Dressed in white satin and fishnets, Olivia Legere sat backstage sipping on whiskey and anticipation. She prepared for her upcoming performance at the Portland House of Music – she was to be featured in an act which combined social commentary and burlesque – themed dancing.
Legere, 22, was born in Newmarket, where she lived her entire life. She moved to Portland, Maine after graduating from UNH with a degree in women’s studies and a minor in queer studies. Legere was constantly defending her major to inquisitive strangers – and she didn’t even want to go to college in the first place.
“I told my parents, fine, I’ll apply to UNH. If I get in, I’ll go to college. If I don’t get in, I’ll do something else,” Legere said.
Now, Legere dances in a troupe who call themselves, “Voulez-Vous: Burlesque and Cabaret.” According to Legere, burlesque is choreographed stripping. Dancers undress to nothing but pasties, or small black nipple covers, and refuse to accept cash tips via physical contact. Legere quit her job in social work and now finds herself contributing more to society with her position as a professional burlesque dancer.
“I’m open about what I do with everyone in my life – even if I were just a stripper… Well I guess I am a stripper, but I’m an artistic stripper,” Legere said.
The show began on a Tuesday evening around 8 p.m.. The lights were dim as a tall, lanky man approached the audience from behind a curtain. He was adorned in red and black glitter, horns and a curly-q tail.
“We’re going to piss some of you off,” the devil said. “And that’s okay.”
A large man in a heavy cotton robe and a Santa Claus beard joined the devil on stage. He had the word “holy,” written in glitter across his bottom. Every now and then he would shake it for the audience, showering them in gold-tinted irony. The two bantered on the subject of morality and launched into a diatribe encouraging the normalization of sex and acceptance of others.
The expose continued into an array of solos and/or group routines. Each number was oriented around one of the seven deadly sins. The troupe tastefully mocked organized religion, patriarchy, gender roles and social normality in a series of strip teases, lip-syncing battles and dance routines.
Legere always wanted to move to Portland.
“It’s a super queer city,” she said. Armed with a yellow Chevy Neon, two cats and a college degree, she found herself a job in social work and an apartment in South Portland.
“I was a case manager for Iraqi refugees here in Portland. It seemed like a great opportunity to help people. I consider myself a healer,” said Legere, about her time as a social worker. “The job never stopped, I was constantly lost in bureaucracy and stuck on hold.”
Legere loved the one-on-one therapy involved with her position as a social worker; she enjoyed making a difference and improving people’s lives. Yet, she became frustrated with the non-stop workload and the semantics necessary in the pursuit of helping people. She found the battle against bureaucracy to be futile.
“If I could pick and choose the parts of social work that I liked, I would have stayed,” Legere said.
Legere worked with an extremely shy 12-year-old boy who was having a hard time assimilating and making friends. It took weeks for her to get him to talk to her – but they eventually bonded over memes and silly jokes. She said she understood the position he was in, and was happy to help, even with simple banter and friendship. She resigned from the position shortly after the boy was transferred to a different case manager in an Orwellian nightmare of paperwork.
“You have to dissociate from yourself in order to be good at a job like that,” said Legere.
Legere refers to herself on stage as “Olive Trees,” her character is just as bubbly and blonde as her regular self, except with less clothing. Olivia has curly blonde hair, an arm full of flowery tattoos and 15 years of dance experience – she said burlesque was the perfect outlet for a hobby she had not been able to pursue in years.
“Me and ‘Hillary Skank’ act out wrath as our deadly sin,” Legere explained.
The two 20-something-year-olds staged an aggressively realistic fight-club scenario. The two take stage dives and throw baseball bats at one another slowly but surely undressing each other down to their pasties and engaging in a sexual interpretive dance.
“The root of this group is about body positivity, like, I’m using my body, I’m taking up this space and you’re gonna watch me do it with confidence,” Legere said.
The troupe is eclectic: the group of 10 has just about every body type you might imagine. A self-identifying fat girl referred to herself as such while acting out a scene for the sin of sloth.
The woman got on stage, wrapped in a comforter and clenching a box of tissues. She then collapsed to the floor, staying there for three to four minutes rolling around and blowing her nose to the tune of some 1920s oldies.
“We have so many different types of bodies. I think audience members see that as well as our equal amount of stage presence and confidence and say ‘wow we really are all the same,’” said Legere.
The group works with satire, without taking themselves too seriously. Gluttony was demonstrated by a thin young woman perched behind a super-sized cutout of McDonald’s french fries. She steps out from behind the cutout, into the limelight, revealing herself in a larger-than-life burger costume. The woman slowly removes each layer of the costume sandwich – one slice of cheese at a time. By the end, she moves around the stage, fake pickles strewn across the room, dancing in a skirt made out of the bottom bun: no shirt, no bra, but torn fishnet stockings.
“I feel like I am making more of a day-to-day difference on the community I am a part of by burlesque dancing than I ever did as a social worker,” said Legere.
Legere has no intentions of returning to the world of social work in the near future. She feels as though her dancing is a better contribution to Portland as a whole. As a social worker, an Iraqi woman asked Legere to take her baby she could no longer afford to take care of. The homeless, pregnant teenager Legere was assigned to disappeared without warning. Her voicemail box was always full; she didn’t feel as though she was really helping. Portland had began to feel like a lost cause.
“[Dancing] feels more tangible – it is more authentic to who I am. You can’t make a difference or do anything substantial if you’re not being authentic to yourself. When I was a case manager I was hiding so much of myself just trying to do the job. I felt like I wasn’t giving it my all because I couldn’t actually be who I was,” said Legere.
Voulez-Vous plans on continuing their show and developing more routines. They currently perform at the Portland House of Music on Tuesday nights, and recently played their first out-of-state gig in Portsmouth. Their next act is to be an “entirely gay evening,” to celebrate Portland’s pride month in June.
“Everyone is such a ham. To be a burlesque dancer takes a special kind of personality and everyone here is so different. There is so much energy and so many confident bi—es that are just here to take up space and be unapologetic about it. It’s awesome,” Legere said.