair them with completely new stuff. That’s part of the challenge for me and the girls. Nobody wants to see the same show several times.”
¨So what exactly is the story, the overall theme you’re trying to get across? I ask.
¨Everyone turns and points at Michele with such synchronicity I half suspect they planned it. She gives a “What, ME?” smile and gets to it: “We’re very much about the mystery, the choreography and trying to really transport the audience. In today’s reality, people just don’t have the money to Vegas. We think of ourselves as a great alternative to hopping a plane to New York or Vegas. We’re by no means straight-up professional dancers, but we’re not trying to be. There’s something very empowering about the group numbers. It’s a crazy sisterhood, and there’s something really cool about seeing the girls pull it together and nail their choreography. They maybe didn’t grow up dancing, they’re single moms or working two jobs, but god love ‘em, they make this happen.”
¨Empowerment. That theme comes up again and again in discussions of burlesque, and for good reason.
¨“It’s like there’s something innate in women that this taps into,” Laura Breece, another of Michele's students, says. “There’s a definite energy in the classes. Every single woman comes out feeling like they can roar and do anything.”
¨“It’s all about taking care of yourself,” Lamb says. “Carving some time out of our weeks for ourselves and to do something just for us. It’s like RuPaul says, ‘If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love anybody else?’”
Burlesque fans will have a double shot of action tonight: aside from Pur's Room 929 performance, Crème de les Femmes performs at the “Evening of Holiday Delight” show at Birdy’s at 9 p.m., admission $5 ($4 with a canned good.)