There’s a big difference between erotica and smut. Smut is something that you’d get in trouble for possessing if your girlfriend found it at your place. But she probably owns erotica. Five will get you ten that there’s a dog-eared copy of 50 Shades of Grey wedged in her bookcase. Erotica has undeniable artistic merit.
It blows me away how many people don’t understand this distinction. I traveled to Austin to see the Jigglewatts Burlesque Troupe in anticipation of their July 12 appearance here in Longview at the RMC. Co-founding member Ruby Joule kindly arranged a couple of comp tickets on each of the two dates when I would be in town. I figured I’d be making some of my chums pretty happy with a plus-one to a stage performance by some extremely foxy, classy and talented women. But something unexpected happened. I couldn’t give away my free tickets. All three of my pals in Austin are in relationships, and each one gave me some variation of, “I’d love to go, but my girlfriend would kill me if she found out.” I spoke to one on the phone while giving my 84-year-old grandmother a ride to the bank, and when she overheard my friend’s reason for turning down the ticket, she said, “For crying out loud, it’s just burlesque.” At least grammy gets the distinction. There’s a night and day difference between what Elizabeth Berkley does in Showgirls and what Natalie Wood does in Gypsy.
Burlesque dancing is most certainly erotica. There’s not even actual nudity. Each performance is a slow, expertly choreographed tease of clothing removal; the primary notion in play being that what isn’t shown will always be sexier than what is. Fun fact: this also works on the opposite end of the artistic spectrum. Look at horror movies. What you don’t see is always scarier than what you do see. Who will ever forget the stomach-churning pan left away from the action while Mr. Blonde cuts off the cop’s ear in Reservoir Dogs?
In fact, the most prurient thing about the two shows I attended was guest hostess, Leanne Stott. And don’t misinterpret that as an insult. I’m a big fan of blue comedy, and this six feet tall British goddess trotted out ribald material that would have made Richard Pryor proud, tying the show together with effortless crowd work that kept the room’s energy perpetually high. Leanne told me, “I’ve tried to not be dirty, but I always seem to go back to that material. I figure if it’s not broken, why try to fix it? Besides, there’s an art to dirty comedy.”
The classy English accent basically allows her to say whatever she wants anyway. She’s that rare a comedienne who can control hecklers without alienating them. “I really love hecklers. A good heckle makes my night. Sometimes you get a bigger laugh from dealing with them than from your own material,” she added.
When the Jigglewatts perform at RMC, their regular host, Jade Esteban Estrada, will be back in the fold, and I’m told he’s somehow even better than Ms. Stott.
If that’s true, the people in Longview are in for a real treat.
The Jigglewatts were co-founded by Ruby Joule and Coco Lectric. Ms. Joule is the kind of looker David Lee Roth would have called blue-eyed murder in a size five dress, a red-headed, porcelain-skinned, first-round knockout who radiates poise and intelligence. Coco’s got much darker features – big, brown eyes you could swim laps in and a smile so bright you have to put on sunglasses if you want to look directly at it. She’s got more curves than a Grand Prix racetrack, and just like the Formula One cars that glide down those courses, the lady knows how to move. When I asked Coco to describe their dynamic, she told me, “The relationship that Ruby and I have is so Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell from Gentleman Prefer Blondes. She’s Marilyn Monroe. Beautiful and posh and put together and polished. I’m Jane Russell. I don’t need to be the star; I don’t need to be the one who everyone wants. I’m there to bail everyone out and put things together. And that’s okay. Both personalities are necessary. She’s going to walk away from the ship with a diamond tiara; I’m going to walk away from the ship with some hunky sailor.”
When I asked Ruby about this delineation, her take was, “Perspective is funny, isn’t it? Because I’ve always thought she was the star, that she’s the one everyone wants. She won all of the big dance awards right away. But regardless of who’s who – or even who’s who on what day – we make it work, and it is a relationship that works very well.” Ruby went on to tell me of the Jigglewatt’s inception. “All of the founding members met on the film set of Z: A Zombie Musical. And as they say, movie-making is all hurry up and wait. So we were waiting around on set one day, and the subject of burlesque came up. We looked around at each other and realized, here’s a group of girls who can act, sing, dance, costume themselves. And we all had this desire in common to do burlesque. Why weren’t we doing it? It was an, ‘Aha!’ moment. We decided to do a performance just for the heck of it. It was going to be a one-time thing for a surprise 4th of July show. But the house sold out, standing room only. It was so successful we thought, ‘Well, we can’t just stop now, right?’ I guess the rest is history. We just kept on doing it.”
Coco explained the origin of the troupe’s name. “Our goal was to support the beauty and talent and diversity of women. So jiggle stands for women who have the correct body type, and watt is for wattage, power. Strength.” I won’t say that all bodies aren’t beautiful because there are some very thin women who are beautiful as well, but you only see a certain type of woman on the cover of Cosmo. When I asked her what she meant by “correct body type,” a big old can of wrigglers opened up. “We don’t live in a democracy. We kind of live in a republic, but we mostly live in a capitalist society. So, any time you can create a system that will make over half of the population feel crummy about themselves, so much so that they will have to buy things to help them try and obtain an unreachable goal, you automatically have an economic advantage. Expensive surgery is just one of many lucrative ways women can take away fat and add breasts.” I think I’d like to hear Coco discuss conspiracy theories on a Joe Rogan podcast almost as much as watch her peel off a long, silk glove.
“All women have cottage cheese,” Something Blue – a performer we’ll get to in a moment – chimed in. “I like mine. I cover mine with glitter and celebrate it. There’s nothing more comforting or sexy than the flaws on a human body. The perfections give you the wrong impression or sometimes even scare you away.”
Goldie Candela’s another long-time member, an expert at fabric movement who utilized Isis wings in her performance, props used predominantly in Egyptian or Middle Eastern cultures, often by belly dancers. She’s something of a chameleon, constantly changing her look, hair, makeup and dress, but no matter what the outcome, she always looks like a five alarm fire. The other Jigglewatts lovingly call her the mouth of the south, and Goldie gave me a crash course in burlesque history. “Burlesque originally took styles of dance from all the different immigrants – some even from native aborigines – and brought them together. When you watch a Tease-O-Rama film from Bettie Page or the living legend, Tempest Storm, you see that a lot of their movements are taken from modern dance, which is based in Africa. So, you have your bumps, you have your grinds, the way you use your arms out to drag your audience into what you’re doing. Burlesque started in England in the 1800s and came to America back when showing an ankle was all the tease you needed. But it’s always been about pushing boundaries. Using different cultures to accentuate sexuality. So, we have to keep pushing the boundaries too. Burlesque means ‘to mock, to make fun of,’ which is why it’s synonymous with ‘tease.’ Like, ‘Oh, I can show you a little, but then take back what I showed.’ That’s the basis of classic burlesque. We take different kinds of dance classes that help unveil movements we’ve never considered before. We’re all obsessed with dance. We’re either taking ballet classes or even just toning or yoga classes. Sometimes you learn something in yoga and think, ‘Hey, I can put this movement here right before I strip off that stocking.’”
“The most uncomfortable position you can be in is the one that looks the best,” troupe-mate Something Blue added. Blue’s an adorable, wavy-haired brunette with cherubic cheeks whose bubbly and ingratiating personality off-stage is a startling contrast to her austere demeanor when performing. She enacted a tribute to Lydia Thompson from the 1860s, a visual retelling of the Greek legend of Persephone and her annual voyage into hell’s embrace. “Lydia Thompson helped bring burlesque to America. I’m pretty new to this, so I’m learning my burlesque history, reading a lot of books, and Lydia Thompson was someone who caught my eye as an interesting figure in our history, so I built my Persephone act around truly classic burlesque.” The Persephone number might have been my favorite routine from any of the girls, and that’s saying a lot.
While Blue’s act spoke to the more serious left side of my brain – I’ve been a mythology nerd all my life – Lola LaStrange’s performance machine gunned rounds at my brain’s right side. She’s an energetic, fun-loving, voluptuous sister-can’t-resist-her whose song selection probably subconsciously inspired that last line. Lola performed to Richard Cheese’s lounge lizard cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” If you’re unfamiliar with that version, stop reading this right now and YouTube that song. I’ll wait. … Awesome, right? Lola told me, “Richard Cheese is known for covering iconic pop songs. He’s done ‘Gin and Juice,’ ‘Man in a Box,’ ‘You Oughta Know,’ ‘Insane in the Membrane,’ ‘Closer.’ Johnny Cash’s cover is great too, and both versions make you feel like the world’s going to end, but in Richard’s version, it feels like it’ll be fun when it ends.” I wanted to know how she got into the burlesque movement, and Lola said, “I was always interested in dancing, but I never did it because I thought, ‘There are no big girls who dance.’ I saw a Jigglewatts show four years ago, thought it was amazing, but knew I’d never do it. Then, lo and behold, last summer I took one little burlesque class. One class became an entire fall semester, which began debuting in October, which became me being a Jiggle-ette in less than a year. It’s been a crazy experience.”
Layna D’Luna’s path into burlesque was extremely different. She explained, “I was a little girl, and I was looking at grown up magazines and saw pictures of girls with these big feather fans. Instantly, I was like, ‘What is that? I want to do that.’ But I grew up in a conservative setting, so I kept my desire to be a burlesque dancer a secret. As soon as I turned 18, I moved to Austin and got involved with the burlesque scene here. I’ve been in love with this since I was a little girl. Doing this has been a lifelong dream.” Layna’s like a Corvette Stingray. Sleek lines and killer curves, an American classic but with exotic looks, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that her lineage traces back to Hawaii. “My performance is a tribute to my family. It’s a hula act that plays on motifs from the 20s. It’s really special to me. I created my costume myself, and it’s made entirely of flowers that all come off in different ways.” Layna went on to reiterate a mission statement touched on by Coco Lectric, “One of the great things about burlesque is that it opens your eyes to the fact that big girls can be sexy, skinny girls can be sexy, brown girls, white girls – all types of women are sexy.”
It’s this very same thirst for diversity which inspired Les Whelchel, a promoter for RMC, to bring the Jigglewatts our way. Les said, “We have a very diverse culture within Longview and the East Texas area, and we try to cater toward everyone we can. We do everything from live bands to female impersonations, benefit fundraising; we’re always trying to do things that are different. After seeing the Jigglewatts on YouTube, we thought they’d be an absolute hit. We want to make sure people who don’t have the ability to travel to Austin or LA or places where venues of this nature are readily available have the opportunity to see something like this.” Up until now, I’m pretty sure the only way you would see something like this is if you catch Christina Aguilera and Cher in Burlesque on HBO. Les closed by saying, “We felt this would be a new, fantastic way to keep fresh culture coming in to Longview.”
In my time in LA, I often went to the weekend burlesque shows at the world famous Forty Deuce, and I can honestly say that those performers have nothing on the Jigglewatts. If you’re doing anything on July 12 besides watching Texas’ finest bump and grind at the RMC, you’ve made the wrong plans. Don’t be like my buddies in Austin and miss an amazing spectacle. You have a girlfriend? Bring her. She’ll love it. The Jigglewatts are a celebration of true femininity, and their empowering message that all women are beautiful is one that must be seen to be believed.