"I am excited and terrified and everything at the same time," Gino said as he prepared to strip down to his underwear before strangers, friends, and his boss.
A quiet nerd hiding a shy smile behind a scruffy beard, Gino recently moved from New Orleans to Seattle. He does data entry for a legal company by day, and by night, he's been a student in the Boylesque 101 class at Seattle's Academy of Burlesque. (Boylesque is burlesque with boys.)
At the conclusion of the six-week class, Gino would be expected to perform a striptease at a public graduation recital, twirling tassels and baring his flesh. He'd never been on stage before, and he was doing his best to contain his jitters.
"I like to think I'm charismatic," he told me, "but I have my own neuroses like anyone else. I've always been kind of a big guy—I lost a lot of weight since moving to Seattle, but for me it's always been a point of contention, feeling good about the way I look. When my girlfriend says I'm handsome, I force myself to say 'thanks' because I know she's being honest." He paused. "Even if I don't believe it."
I asked him what led him to enroll in the class. "I was hoping that it would instill a little more self-confidence in my appearance," said Gino. "I'm still kind of shaky."
He had three days left to get over those shakes before the curtain rose on his burlesque debut.
Most of Gino's classmates were in similar disbelief at what they'd gotten themselves into. Sabrina confessed that taking the class hadn't been her idea. "My girlfriend and friends had been to a few drag king shows," she said. "I was always, 'I could do that!' So my girlfriend secretly bought me that class for my birthday and was like, 'Now you get to put your money where your mouth is.'"
Like Gino, Sabrina is not exactly a trained performer: a marine designer, she works on ship schematics and used to be a welder.
"I was never gonna take it," Sabrina said of the class. "I'm kind of a chickenshit. I probably would've made excuses."
But a third classmate, Scott, is an admitted ham. "I'm sort of a wanna-be performer," he said. As dean of academic affairs at the Art Institute of Seattle, he occasionally MCs charity auctions or fashion shows, and he hosts a movie-themed karaoke night at Re-bar called Cineoke.
"I was in a cabaret at the Triple Door recently, singing," he said, "and realized that I didn't always know what to do with my body. So I was looking to work on physicality."
Scott has also recently taken classes in piloting a helicopter and skydiving. (These subjects are not offered at the Academy of Burlesque.) But the boylesque class brought him even further outside his comfort zone than soaring through the air and plummeting to earth.
"I'm sort of known for dressing up, and dressing well," he said. "Taking your clothes off is a little scary. I'm used to having a shield there."
Instructors Waxie Moon and Ernie Von Schmaltz coached each of the students to create an act that revealed not just their body but their character as well. Many found that soul-bearing process even more challenging than exposing their flesh.
Burlesque has a way of awakening personas within performers that they never knew were there—even for seasoned pros like the Academy of Burlesque's founder and headmistress, Indigo Blue. "The big turning point in my career was winning Miss Exotic World in 2011," Indigo told me. That's one of the top burlesque honors in the world, issued by the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. "The act that I did was a very classic glamour act, in a fish-tail gown with a corset and gloves. It was a very deliberate act that was intended to exemplify femininity and sexuality from start to finish."
She'd competed before, but when she went to the Miss Exotic World competition in 2011, something was different. "It was more of an internal transformation, where I started thinking of myself as someone who could actually win," she said. At that show, she said, Indigo-the-performer suddenly felt more connected than ever before to Indigo-the-character.
"I feel like it was a combined award between me and Indigo," she said, referring to her persona. "I had to actually change. I had to look at the ways I was carrying self-doubt and the ways I was carrying some negative impressions of myself as a person. In many ways, Indigo helped me through it. I was able to say, 'Well, Indigo needs to be this queen, so what does a queen do? Would the queen be rehearsing right now?' In asking those questions, I was able to use her to move me closer to the person I want to be."
"Who was that person?" I asked.
"The bravest, most confident, loving, generous human I can envision," she answered. "I think most artists and teachers have imposter syndrome. I definitely feel like I..." she caught herself and took a long pause. "When students are onstage, they emit this aura of confidence and power that makes them almost physically larger. It's like what they're doing makes them take up more space in the world. A state of 'I am awesome. If you look at me funny, I don't care because I'm fabulous.' Building a character that has all these qualities that we might not have yet, but can grow into, is a way of bracing ourselves and making ourselves less vulnerable to negativity."
I watched that bracing process physically unfold when I sat in for a fan-dancing class at the academy. One student held a fan awkwardly at her side, and Indigo gestured upward to her, lifting the student's hand as though with a marionette's string until the feathers laid against the student's chest, drawing a smile from the student as she began fluttering the fan with pride.
"They constantly remind me," Indigo said of her students. "In those fleeting moments when I'm like, 'It's over'"—referring to her feeling the imposter syndrome—"they're like, 'What about this?' And I have an answer. It's so cool to have an answer."
Indigo Blue got her start in erotic performance when she was a student at the University of Washington but "didn't have enough money to finish college," she told me. "So I started stripping."
Her work at Champ Arcade—now long gone—helped fund an anthropology degree, for which she studied permeable and semipermeable boundaries in peep-show stripping. "Working at a peep show is an alternate moral universe," she said. "The morality isn't 'Well, you should never be naked in front of a person you don't know.' It's 'If they give you a dollar, is that enough for you to stick a finger in your butt or should you ask for a five?'"
Through that work, she met Tamara the Trapeze Lady and joined a cabaret called the Fallen Women Follies. She began workshopping new acts with fellow performers and started teaching around 2000. Just as stripping had helped fund her academic career, her office job at Paul Allen's Vulcan funded her burlesque passion projects. "I like to think that without knowing it, Paul Allen funded the Academy of Burlesque," she said.
It was the right place and the right time for Indigo to experiment with the art form: A movement known as neo-burlesque was gaining steam around the turn of the century, and Indigo found a community eager to adapt that nostalgia for modern audiences.
"In my earliest act, it was very important to present an image of female and feminine sexuality that was not specifically for the male gaze," she said. "Coming from working in the sex industry as a stripper, it was important for me to establish that I was speaking to an audience of my own, choosing regardless of who was watching."
That's a confidence that she now seeks to impart to her students. During a recent class, when students were sharing their performance experiences and goals, one said, sighing, "My whole day is rules." She's a lawyer by day, she said, and looked forward to burlesque classes as an opportunity to cut loose. Over the course of the hour-long session, there was a clear transformation: Indigo led the students in choreographed marches back and forth in front of mirrors, and I could see sultry sexpots gradually materialize from beneath the plain gym clothes they were wearing. Determined stares softened into coy gazes, and stiff marches became alluring struts.
These classes serve as little incubators for newly hatched burlesque personae. For a boylesque student named Jacob, one-on-one chats with instructor Waxie Moon helped him develop an act that wasn't just sexy—it was personally meaningful. "I'm portraying a sex robot," he told me, "emerging from a shipping box and activating and discovering myself. We're all learning about me, the robot, together."
"Why a robot?" I asked.
"I tend to be in my head a lot," Jacob said. "I've always really loved the work of Asimov, and Data from Star Trek. Quasi-human characters usually have weird emotions, or no emotions. Those characters always spoke to me. In general, I've identified with robotic characters throughout my life. It's something that helped me through school and social situations. It's a way to operate myself."
Lately, Jacob has been carrying other aspects of his onstage persona back home, too. "The art of the tease is something I've been playing with around the house," he said, "when I'm getting dressed in the morning, or getting ready for bed, or putting on a coat to go out."
Gino, the shy boylesque student from New Orleans, has been thinking of his journey through the class as a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.
"You start off as a low-level newbie, with no experience about what you're getting yourself into. And as you go on each adventure, each class, you experience more and you add it to your repertoire. Like, I learned asseling"—that's twirling tassels on your ass—"and it's building up skills, knowledge, and armor that I need to take on the final boss." He took a breath. "And that boss is my anxiety."
He won't be facing the boss alone. "For my first date with my girlfriend, I took her to a burlesque show, a Terry Pratchett Discworld tribute show. I introduced her to burlesque, and I let it slip that I had an interest in classes, and she was like, 'That's cool,'" he said. "She's been really..." his voice trailed off for a moment. "I gotta admit, I feel incredibly fortunate and lucky that I've met an amazing woman who sees me going for something like this. And how much it means to me. And to have had her support the entire way. She went with me to pick out my costume."
At the graduation recital, he'd also be performing for his team leader from work, thanks to an offhand comment he made about taking an evening class. That led to small-talky questions around the office, and before he knew it, his colleagues were all delighted to discover what he'd been up to—and eager to see the show.
I asked if he regretted talking about the class at work, and he said that he didn't. "I'm like, 'You're no longer in the South,'" Gino said. "I've been amazed that everyone had a positive reaction. So happy and encouraging. I don't think I'd be able to find that anywhere else."
Still, the prospect of disrobing had him a little on edge, along with most of his fellow students.
"I've struggled with body issues for a long time, as many women do," said Sabrina. "The natural thought pattern for me is 'I'm not hot enough to do that.'"
"I was surprised at the dress rehearsal how nervous I was," said Scott. "I'm a gay guy, so there's always some awareness that I have about masculinity and expectations for masculinity. There's certain expectations in the gay community about what's masculine."
Gino said he wasn't sure whether his inner critic had grown any quieter, "but I've learned how to beat it up, stuff it into a bag, and throw it in the river." For the performance, he created a magician character named Penn Tickle. "Penn Tickle is omnisexual," Gino said. "He doesn't care what people look like. He thinks everyone is beautiful and amazing and should be having sex all the time. I might be more reserved about making a lewd comment. He'd be more forward. He's more carefree about life and less burdened by... things."
Though Gino is still shy about discussing his burlesque alter ego, it's hard to imagine him even acknowledging that such a character dwelled within him before he took the class.
You can't debut again," said boylesque instructor Ernie Von Schmaltz, pulling up a chair next to me at the graduation recital on a Saturday night. She had set aside her boy character for the night and was wearing flowing gold fabrics that looked like something Madeline Kahn might throw on. She drummed her fingers in happy anticipation for the show.
Indigo Blue stepped out of the curtain to welcome the hundred or so audience members to the "debut de butt."
"I can't promise we'll be gentle," she said. "But I can promise you'll like it."
First up was Sabrina, performing as a character named Sasha Casino, who strutted toward the audience in a leather jacket, tie, and suspenders, peeling them off until she was wearing little more than a cute smile and sunglasses.
Next was a performer going by Hamsa, whose glittering beard, giant heels, and explosion of tattoos dazzled the crowd.
And after that came Gino as Penn Tickle, hiding shyly behind a cape and a magician's outfit. He produced a playing card from thin air and then tried to pull a purple boa from his sleeve, but it caught on the cuff and "accidentally" tore off the whole shirt. Blushing and maintaining a naughty grin, he yanked off his pants to reveal a plush Cthulhu over his crotch. The crowd cheered.
Jacob, aka Superconductor, strode out next. He had a giddy grin plastered on his face and waved robotically, yanking off a silver Barbarella-esque sheer covering to reveal tassels on his butt cheeks, which he twirled to roars from the audience.
Following him was Elwood Flooze, a full-body puppet that looked like a shaggy Muppet monster. He ripped off his blue yarn exterior to reveal an almost-as-furry male chest as the song "Wild Thing" blared.
The evening closed with Scott performing as Beau Dandy. Unlike the other performers, he emerged pre-stripped and covered in only a towel; he then proceeded to dress himself in a sort of reverse-tease. In the final moments of the number, he spilled a drink on himself, and the man who had earlier fretted about pressure to exude masculinity tore his outfit from his body to pose triumphantly in tiny underwear and high heels.
After the show, the students mingled happily with the family, friends, and bosses who'd come to see them. Waxie Moon had spent the entire show watching nervously from the back of the auditorium, doing his best to resist the impulse to gesture throughout the show like an eager stage mom. Now, with the recital over, everyone could relax a bit. The students were nearly naked and stood comfortably among the fully dressed audience with no indication of self-consciousness.
"It's permission to be who you are, and it doesn't matter what you look like," said Scott of the experience. "It matters what you do with it."
Jacob scampered across the room to say hello to some familiar faces. "There's always that voice in the back of your head that wants to put on a traveling road show, with me and my wife doing small performances for people, going from town to town," he said. Though his wife hasn't taken a class yet, she told him she'd like to.
"Superconductor is the character I feel safest starting out with," said Jacob. "But we both have a lot of characters in us. I'd be excited and surprised to see what she'd come up with."
Sabrina had a glow after the performance, as well.
"My girlfriend has mentioned that my confidence level has changed," she said. "She told me all the time, 'I love your body and you're hot.' All the things a girlfriend is supposed to say. But when you're someone who struggles with body image issues, you don't always believe them. And you think, 'You're saying that because you love me.' The stupid lies you tell yourself."
With the weather getting nicer, Sabrina is looking forward to applying her classroom experience to real life—though not necessarily in the context of a performance.
"We always go camping, and we go to this one spot on a river," she said. "And this year, I know I'm not going to be like, 'I'm not going in.' I'm just going to strip and get in there. I'm not getting any younger. Why not enjoy what I have now? I'm alive."
To see all the classes the Academy of Burlesque offers, go to academyofburlesque.com.