Featured photo: Selia d’Katzmeow Carmichael has been a burlesque performer since the mid nineties. (courtesy photo)

There’s a reason why Selia d’Katzmeow Carmichael spells burlesque with a “k” instead.

According to historians, burlesque — the art form featuring comedy, music and dance — has its origins in the Victorian era. By the late 1800s and into the early 20th Century, the term became synonymous with strippers, and during the “golden age” of burlesque from about 1900-30, there were about 200 burlesque theaters in America. But the onset of Prohibition and movies drove the art form into the shadows and by the mid century, it was a dying art.

“[Burlesque] went underground in the ’70s and ’80s; it started to become less well-known,” Carmichael explains. “Women were being censored; if they were on TV, they would be on late night and they banned certain words like ‘burlesque.’”

That’s how the word, in some realms, came to use phrases like “burly q” or alternative spellings like “burlesk.” And that’s how Carmichael, who has been performing since the mid nineties, prefers it.

“It’s a throwback to one of the words they would use in lieu of actual burlesque,” she says.

These days, Carmichael says when she’s backstage at shows she tells younger performers about the complicated history of their profession. Many are surprised to hear the stories.

“They just look so wide-eyed,” she says. “They’re like, ‘Tell me more.’”

So to preserve that history and to tell those stories, Carmichael and others will be hosting the first Burlesk Con of the Carolinas starting on July 4. Hosted at multiple locations around Winston-Salem, the inaugural event will feature local legends, informative panels, varied performances and a competition.

“It’s to celebrate who we have and the history and legacy we have here,” Carmichael says. “Because we do have a legacy.”

Performers from across the two states will attend the conference, including Nova Vella. (courtesy photo)

Carmichael says she was inspired by the Miss Exotic World Pageant, an annual event hosted in June at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. Seeing so many dancers and strippers gather once a year for the festival made Carmichael want to start a gathering locally, too. The idea was to invite performers from the Carolinas, teach the history and preserve their art. 

In planning for the event, Carmichael says she unearthed a lesser-known performer named Willa Mae Buckner. Born almost a century ago in Augusta, Ga., Buckner was known by many stage names including “The Wild Enchantress” and “The Snake Lady.” As a Black woman performing burlesque decades ago, Carmichael says that Buckner faced harsh discrimination throughout her life. She passed away in 2000 at the age of 77 in Winston-Salem. 

“She was a city transit driver,” Carmichaels says of Buckner in her later years. “She had done all this really cool stuff…. This woman’s story is wonderful. Her legacy is blues and burlesque.”

As a woman without any children, Carmichael says that Buckner’s story is in danger of being forgotten. To preserve that history, she submitted Buckner’s story to the museum in Las Vegas, but the entry was declined. That only motivated Carmichael to ensure that those who live locally would know her name.

That’s why this year’s con will be dedicated to Buckner.

“It bothered me that her legacy was not carried on,” she says.

The opening night of the convention will take place at Single Bros, where multiple acts will kick things off. Scheduling the opening there is a callback to the city’s Heavy Rebel Weekender festival during which Carmichael would host the Wiggle Room, a burlesque celebration. Friday night will see a competition of performers, while Saturday and Sunday will feature variety shows and drag performances. The Sunday brunch is also when they will have a speaker panel of experts to talk about the historical context of burlesque in the area.

One of the events will be hosted by legend Madame Onca. (courtesy photo)

“To do this artform, you have to know the history,” Carmichael says.

It’s especially important when other artforms like drag performances are being met with harassment from right-wing politicians and extremists, she says. To Carmichael, the arts of drag, stripping and burlesque are all under the same tent, so to speak. 

“We cannot exist without each other,” she says.

They play off one another and are in conversation with each other. And that’s because the main throughline of them all is the understanding of consent.

“Some people ask, ‘How can taking your clothes off me be empowering?’” Carmichael says. “It’s about consent… A fist in the air kind of thing.”

The more people know the history, the more people will understand the artforms, she says. And that’s only going to make the community better.

“I’m hoping this will light a fire under other people to pass down these awesome stories,” she says. “To ignite that passion in the younger generation to continue that tradition…. It’s about asking, What can we do to better it?”

Burlesk Con of the Carolina takes (it all) off on Friday, July 4 at Single Bros. Tickets and the entire schedule can be found at triad-city-beat.evvnt.events/events/burlesk-con-of-the-carolinas.

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