Featured image: Ophelia Pop Tart performs as part of the Art of the Tease: An Evening of Classic Burlesque at Camel City Playhouse (photo by Stan Sussina)

“Burlesque is all about consent.”

Those are the first words spoken by Selia d’Katzmeow Carmichael, as she takes the stage at Camel City Playhouse on a recent Saturday evening.

For two hours, Carmichael entertains the audience between numbers as five performers — Phoebe Nyx, Ophelia Pop Tart, May Hemmer, Darla Cherry and Memphis Muerte — dance, tease and strip for the sold-out crowd. The show, which was organized by Carmichael, is the first burlesque show hosted at Camel City Playhouse, formerly the ARTC, which was the Garage before that.

Titled Art of the Tease: An Evening of Classic Burlesque, Carmichael says she put on the show to create a safe space for performers to showcase their artform.

“It’s about safety,” she says. “We know to look out for one another and to provide that knowledge and hold space for other people who might be inexperienced.”

Selia d’Katzmeow Carmichael MCs the Art of the Tease: An Evening of Classic Burlesque at Camel City Playhouse (photo by Stan Sussina)

And this aspect of making sure the dancers are empowered is important because of the nature of burlesque, Carmichael says.

“It’s stripping,” she says. “I have been on the scene since 1995 doing striptease, which is why, several times during the night, I called the performers strippers.”

In one set, performer Ophelia Pop Tart, the cofounder of the House of Stardust Burlesque, takes the stage in a glittery black getup, her voluminous blonde hair pinned up like a ’50s queen. She starts by sensually sauntering across the stage, then slowly slides off her long orange gloves, pulling on the fngers one at a time. Before long she’s unwrapping her dress, letting her legs peek through the slit; soon she’s completely exposed except for a pair of glittery, tassled pasties with a matching, bedazzled G-string. But she doesn’t stop there. She makes her way to the floor of the stage and moves her hips back and forth, rolling them into the air so the lower half of her body is suspended above her, giving the audience a clear view of her many colorful tattoos that run up and down her thighs, including an anthropomorphized taco. And despite striking what many might consider a vulnerable pose whilst wearing very few clothes, Pop Tart looks comfortable, at ease, in command.

Ophelia Pop Tart performs as part of the Art of the Tease: An Evening of Classic Burlesque at Camel City Playhouse (photo by Stan Sussina)

This is the difference, Carmichael explains, between traditional stripping at clubs and burlesque.

“In clubs, the stripping seems to be more for the male gaze, which is fine,” Carmichael says. “But the burlesque show is a different vibe because the performer on stage is in control.”

And setting up those boundaries starts at the very beginning of the show. After telling the audience about the importance of consent, Carmichael lays down a few ground rules. She tells viewers to hoot and holler and encourage the dancers all they want, but to not yell things like, “Take it off!” as might be customary in other places. There’s also no touching.

“The performers will decide when to take it off,” she tells the audience. “If she’s teasing you and you encourage that, she’s going to take it off.”

This understanding of consent goes both ways. The audience isn’t allowed to touch the performers, but the dancers are also not to touch viewers unless they get explicit consent. And that’s another difference between how strip clubs and burlesque operate.

Darla Cherry performs as part of the Art of the Tease: An Evening of Classic Burlesque at Camel City Playhouse (photo by Stan Sussina)

“In order to make your money at the club, it’s typically through lap dances and VIP dances,” says Carmichael who worked in clubs for more than 10 years. “In some cases it’s very exploitative because the clubs actually take the girls’ money. A lot of clubs are run by men, that’s a big difference.”

As a woman who has worked in both strip clubs and as a burlesque performer, Carmichael understands the importance of creating a safe space for other workers. When she started burlesque in 2006, she performed at Artistika in downtown Greensboro and as part of the Fringe Festival. From there, she started doing monthly shows until 2010 when she moved away from the area. Towards the end of last year, she returned to the Triad with the hopes of hosting shows in Winston-Salem.

“We’re here to make sure that things are legit,” she says, “and we’re not being exploited by male producers or club producers who just want to profit off of women’s bodies.”

Plus, it’s fun to just have a community of people who are passionate about the same thing, she says.

“Backstage is the best because you’ll see this flow where performers are helping one another by tying up a corset or helping someone with their hair or with their stockings,” she says. “It’s really love and supportive and we back each other, hype each other up.”

The group performs as part of Art of the Tease: An Evening of Classic Burlesque at Camel City Playhouse (photo by Stan Sussina)

In the wake of the #MeToo movement and a heightened awareness about bodily autonomy for women and nonbinary people, burlesque is an artform that can heal those who have been shamed for their bodies.

“A lot of people have addressed their trauma through burlesque because they are taking back ownership of their body,” Carmichael explains.

So it’s important for her to showcase a variety of different body types, whether it’s through different shapes, races or genders.

“Burlesque has traditionally been thin, white bodies, and thin, white bodies with money,” Carmichael says. “The ones that can afford the most expensive, sparkly costumes. And in the past 10 years it’s been, ‘No, look what this person can achieve.’”

May Hemmer performs as part of Art of the Tease: An Evening of Classic Burlesque at Camel City Playhouse (photo by Stan Sussina)

Even with this heightened awareness for the artform, Carmichael says that some performers continue to face stigma when it comes to blending their personal or professional lives with their burlesque personas because of the taboo that exists when it comes to stripping. Carmichael explains how a few years ago, a dancer named Lottie Ellington, who worked as a high school teacher, was forced to resign after someone sent pictures of her performing to a Virginia school board.

“It’s the idea that a woman is not smart or capable the moment a woman decides to be sexual or confident,” she says. “It’s like women are not valued unless they go with the status quo, and burlesque definitely goes against the status quo.”

Carmichael plans on more shows this year, to continue the conversation about burlesque and create more community around it.

“We need to normalize seeing bodies and appreciating people for what they are and the art they provide,” she says. “And also yes, they can be a badass professional out here in the world.”

Basic etiquette for attending a burlesque show according to Selia d’Katzmeow

  • We thrive off of audience participation so that’s clapping, hooting and hollering and tips! But remember that it is based on consent and the performer will “take it off” when they are ready.
  • Not all burlesque shows take tips so listen to the MC and don’t be afraid to ask
  • Absolutely no touching, just appreciation and respect
  • Photos are dependent on the show. But if you do take photos, don’t use flash. Also, maybe don’t post anybody’s bare breasts on the internet without their consent
  • Have fun! This is a celebration of bodies

To learn more about Selia d’Katzmeow, follow her on Instagram at @Meowzeebub. She will be hosting a free show at Single Brothers on July 2 and another show at Dye Pretty Salon on Oct. 7.

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