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By Lindsay Toler
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The women are very close. "We have the same views on a lot of things," Katrina says. "Dancing with someone for four years is intimate you are naked."
But, for anyone wondering, Katrina stresses that she's straight and has never hooked up with her dance partner.
Michelle is married but declines to discuss her sexuality.
"I like to keep that mysterious," she says. "I don't want the lesbians to think I'm straight, and I don't want the straight boys to think I'm totally lesbian. I am a fantasy up there, and I would like to remain a fantasy. My actual personal life is no one's business. They can think what they want to, and they can go home hoping that there's a chance."
The lesbians are screaming and drunk on Jell-O shots. Liquor pours are deep and cheap, and nearly everyone's partaking. While a few gay men and straight couples are here at the Spot nightclub's black-box theater, the vast majority are women who want to see women.
The joint begins to resemble a construction site as petite-yet-busty Mariel Reynolds begins her sultry rendition of "Let Me Entertain You." Fitted into a black-and-red, cabaret-style leotard complete with garters, she does a brief, jazzy dance before pulling a collapsible cane from her cleavage and removing her shoes and skirt.
Mariel climbs atop her trapeze, balancing on her stomach and falling forward before catching herself by her knees. Then, wrapping herself in the ropes, she dramatically pulls herself to a stand.
Next up is Katrina. She strips to a black bikini before performing "The Bat," a trick in which she holds the pole between her neck and shoulder, before flipping upside-down and spreading her legs into a V. Michelle follows with a solo set before the girls join forces for a nerd-rock double bill, set to Richard Cheese's cover of "Material Girl" and They Might Be Giants' "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)."
"The lesbians are very appreciative," Michelle observes afterward. "It's different from strip clubs. I love them because they're into it and they yell and they see the eroticism in it, but I never feel disrespected or objectified."
Tonight's show was to be the first in a twice-a-month residency for Gravity Plays Favorites and Mariel. The Spot closed shortly thereafter, owing to lack of business. The girls will long remember the former Manchester Avenue haunt, however it's where they debuted, as part of Venus Envy's April art show. Michelle and Katrina met Mariel there a few months later, when she was in a drag performance of the television show Designing Women, starring as the lone "real" female actress.
The Spot's closure aside, Michelle, Katrina and Mariel have enjoyed success plying their trades. Besides her guest spots with Gravity Plays Favorites, Mariel plays with another local burlesque troupe called Alley Cats, who perform Saturday nights at Washington Avenue club Rue 13. The Alley Cats combine humor and striptease in shows like "Moulin Rue," which features songs from the film Moulin Rouge.
Gravity Plays Favorites and Alley Cats are part of a national burlesque resurgence. At the forefront is the Pussycat Dolls revue. Founded in 1995, it has drawn celebrity guest performers including Charlize Theron, Gwen Stefani and Dita Von Teese. Teese, in fact, is the reigning queen of burlesque, not to mention Marilyn Manson's wife. She performed in St. Louis last year as part of Playboy's 50th Anniversary Club Tour.
Also drawing big crowds across the nation is the Suicide Girls Tour, which began nearly three years ago and hit Sauget club Pop's last October. Billed as a "modern punk rock-burlesque show," it is perhaps best known for its performers' liberal use of chocolate syrup.
"[Our tour] reflects humor in the situations that are going on today in the same way that classic cabaret and burlesque were indicative of their time," says Suicide Girls co-founder Missy Suicide, adding that half of tour attendees have been women. "Burlesque and cabaret is a woman expressing how she feels sexy about herself. It's an opportunity to have fun and perform, and to be silly and sexy all at the same time. The more graphic stuff never really appealed to a woman."
Mariel grew up in the traveling Carson & Barnes Circus, joining her extended family on the road at the ripe old age of six weeks. Dad was the band leader, Uncle Dan played the tuba, Grandpa played the trombone, Grammy taught school to the troupe's youngsters, and Mom rode the elephants. They traveled around the continent in travel trailers and RVs.
"It's a great family life," says her dad, Bill Reynolds. "I didn't leave my daughter at 8 a.m. and come back at 8 p.m. every day."
In the mid-1980s, the family left Carson & Barnes and founded the Famous Reynolds Family Circus, playing small-town gyms and theaters across the Midwest. At six, Mariel started on the web and trapeze acts, and she also worked with the family's miniature donkeys, camel and mustang animals the family still has.
The family stopped touring extensively when Mariel started school at Saint Louis University. Her parents have settled in Mount Vernon, Illinois, where Bill works as a middle-school music teacher and his wife, Jeanne, operates a frozen-custard stand when the weather permits.