"I'm Lola Torch, and these are my Burning Desires," purrs Emilie Marchand, the emcee and lead singer of Tucson's Black Cherry Burlesque. This February marks the seven-year anniversary for the troupe of sparkly seductresses, who have been wooing Tucsonans with their sexy dances and winking glances twice a month at the Surly Wench Pub. The third Friday of every month, the ladies put on Black Cherry Raw, a revue that combines burlesque dancers, singers and a talented band comprised of four men rocking out on a keyboard, sax, bass guitar and drums. The musical experience is a delightful blend of old-meets-new burlesque, with songs ranging from "Hey, Big Spender," to "Like a Virgin."
The Surly Wench's black stage and crimson curtains, exposed brick walls and gold chandeliers and street lamps harken back to a time when burlesque was new and edgy and scandalous. But in many ways burlesque is still shocking to people. I mean, it's not every day that I see hot women taking their clothes off. "The female figure has never lost its power and exoticism," Marchand says.
Lola Torch is Marchand's alter ego, her burlesque name. And as the lead singer of the group, she carries the torch for her troupe of Burning Desires: Bunny Boom Boom, Ida Tapper, Ginger SinClaire, Stormy Leigh, Fanny Galore, Natasha Noir, Lela Rose, Diamonda Morgue and a handful of others. These women of many shapes and sizes show off their long legs, toned tummies and bodacious boobs as they strut across the stage. Each woman gets her chance to shimmy in the spotlight by performing a suspenseful striptease. They peel off gloves and hats, dresses and stockings, corsets and boy shorts until they're naked, save for G-strings and tassels. "God forbid we show a nipple," Marchand jokes, because it's illegal to show your pointed pepperonis en público.
But the nipple factor isn't the only thing that sets burlesque apart from more mainstream stripping. Burlesque is theater. And each performer comes equipped with her own bag of tricks. Stormy Leigh pulls a blue-feathered boa through her legs like some kind of magician. And when Lela Rose dances to "You Can Leave Your Hat On," she takes off a floppy black hat, only to reveal a smaller black hat underneath. To me, these clever surprises are just as sexy as any jewel-studded G-string.
While the striptease is the main allure of the show, I find these women to be standouts for some of their other traits, like their confidence. Even though I wouldn't feel comfortable revealing myself in front of an audience, I admire their bravery. I'm apparently not the only one. On the night I saw the show, there were just as many—if not more—women than men in the audience. "It's a show that women can relate to," Marchand says.
When I think of a striptease, I think of an audience full of sleazy men slipping dollar bills into women's thongs. But the hooting and hollering in this crowd comes not only from the men but also from the women, maybe even more so. And the women, too, throw crumpled dollar bills onto the stage. In this audience, women don't sneer; they cheer.
In a culture that often teaches women to hate their bodies, burlesque provides a rollicking respite. One of the ways the performers seduce is by moving their hands slowly down the contours of their bodies. While sexy, it's also a sign of something larger: These women are proud of their bodies. They love themselves. The show is not just entertaining, but also powerful and poignant to watch.
Social commentary aside, perhaps more than anything else, burlesque is supposed to be fun. "I love it because of the sparkly costumes," adds Marchand, who is a seamstress by day as co-owner of Preen, a boutique on Fourth Avenue. (Yes, she does make her own costumes.) Seeing these fun outfits makes me take note: I should buy some sexy lingerie. It'd be fun to take off a pair of stirrup fishnet tights. I feel like I've been missing out by wearing oversized T-shirts and sweat pants to bed my entire life.
Lola breaks me out of my to-do-list reverie when I hear her croon, "Whatever Looola wants ... Loooola gets." Up to this point, our ringleader has remained clothed in a long, form-fitting black dress. But in her final song, she slowly begins to unzip. The audience goes nuts. Crumpled dollar bills bounce like popcorn onto the stage. It seems that what turns on the audience the most is not just Lola, but what she represents: the biggest tease. She proves that what's often the sexiest move is not the quick reveal but the great withholding dance. "Give in ... give in ... give in," she taunts. And then, with dramatic flair, she drops her bra and lifts her hands up high, smiling.