For D.D. DuPree, the art of burlesque is more than shedding clothes in front of an audience – it’s stripping away fear and learning to feel comfortable in her own skin, flaws and all.
When she isn’t exuding sensuality on the Vaudezilla stage, she is Draenna Jackson – wife, freelance video editor, receptionist and full-time graduate student, studying Human-Computer Interaction at DePaul. She spoke to me about the transformative power of performing and believing in herself regardless of naysayers.
Sadé – Tell me about the Vaudezilla Burlesque Troupe and how you got involved with it.
D.D. – They were looking for what they call vixens [stagehands]. They dress us up as cigarette girls in a corset and fluffy skirt and we are scenery at the show…I “vixened” with them for two years and the owner of the troupe, Red Hot Annie, asked if I would like to take advanced classes for free because they were putting together a JV squad.
Sadé – Before Red Hot Annie came to you about taking free classes, had you done any training for burlesque dancing?
D.D. – I never did any dance training. I did a lot of theater training when I was young.
Sadé – What kind of skills do you need to be a burlesque dancer?
D.D. – Well, having some rhythm helps (laughs). I think having a lot of confidence in yourself, your stage presence and the effect you can have on an audience…I think that’s what makes all the performers really something special.
Sadé – Are there only full-figured women in the troupe, or is it open to all sizes and shapes?
D.D. – It’s open to all sizes, all shapes, all sexes…we have two “boylesque” members of the troupe; they’re male dancers who are both incredible.
Sadé – When you Google “beautiful women,” the majority of the results show thin, white women. Is it difficult to be a full-figured woman of color in entertainment in a society that still seems to prefer the western ideal of beauty?
D.D. – No. I feel like any woman of color has to come to terms with the fact that she’s not blond and blue-eyed at a really young age, or she’s not going to be happy with herself…I perform for the people who don’t care what color I am.
Sadé – What do you think made self-acceptance easier?
D.D. – When I was a small child I lived in a predominately-white area..I was one of the only black kids in my grade. I moved when I was in fourth grade to Bellwood, which is predominately black, and I got so much hatred from other black people. “Oh she ‘talks white,’ oh she’s good in school.” It made me realize hate can come from anywhere, even places you think you’re going to be safe. The only shield is to be secure in who you are personally…I wasn’t going to change who I was to fit in with people who were judging me on something arbitrary.
Sadé – How did you get to the point where you were comfortable taking off your clothes onstage?
D.D. – I sometimes still wonder if I am comfortable (laughs)…a lot of the feeling fat and unattractive goes away when you’re in front of an audience…they’re cheering and you feel the love and it doesn’t really matter how much cellulite you have.
Sadé – How much clothing do you remove?
D.D. – The JV squad so far has gotten down to underwear, although we have an act coming up on the 16th and we’re going to be down to pasties and thongs…The rest of the troupe… sometimes they don’t wear anything at all, but have strategically-placed props so you don’t see the really crucial bits.
Sadé – How do you feel when you’re performing?
D.D. – Oh it’s the best feeling in the world…I stop being Draenna Jackson and become D.D. DuPree.
Sadé – How are Draenna Jackson and D.D. DuPree different?
D.D. – When I’m doing the D.D. DuPree persona, it’s a lot more sassy and a lot sexier. It’s partly the costuming and partly the atmosphere.
Sadé – What would you tell someone who has never seen a burlesque show to expect?
D.D. – Expect a lot of nude women. Expect people to tell you to cheer and hoot and clap and holler… think of it less as sex onstage and more as art.
Sadé – What impression do you want to make on your audience?
D.D. – I want them to have fun. I want some of the women to feel empowered…even though we’re not perfect and they’re not perfect we can…be sexy and they can feel sexy in their own lives.
Check out D.D. DuPree’s next performance with the Vaudezilla JV squad (featuring headliner Po’Chop) next Saturday, November 16.
Where: Vaudezilla Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Chicago, IL
Time: 10:30 p.m.