Jessica Gripp pulled off her T-shirt, revealing the black demi-bra underneath. A few of her classmates helped her on with a mint-green negligee. She padded over to where some costumes were tossed over a row of extra chairs, throwing a blue boa over one shoulder.
On Tuesday nights, her 7-year-old son greets her at the door: “Did you have fun at dance class, Mom?” She’s explained to her son what burlesque is. “It’s sort of like dancing where you take your clothes off, but you don’t show everything.”
Gripp knelt in front of one of the floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the north wall of Liggett Studio, resting her heavy thighs on the backs of her feet. Her hair is blonde, like her idol Marilyn Monroe’s, and the curls that brush her back look like they’ve been dipped in pink neon. She took off her glasses to practice a cat-eye eyeliner technique she’d been taught in class by Missy Artichoke’u, a burlesque dancer who doubles as a hairdresser and beauty consultant at her neighborhood Walgreens. On the other side of the red door between Kenosha Avenue outside and the students busy at the mirrors inside—a school teacher, a belly dancer, a clerk at a local tag agency, and about a dozen others—a couple of local burlesque performers sat on the sidewalk, sharing a light for their cigarettes.
First it’d been the emergency room. Over Thanksgiving, Gripp’s chest had tightened, and her arms and legs had gone numb. “I thought, ‘I’m going to leave my kids all alone,’ ” she said. She wasn’t the first stay-at-home mom to be surprised by a panic attack. “I love my family, but there wasn’t any part of me left.”
Gripp Googled for burlesque classes near her home in Owasso after her counselor advised that she do something for herself. She has a degree in theater, and though she studied as a stage tech, performing has been on her mind—“I’ve always kind of liked it,” she said. Gripp’s husband likes it, too. “He especially likes the tricks I learned with my tassels,” she told me, averting her eyes as she laughed.
Amanda Storms—her stage name is Poppy Pie—helps teach the classes. She’s a founding member of the local TwoLips Burlesk troupe, which regularly sees audiences of 200+ at their shows like Octopussy A-Go-Go and Tassel Twirling in Tinseltown. Her Tulsa Burlesque Society project that backs the classes serves as a sort of women’s outreach, a way to break down the barriers between the audience and the stage and spread the gospel of true burlesque.
“Burlesque is not about getting down to pasties. It’s about the art of the strip,” Storms said. “How you take off your apron in front of your honey at home, just to spice it up a little bit— that is burlesque.”