PORT ANGELES — While earning her nursing degree, Clare Sherley took an elective that rocked her world.
This course, a rare thing taught at only a few universities in this country, provided Sherley with a new form of expression. And come the end of this week, it will provide a good deal of decidedly adult entertainment at the Port Angeles Community Playhouse.
Sherley, 38, is cofounder of the Girdle Scouts, this town’s very own burlesque troupe. The 15-member outfit will present its most elaborate show so far, “Naughty & Nice,” at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the playhouse.
A play-full show it is, with sexy dancing, performance art, comedy, even singing — with sociopolitical commentary stirred in.
Sherley is a graduate of the University of Washington who is a labor and delivery nurse at Jefferson Healthcare in Port Townsend — and she was a star student in the “Burlesque and Feminism” course at the UW.
“She did a great final project. It was stellar,” said Sydney Lewis, the instructor of the course.
Questioned gender norms
Sherley’s project was a burlesque performance that questioned gender norms, which are among the many issues explored in “Burlesque and Feminism.”
The class is one of only two of its kind taught in the nation, as far as Lewis knows. The other one is offered at New York University. And though she said it doesn’t reach a conclusion about whether or not burlesque is a feminist performance art, the course does delve into both theory and practice. Students talk about what’s masculine, what’s feminine, what’s striptease and what’s burlesque, and they learn all about how burlesque began.
It started as a radical, underground art, Lewis said, when in the middle of the 19th century Lydia Thompson brought her “British Blondes” troupe stateside to the vaudeville circuit. They sang bawdy songs, showed off their stocking-sheathed legs and built audiences.
But like so many art forms, burlesque was overtaken by mainstream culture, and so the female performers lost much of their power. Burlesque, which had begun as a satire of the dominant paradigm, became a display of sexuality according to what show producers wanted.
Take back their power
Fast-forward to the 1990s, when a resurgence of interest in burlesque began to bloom in cities such as Seattle. This time around, the performers took back their power. They took back their right to decide what to wear and what to show in their shows.
Sherley, who grew up in Cheney, Spokane County, graduated from high school in 1992. She got a job as a nanny in Boston, and then moved around to a series of big cities. She went through a period in her life when she presented her masculine side to the world: She wore her hair extremely short, and dressed in a biker jacket and boots.
Sherley didn’t quite believe, at the time, that a woman could be both feminine and powerful.
Then came her discovery of the new burlesque. In these shows, women of all shapes, sizes and colors celebrated their sexuality — in all-out defiance of the art form’s previous incarnation, which was mostly about skinny white women working in clubs.
Next another life-changing event: Sherley became a mother. Her little girl, Francis, was born nine years ago.
“My body had gone through a lot of changes,” too, Sherley said.
Sherley has been exploring burlesque as a performance art for years now, exploring it as a way to play as well as to express ideas about the way women and men interact — and about what’s beautiful.
“I have a mother’s body. I’m not 19,” she said. “But that doesn’t make me feel less sexy.”
‘Naughty & Nice’
In “Naughty & Nice” next weekend, Sherley and her cohorts frolic through 16 performance pieces. There’s a spoof on the “Three Little Pigs” fairy tale, complete with a big, bad wolf portrayed by Sherley’s partner of four years, Jack Slowriver; and there are holiday songs like “Santa Baby” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”
There’s a Dr. Seuss-style Grinch who goes around creating mischief — until the end, when he gets stripped down. Sherley also appears as half man and half woman in a comic commentary titled “Bitty Boppin’ Betty.” And she does what she calls a “tease” piece to “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.”
But this is burlesque, mind you, not striptease.
“It’s suggestive, but there’s no nudity,” Sherley said. “There is definitely skin. I would say it’s R-rated. And we definitely incorporate a lot of humor; adult humor.”
“Naughty & Nice” is a demonstration, too, of how burlesque empowers the performer. This art form is about owning one’s own sensuality, Sherley said; it’s not about catering to what spectators want.
“My personal philosophy is that anyone who gets on stage is empowered when [she] says, ‘I’m going to show you what I want to show you.’”
The Girdle Scouts’ prancers and dancers also get out there to make social statements. One comes in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” the duet in which the woman says, “I really can’t stay,” and the man gives her a string of reasons why she’d better.
“My mother will start to worry,” she says.
“Beautiful, what’s your hurry?” he asks.
And so it goes, with the guy insisting on her having more to drink:
“Put some music on while I pour,” he says.
“The neighbors might think —” she protests.
“Baby, it’s bad out there,” he says.
“Say, what’s in this drink?” she asks.
“No cabs to be had out there,” is his answer.
When she repeats that she has to go home, he tells her, “You’ll freeze out there.”
Finally, she’s about to give in, despite her qualms — but in the Girdle Scouts version, the woman doesn’t end up a victim. Instead, she holds up a big sign saying, “No means NO.”
“Naughty & Nice” couches its commentary, however, in dollops of comedy. In the “Three Little Pigs” piece, the soundtrack starts with Duran Duran’s 1982 hit “Hungry like the Wolf,” and segues into the Commodores’ 1977 smash “Brick House.”
The wolf-versus-little pigs vignette was Slowriver’s idea, Sherley said.
“I love the song ‘Brick House.’ It’s got a great beat; it’s fun to dance to,” but, as she told her partner, “I want to do something ridiculous to it.” Hence the spoof.
The Girdle Scouts’ performances also showcase some outrageous costumes. Port Angeles artist Sarah Tucker designed many of them; the ingredients include leopard-print girdles and miniskirts made out of Christmas tree skirts bought at Goodwill.
Sherley and Slowriver, meantime, are delighted to be offering something new to Port Angeles’ arts-and-entertainment scene.
“Naughty & Nice” is toned down slightly from what it might be in a larger city, Sherley said. But she added that many of the people she and Slowriver have met here are open-minded about alternative art forms.
“I think the town is hungry for progressive things to happen,” she said.
Sherley and Slowriver, who met on an Internet site and then moved here in fall 2007, hadn’t planned to stay in Clallam County this long.
Sherley moved from Port Townsend, while Slowriver came from Chicago — and both find life is good in Port Angeles.
Slowriver, who started as a social worker at the Department of Child and Family Services, is now executive director of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest.
And while Sherley also is happy in her work at Jefferson Healthcare, she hopes to become a midwife one day. She is applying for graduate programs now, and said she will probably return to the University of Washington.
Meantime, she’s busy rehearsing for “Naughty & Nice,” and reveling in the comedy and politics that intertwine on stage. The troupe may add new members in the new year, Sherley added.“Before I go to graduate school,” she said, “I want to get [the Girdle Scouts] to where it’s a solid group.”