Erin Stensrud, a professional photographer, is used to people seeing the camera, not the person behind it — of being the person doing the looking rather than being looked at.
She never envisioned herself getting on a stage in front of an audience, especially a performance that would involve a striptease. She didn’t think anyone would want to see her half-naked.
“Like no one’s gonna want to look at me in that way because I don’t have a … body that is society’s norm, that’s hot to them.”
But when she becomes Baby Callisto, swaying her hips and getting lost in the music, those negative thoughts fade.
Stensrud is a dancer with Bettes Burlesque, a body-positive, inclusive striptease performance troupe founded in 2020.
“The versatility in the group of having literally everyone of every shape and size, we have someone from size zero to someone to size 20 … Everyone’s getting the same amount of attention, everyone’s getting the same amount of cheers,” she said.
Burlesque, as an art form, incorporates a variety of things: music, striptease, elaborate costumes, humor and dancing.
Bettes Burlesque founder Madi Shipman, stage name Lady MaryJane, wanted to ensure it also showcases a variety of body types.
She said Stensrud’s body is “hot” and wants all of her dancers to feel sexy onstage, but this art form doesn’t have to be about sex.
“For me, it’s about just being free in my body… just moving my body how my body wants to move in that moment,” Shipman said.
The Bettes started with workshops and classes last fall, leading up to a debut performance earlier this year.
The troupe’s upcoming show is called “Timeless T******,” using the alliterative word for breasts. It’s described as a “a sexy romp through the last 100 years and beyond.” It’s at The Bard’s Town in Louisville Friday and Saturday.
Bettes Burlesque’s namesake
Shipman named the troupe after her late grandmother, whose nickname was “Bette.”
“I was raised very Baptist… And she always told me stories about how she was raised also in that same religion. But she always wanted to dance.”
But her parents didn’t let Bette take dance lessons and shamed her for the way she danced with her friends, Shipman said.
Shipman remembers one time, when she was about 8, hanging out with Bette at a hotel pool and confiding in her grandmother that she wanted to be a dancer.
“And [Bette] was like, ‘Oh, I wanted to be a dancer too,’ and just beamed and just started talking about all the ways she would just dance with her friends,” Shipman said. “It really inspired me to continue to chase that dream.”
Starting Bettes Burlesque is how Shipman honors her grandmother.
Inspired by a musical movie
At age 12, Shipman saw the movie “Burlesque” with Cher and Christina Aguilera.
It’s about a woman from a small town moving to Los Angeles, trying to make a go of it in a neo-burlesque lounge. She’s not the only one the movie made an impression on.
“Burlesque is something I’ve always been really interested because of the movie ‘Burlesque’ with Christina Aguilera,” Bettes Burlesque company member Nora Doll, who only gave her stage name, said.
“I would be lying if I left out the part where I saw Christina Aguilera in the movie ‘Burlesque’ when I was kid,” said member Kali Malia of her long-held interest in the art form.
“It was a very pivotal movie for a lot of us,” Shipman said.
Shipman said it was empowering to see a female protagonist dance like that for herself.
“A lot of us grew up as theater kids,” she said. “And in theater, there’s a lot of roles that are just basic, stereotypical women, you know, you fall in love, you have babies, you do the whole romance thing. But when we saw burlesque it was like, we can be more than that.”
Finding liberation, confidence through burlesque
Nora Doll has been in theater for years. She said she was feeling artistically stifled, until she joined the Bettes. It’s been enlightening for her as an artist and as a mother of two young kids.
“My body has really changed a lot,” Nora Doll said. “It has been very, very, very hard for me to adjust to that.”
She’s channeled that into one of her routines.
“At one point, I come out with breast pumps on my boobs covering them as pasties. And so kind of exploring the idea of being sexy, and also being an exhausted mom who gives her entire life to her children.”
She thinks she’ll probably never go back to traditional or musical theater again.
“There’s been such a huge change from A to B with me, in terms of getting in touch with my sexuality and becoming a more outgoing performer. … I love burlesque, and I think this is really where I’m meant to be,” she said.
It’s a common sentiment in the group.
Stensrud said she had little confidence, especially when it came to her body, prior to joining Bettes Burlesque.
“The first few videos of us rehearsing, I’m like, ‘Oh, that looks rough. Like you’re so stiff, you don’t look comfortable,’” Stensrud said. “And then as the months went on…I was like, ‘That’s not the same person, she is so much more confident, she is working the whole stage, she’s going in the audience.’”
Tymika Prince, who performs as Meeks, said, “all bodies are sexy.”
“Everyone has a sexy body regardless of what stereotypical America, what the media is telling you, what social media is telling you,” she continued. “We’re all sexy in all different ways, and it’s okay to be on stage and showing that sex appeal.”
Kali Malia, who was new to burlesque when she joined Bettes, agreed.
While she was nervous about the first shows, she said being onstage with this troupe has been “liberating.”
“I don’t think any of us are just born with this shame attached to these concepts,” she said. “I really think we’re taught that shame and we internalize it and guilt as well. … We tend to learn from our parents and society that moving this way is wrong. That showing anyone this part of you is wrong.”
Dancing has been a way for her to let go of that shame and form a healthier relationship with her body.
“This troupe has given me a safe space to explore that sensuality within myself and step into my own power,” she said.