They tease and tantalize and they flirt and prance; they sew and sew and sew… And oh, how they dance! It may sound like the opening lines from an entry in Dr. Seuss’ private little black book, but this is actually a partial summary of the job description belonging to freelance burlesque agents, Maid Mosephine (Erin Murphy) and Mademoiselle Rowdy Pants (Mariel Purdon).
(…Okay, it was also an excuse to scratch “Writing a Dr. Seuss-inspired lede” from my journalistic bucket list, but ladies, I really think you should consider including that line in your résumés.)
Murphy and Purdon wear many hats – both figuratively and literally (with lots of feathers, always) – in their role as DIY burlesque performance artists. This is a job that requires them to conceptualize and choreograph their own routines and to create costumes that are uniquely tailored (yup, pun entirely intended) for each act. It is a process that takes countless hours, but the end result is an under-five-minutes stage performance that leaves everyone in the audience loosening their collars and begging for more.
This Week in Sarasota got a chance to hang out in the dressing room with Maid Mosephine and Mademoiselle Rowdy Pants (jealous?) for an intimate look into the details of their burlesque preparations.
“It all starts with the song,” said Purdon. “Sometimes you turn it over in your head for days, but once you have your music, you’re off and running. The song is what really sets the tone and dictates the entire concept.”
Once the song is chosen, it’s time to figure out a costume, which the ladies say is the most time-consuming part of the process. It’s also the part where they truly let their creativity and craftiness shine.
If punk rock were to spawn a lovechild with arts and crafts, that child would be the hot glue gun of one Mademoiselle Rowdy Pants or the needle and thread of Maid Mosephine.
“I literally dream about costumes,” Purdon said. “You get to that point where you start looking at everything and wondering how you can incorporate it into a costume. All the sudden you find yourself looking at random objects and thinking ‘Ooh, that could be a pasty. I wonder what else I can stick to my nipples?’”
As it turns out, the answer to that question is virtually anything. Murphy is particularly proud of a set of tasseled pasties she made from a pair of playing cards that she cut, contoured and hand-stitched to wear in a magic show routine.
“You have to get the pasties right because they’re that tiny barrier between putting on a really good show and breaking the law,” said Murphy
“When you’re making a costume, you have to think about every layer — how it fastens, how it interacts with the other layers; the mechanics — are your fishnets going to get caught on the sequins? You have to be able to really perform in it and there’s a lot of thought that goes into that.”
Working with the limited funds requires the ladies to rely on their creative ingenuity when they craft their costumes. Articles of clothing that have already lived countless lives before being spotted on the racks at Goodwill by the keen eyes of Murphy and Purdon are plucked from their hangers and re-purposed into quality costumes by the ladies’ crafty hands.
“There’s a certain level of sparkly genius that comes from having to improvise and figure out alternatives that cut costs,” Purdon said.
“Of course there are times when we splurge,” she confessed. “I mean, sequining an entire pair of underwear by hand is a little ridiculous.”
In such instances, Mademoiselle Rowdy-Pants and Maid Mosephine head to local costume shops like The Glass Slipper or lingerie shops like Kinky Kitty.
Ingenious burlesque costume modifications include Murphy’s Polynesian fringe skirt, which has three layers of hair weave woven to it to create the “fringe” and Purdon’s glitter shoes which are — you guessed it — dance shoes coated in sparkly glitter. Purdon uses Mod Podge, the multi-purpose sealer/glue/finish adhesive used for decoupage projects, to sparkle up her shoes.
These shoes, as well as a multitude of basic-colored swimsuit tops and bottoms, are frequently stripped of their glitter, beads, feathers, rhinestones and sequins and re-purposed over and over for different costumes.
“We call it ‘harvesting costumes,’” said Purdon. “When you’re doing multiples shows every month it gets expensive to keep purchasing new base pieces over again, so you have to modify old costumes.”
Next come the “teasable props,” where the sky is the limit — sometimes quite literally, as in the case of a glittery rocket ship Purdon made out of foam core for a Black Diamond Burlesque routine.
“Incorporating props gets you thinking about a lot of things you wouldn’t normally think about — like the toxicity of flowers, for instance,” Murphy said, referring to a humorous jilted bride routine she performed that required her to bite into the flowers from her bouquet and spit out the petals.
“Before I did the routine, I had to research which flowers could possibly kill me… Hydrangeas. Those are not good to put in your mouth.”
Choreography is the last part of the preparation process. Both women have a strong background in dance: Purdon’s training includes ballet, ballroom dancing and musical theatre, while Murphy’s lies in jazz, tap and competitive Irish dance (which, as Youtube confirmed, is definitely a thing).
“We both had really intensive training in different forms. I think it’s the rhythm and the little details of movement as a form of communication that really sell the show,” said Murphy.
Mademoiselle Rowdy-Pants and Madame Maid Mosephine can be found on a variety of stages. Purdon works closely with the celebrated Black Diamond Burlesque, whose next performance takes place at McCurdy’s Comedy Club on September 8. (You can snag tickets here).
Both performers also work with International Productions by Tahja, showcasing various forms of ethnic dance with a burlesque twist, and are available for single or dual performances. (Reach them at email@example.com.)
“The best thing about DIY burlesque is that as a performer, you truly have your hand in each step of the process,” said Purdon. “It really shows on your face when you perform it, and that’s what makes for a great show.”