In a new monthlong series, writer John Russell takes us inside the burgeoning boylesque scene and learns some tricks of the trade along the way.
There are whoops and whistles, catcalls and applause mingled in with nervous laughter and Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” all coming from the small studio above Brooklyn performance space The House of Yes.
Inside, six skinny white guys are watching one of their classmates strip for (what I assume) is the very first time.
Everyone has to do it. That’s what we’re all here for: to learn how to strip.
It’s the first exercise in the first week of Go-Go Harder’s monthlong “Intro to Boylesk” class—all the students have to give an impromptu, three-minute striptease to get us acclimated to taking off or clothes in front of people, and to make us aware of just how long three minutes—the length of your average burlesque number, according to Harder—can feel onstage.
I’m a good 20 minutes late to class, so I’m the last to go. Everyone else is already in their undies and I’m suddenly very aware of the fact that all I’m wearing is a T-shirt and jeans over my purple and black Calvin Klein briefs—hardly enough costume to spend three minutes shimmying out of.
Full disclosure: This isn’t my first time dancing in my underwear in public. I used to pick up the odd go-go dancing gig here and there, usually in bars on the Lower East Side and Williamsburg. I’ve even tried my hand at boylesque, which is how I came to meet Go-Go Harder.
Chris “Go-Go” Harder is something of a nightlife celebrity in New York. The 25-year-old, who came to the city to be, as he puts it, a “serious actor,” has been performing burlesque for a little over two years now.
“I really fell into it,” says Harder, who is openly gay. “I was go-go dancing for party promoter Daniel Nardicio and he decided to have a boylesque night where we all had to create numbers. I really did it more as a task at the time, because I wanted to make my money for the weekend.”
I was there that night, performing alongside Harder. While the rest of the go-go boys, myself included, struggled to come up with cohesive acts for the show,
Chris was a natural from the get-go. His quirky, comedic “Hot For Teacher” number was tight. It had a story. It had a punch line. It had the makings of a viable act, and Harder still performs it to this day.
“From there I really found that I loved [burlesque], and I was lucky enough that two really great performers in the audience kind of took me under their wings and helped open my eyes to this whole different world of performance that I didn’t know was available to me.”
Since then, he’s developed his glittery, geeky stage persona as well as his skills as a producer and emcee. He’s serious about his art form, traveling to burlesque festivals in London and Las Vegas to learn from seasoned performers like boylesque vet Tigger! and burlesque divas Dirty Martini and The World Famous Bob.
As a result he’s become the go-to guy when gay bars and clubs in New York want a boylesque night. He’s produced and curated shows at Bowery Poetry Club, the Stonewall Inn, Splash and the Box, as well as co-hosting the long-running variety show “Meaner, Harder, Leather” with drag queen Misty Meaner and burlesque queen Stormy Leather.
Now Harder is ready to share his hard earned knowledge and performance savvy with a new crop of would-be boylesque stars.
“The class to me is a stepping stone for new male performers,” he says, “And also a stepping stone for myself as a performer and a teacher.” Harder wants to encourage other male performers to explore boylesque as an alternative to go-go dancing or doing drag.
Boylesque has taken root in New York, San Francisco and Chicago, but Harder would like a larger scene to emerge. “What I would love to see eventually is a boylesque festival and boylesque online communities. I mean, there’re so many different styles of female burlesque now,” he says. “There are with boylesque, too, but there just aren’t enough boys in each style doing them.”
Back to class: I’m trying like hell to peel my clothes off as tantalizingly slowly as possible, but three minutes is an agonizingly long time to strip off just a t-shirt and jeans. Not to mention that taking off your clothes stone-cold sober in broad daylight is vastly different from dancing in your underwear on a dark bar with a couple shots. There’s an art to this—anyone who tells you differently is a fool.
The art of the tease—the lingering, the connection with the audience—isn’t something that shaking your booty above the heads of drunk guys at a seedy bar really prepares you for. There, you don’t have to make eye contact. There’s an aloofness you can get away with as a go-go boy that just doesn’t fly in boylesque.
Still, my new classmates whoop and holler supportively and, stripped down finally, I take my place with them on the floor of this little studio.
Next week: Meet the new class of boylesque stars!
Images via Santiago Felipe, Wijadi Jodi, Leland Bobbe