By day she’s shy, conservative and teetotal. By night she’s a burlesque dancer. We delve into a remarkable double life. Cover photo by Michael Luna Photography. By Gillian Drummond
She’s not what we expected. We imagined tighter clothes. Flamboyance. Lipstick. But she’s in workout gear – a T-shirt, leggings and hoodie. She’s quietly sipping her Starbucks drink on the patio. The makeup, though there, is barely discernible.
“I did put on some mascara and lipstick for you!” she laughs. “I usually wear nothing.”
Except, that is, when she takes to the stage as her alter ego. Then, after an hour and a half of hair styling and make-up application, after donning elaborate costumes handmade by her, she gradually and teasingly removes them. And she reveals not much at all: scant underwear, and a pair of pasties, or nipple covers.
By night she is Ida Tapper, an alter ego she has created as part of Tucson’s burgeoning burlesque scene. By day? Well, that would be telling. Although we could reveal her real name (it’s there on her Starbucks cup in black Sharpie pen), that would be breaking the burlesque rules. Ida and her cohorts have stage names. It’s a way for them to maintain some privacy, and to separate their very public night-time persona from their ‘real’ selves – people who hold down jobs, and have partners, children and families.
For this dancer – still relatively new to burlesque – her pseudonym is also her crutch. As Ida she is empowered, sexy, bawdy, theatrical. Her daytime self hadn’t even set foot inside a bar, let alone seen a burlesque show, when, three years ago, a friend took her to see Black Cherry Burlesque show at The Surly Wench pub on Tucson’s Fourth Avenue. The dancers undressed to Schubert’s Ave Maria, huge white feather fans like giant clam shells, dipping and curling and covering their bodies. Ida was hooked. She grabbed one of the troupe members after the show – stage name Fanny Galore – and gushed in appreciation and awe. Fanny suggested Ida come and take a class for newbies, with a public show at the end of it.
Ida, who had grown up dancing but left her dance hobby behind when she pursued music, was drawn to the idea of performing dance again. But first, Fanny had to assuage Ida’s fears, which ranged from exposing the cellulite on her thighs, to being found out at work. As a public school teacher, she feared she might be sacked. Fanny assured her this wasn’t a sacking offence.
Today, burlesque is not just a hobby, it’s an outlet, says Ida. “The Ida in me needed to come out.” That’s why you’ll find Ida at this week’s Body Love Conference in Tucson, leading a workshop called Beginner Burlesque: The Art of the Tease. The conference, which takes place at the University of Arizona and is the brainchild of Tucson blogger and body positive advocate Jes Baker, has one simple message: Change your world, not your body.
At 5 feet 9 and a size 2, Ida doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate for encouraging body love to women of all shapes and sizes. But despite her statuesque looks, she never considered herself attractive. She grew up an identical twin. “I was the more scholarly one, I was into school and academics. My sister had the tattoos and the piercings and went drinking. She was the pretty one, I was the smart one. That affected my confidence going on stage.”
That first time, she gave herself a pep talk backstage. Having performed music, she was no stranger to the stage. But taking her clothes off was another thing. So she told herself that, although she may be scared, Ida, her alter ego, was comfortable and content. And then a funny thing happened. She dug so deep into that alter ego that, mentally, she disappeared. Even today, with hundreds of performances to her name, she still can’t tell you how her audience is reacting, whether they’re even clapping. “I don’t notice that. I really am in my own world,” she says.
The day after she first shared Ida with the world, she was walking taller, smiling more. “I was going ‘I have a secret. None of you know what I did last night’.”
And now, she doesn’t care whether the cellulite shows or not. “The feminist in me said I wanted to show everything I have. I wanted to stop being ashamed of what I look like and bring it all and say to the audience ‘Take it or leave it’.” Ida hopes visitors to the Body Love conference will feel the same way.
Fanny Galore, Ida’s mentor and now colleague – one of the four who make up the Tucson troupe Don’t Blink Burlesque – says body confidence was a happy byproduct. “I never thought I had a good body until I started doing burlesque,” says Fanny, once a member of the Black Cherry troupe and now operating the burlesque ‘university’, Fanny’s Fox Den. Many of her students (and she has taught more than a hundred) are, like Ida, inherently shy and the opposite of their stage personas. “I think to an extent a lot of us are trying to tap into something that’s somewhat suppressed. A lot of my students tell me they’re actually shy. The stage is a safe place,” says Fanny.
Ida has seen friendships made as well as relationships suffer as part of Tucson’s burlesque scene. She knows she’s lucky that her own husband has backed her from the start (he attends every show, and helps pack and unpack gear). Also in the audience, on occasion, have been work colleagues. But, adhering to the unspoken burlesque rule that what happens on the stage stays there, none of them have so much as mentioned Ida to her in the office.
Don’t Blink Burlesque is made up wholly of “really determined Type A personalities”, says Ida. “It’s a very driven troupe. You’d be surprised how many advanced degrees we have. Because it’s that type of personality that will sew rhinestones on [costumes] for 80 hours and prepare for six months for a show.”
Don’t Blink Burlesque performs once a week at The Hut, as well as putting on other shows. In June, for the first time, they will compete for the title of best burlesque troupe in the annual Burlesque Hall of Fame event in Las Vegas. And this fall the troupe will put on the first annual Arizona Burlesque Festival – three days and three nights of performances and classes, for wannabes and spectators.
Don’t expect to see Ida performing much over the coming months; she’s pregnant with her first child and already busting out of her corsets. But she’ll still be on the scene. At a recent Don’t Blink gig at Playground in Tucson, she emceed with a brazenness and ribaldry that was difficult to equate with the quiet, serene woman taking midday coffee. The audience lapped it up. And Ida was in her element.
* Ida won’t be the only burlesque dancer at The Body Love conference, held April 5th at the University of Arizona. The World Famous Bob, a self-described “female-female impersonator” inspired by drag, and a teacher at the New York School of Burlesque, will be giving a talk on self-confidence. For the full schedule and tickets, click here. For more on Jes Baker, the body positive advocate behind the conference, read our feature here.