Aerial Erotica

Three St. Louis-area women take burlesque to new heights

But the Reynolds Family Circus still returns from time to time, recently emerging for a show at the Salem Community Activity Center, twenty miles north of Mount Vernon. It features jugglers, plate spinners, Bill as the ringmaster and Jeanne behind the snack counter, pink-cotton candy clinging to her auburn hair.

Mariel, who lives in St. Louis' Shaw neighborhood, has driven up for the event as well, as has the family mustang, Gabby.

"How old are you, Gabby?" Bill asks the brown-and-white horse. Gabby paws the floor seven times. "That's right!" says Bill, to applause.

Jennifer Silverberg
Katherine "Katrina" Sullivan and Michelle Lindsey used to 
work the poles at the Hustler Club together. As Gravity 
Plays Favorites, they've taken their act directly to the 
Jennifer Silverberg
Katherine "Katrina" Sullivan and Michelle Lindsey used to work the poles at the Hustler Club together. As Gravity Plays Favorites, they've taken their act directly to the lesbians.

"He's more like twenty," Mariel whispers.

Her own acts go more according to plan. Introduced as "Mademoiselle Mariel from Paris," her trapeze performance is as sexy as her Spot act. The 300 townsfolk on hand, about half of them kids, eat it up. Later, wearing a gold leotard — like most of her costumes, she designed it herself — she performs the Spanish Web, with Dad spinning the rope from below.

Afterward, a young woman clad in a high-school letterman's jacket approaches the concession table and asks Mariel about her training. Looking on, Mariel's mother beams.

"It's hard to find your niche as a performer, and I'm proud of her for persevering," Jeanne says. "Especially in the Midwest, the opportunity isn't always there to combine singing and dancing as a full-time job."

Mariel manages to support herself through her burlesque troupes, not to mention gigs performing trapeze and Spanish Web for private events and corporate gigs. She also teaches a circus class at COCA, and last year took six months of acrobat and trapeze classes at a circus school in Lyon, France.

"That's where I got my gaudy taste for the glitz and sequins, to not be afraid to go out in a corset," Mariel says. "I've been wearing makeup since the first grade, and applying it myself since second."

Like burlesque, the circus has always valued a pretty face. The Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil — credited with fashioning the genre of "new circus" — even has a Las Vegas show, Zumanity, which focuses on the sensual.

The histories of the circus and burlesque are intertwined. Legendary circus promoter P.T. Barnum was early on the bandwagon when he brought a famous British burlesque troupe to New York in the 1860s. In those days, burlesque was not singularly associated with striptease, but also with bawdy humor and satire, such as in Shakespearean parodies like Much Ado About a Merchant of Venice. Perhaps the genre's greatest achievement was jettisoning buttoned-up Victorian standards in favor of an age when it was OK to show a little ankle.

That circus and burlesque are regaining popularity isn't surprising, says Jessica Hentoff, who runs a circus for kids at the City Museum.

"I think the resurgence is because they're real, as opposed to virtual," Hentoff says. "You can do anything with special effects or on a computer, but if you see someone hanging by their toes, they're really hanging by their toes."

Michelle continues her daily grind at the Hustler Club, though she doesn't see it as a grind. "How many dancers are there who go to colleges that specialize in dance and don't have a regular gig like I do?" she posits. "Then, when they do get a gig in the ballet or something, it doesn't pay all that great. I've had a regular gig for ten years now, dancing professionally. That's how I see it. I love that it's so free and organic. I don't have to rehearse every single step 20 million times a night; I can just let the music take me."

Katrina, meanwhile, is still living off the money she earned stripping. She quit in April because she was partying too much on the job, fueling what she calls her own "predisposition towards substances." She adds that some of Gravity Plays Favorites' best moves have been discovered after a few Jäger Bombs.

All the booze in the world couldn't help her sell lap dances.

"I'm not a good salesman," she says. "Being a really good hustler is like a secret. You start a conversation with someone, and it's very hard to change gears: 'You want a dance?' You have to be able to see money, or else have 'drunk recognition.' I've seen guys fall out of a chair and immediately three girls are on him."

Both women plan to keep riding the poles until their physiques fade. Michelle says she would someday like to get involved with the Suicide Girls organization, while Katrina has dreams of eventually starting her own ballet school.

For the moment, however, they're focused on parlaying Gravity Plays Favorites into a full-time paying gig.

"We want to be featured in strip clubs all over the country, taking the place of porn stars," says Michelle. "Honestly, the porn stars, all they have is that they're porn stars. Most have been strippers at some time in their lives, so they dance like strippers. They usually don't have a performance — it's not artistic.

"A lot of feminists consider burlesque and striptease-dancing to be degrading to women because we're objectified, but I don't see it that way," she continues. "I love being a woman, and I feel I'm celebrating the beauty of women. I can't control how others see me, I can only control how I see myself, and I love celebrating my womanhood, my sexuality and my art."

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