As The Coasters’ “Down in Mexico” oozes through the speaker, burlesque performer Flirty Sanchez sashays onto the stage in a simple black robe and strappy heels.
Her robe soon slips off to reveal a sparkly white top and skirt. Fringe flies as Sanchez shimmies, bending and twisting her body in a series of seductive poses. Suddenly, she drops into a dramatic split, displaying red lace panties.
Sanchez is a member of SLO Tease, a San Luis Obispo-based burlesque troupe that embraces beauty in all its forms.
“We believe everybody is sexy. We believe everybody has something interesting to offer and share,” said SLO Tease executive producer and emcee Rick Castello, also known as Rick Castle. “And we really believe in people feeling empowered to share that with us and with others.”
Eventgoers can enjoy beer and cocktails at a bar operated by San Luis Obispo’s Sidecar Cocktail Co. Profits from drink sales go to two local charities: the Cancer Support Community California Central Coast, which has received $20,000 from SLO Tease in the past three years, and RISE San Luis Obispo County.
Popularized in the 20th century by the likes of Lili St. Cyr and Gypsy Rose Lee, burlesque – a sensuous art form that combines striptease and storytelling – has seen a revival in recent years thanks to troupes such as San Francisco’s Hubba Hubba Revue, New Orleans’ Fleur de Tease and Los Angeles’ Lucha VaVoom. (The latter incorporates comedy and Mexican masked wrestling.)
SLO Tease got its start in 2011, when Castello organized an impromptu burlesque show at San Luis Obispo’s now-closed Z Club with the help of his friends. While that original show featured nine or 10 acts, SLO Tease now boasts 25 active performers; 20 will appear in “Transformations.”
“We’ve grown as a group. We were originally a collection of people who got together to put on shows … and now we’re a troupe” that holds regular auditions, explained Castello, an Amazon.com program manager. “Everyone has more camaraderie and support for each other that way.”
Each year, SLO Tease presents two 21-and-older shows, which usually sell out. (South Bay Community Center seats about 220 people.) “Transformations” will be its second show at South Bay Community Center – following a move from San Luis Obispo’s Trinity Hall – and its third to feature a theme.
According to Castello, “Transformations” will center on journeys of self-discovery — appropriate given the revealing nature of burlesque.
“As humans, we all have some kind of insecurity. In burlesque, you can’t hide those insecurities,” explained “Transformations” director Anthony Allesmith, aka Vixyn Satyrias. “Those are right out in front of the audience, in front of the cameras, in front of everybody.”
The experience can be unnerving for a first-time performer, acknowledged SLO Tease performer Sarah Hibble, who goes by the stage name Madam Minge.
“Right before you go on stage … you feel like you’re going to pass out or vomit,” Hibble said. “As soon as you get on stage, all of that goes away. The audience is adoring, and we are adoring the audience.”
“They love us for every inch of us, no matter what jiggles or what may be a little hairy,” Allesmith added with a laugh.
What sets SLO Tease apart from other burlesque troupes is the fact that shows are created collaboratively.
Performers are in charge of everything from picking a concept to creating choreography to choosing costumes and selecting songs. A team of mentors helps them hone their routines.
“We all have a sense of ownership over our own numbers, and we take pride in that. That’s really empowering in itself,” Hibble explained.
At “Transformations,” audiences members might see a tipsy cowgirl, a juggling clown or performers in neon workout wear powering through an exercise routine complete with squats, pushups and butt-slapping. The soundtrack ranges from Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams (Of You)” to “Shots & Squats” by electronica act Vigiland, featuring Tham Sway.
Burlesque routines often involve bawdy comedy, dance and elaborate outfits. And, contrary to popular belief, not every routine ends with the performer in pasties and a G-string.
“We’ve had acts where the only thing that a performer took off on stage was a glove,” Castello said. “And you can bet that by the time that glove was removed, the audience was howling.”
“It’s the mutual flow of energy between (us) and the audience that’s really uplifting and fun,” Hibble said. “We have a lot of fun in our rehearsals, but it’s nothing compared to show night, when all the sudden there are (a few) hundred people in here and they’re all so happy to be.”
Allesmith, a caterer known as The Prancing Chef, said burlesque breaks down barriers between performers and fans.
“I’ve seen people battle demons” on stage, Allesmith said. “They’re telling this really intimate part of their lives through performance and revealing the core of their being, and it’s really beautiful to watch them go through that. I see a lot of healing on the stage.”
As Vixyn Satyrias, he’s used burlesque to explore LGBTQ rights and history. As a commentary on North Carolina’s now-scrapped “bathroom bill,” which restricted access to public restrooms for those who are transgender, he lip-synced the song “Pussy” by Alaska Thunderf*ck while sporting a giant foam wig and a poodle skirt decorated with felt vaginas.
Hibble, a mother of five who once struggled with negative body image as a ballet dancer, said burlesque has “really built me up as a person.”
“My self-esteem was really down the toilet,” she said. “When I first heard about (SLO Tease), I did question myself – ‘Am I thin enough? Am I too wobbly? Do my things sag where they shouldn’t sag?’ I (finally) said ... ‘Let’s do it.’ ”
“I’m so glad that I did,” she continued, “because I have more self love now than I did before. Because I have more self love, I’m able to appreciate all the people around me even more. … Now I can help other people, and spread the word.”