And now for something a little different: SHE Fellow Aiesha D. Little talked to “nerdlesque” dancer/promoter M Simona Stephenson (stage name Myzchief Du Voodoo) about brand of feminism, her nerdy upbringing and making geek sexy.
Little: Tell us about yourself.
Stephenson: I am a nerd, dork, blerd and all-around general spazz.
Little: How did you get into nerd stuff?
Stephenson: I think I have always been a nerd. My parents were hard on us about education, and they fostered a love of learning. They were also very selective about what we ingested intellectually. PBS was a main stay in our home, some of my earliest memories are Dr Who, Monty Python and Masterpiece Theater. (In hindsight, I was way too young to watch I, Claudius.) My grandmother, however, was the biggest nerd of us all. She would read the dictionary to me, watch every sci-fi show that was ever on with me. I was also the kid that would ask for books during store outings and my birthdays. If I got a comic book, I was overjoyed.
Little: How did you get into burlesque?
Stephenson: This is a question I ask myself regularly. I have always been interested in Old Hollywood. The glamour, the music…it seemed as if everything was made of glitter and magic. I would idolize these women and wanting to know more about them led me into the history of vaudeville. I put it off attempting for years, due lack of lessons and self esteem issues. (Hard to believe I know.)I didn’t begin performing until I moved to Utah about nine years ago. It began with belly dancing and luckily for me, there is a lot of bleed-over between the two communities. I met a lovely dancer by the name of Kairo Duchess and after much tongue clicking and evil eye on her part, I accepted the invite to join Duchess Burlesque.
Little: What’s it like being a black plus-size burlesque performer in a super white state?
Stephenson: *Sings* “Why me Lord….? Why me….?” It has been rather interesting. The audience reaction has been rather favorable, though I do get the “for a” quite a bit:
“You are pretty for a…”
“You move very well for a…”
“You have such confidence for a…”
“Wow, I know if you can do it, so can I!” (This last one gets all the side eye. ALL OF IT.)
But then I have always been a black face in a white space, having lived in various suburbs. You learn how to navigate what are actual attempts at compliments from back-handed compliments.
Little: How did you get the idea to meld nerd stuff with burlesque?
Stephenson: Nerdlesque or geeklesque is not a new thing. In the history of the art form you will see that dancers would often lampoon and celebrate popular culture. At this time, I believe that one can find a nerdlesque review within any major city that host a comic convention. Even here in Utah, there was a nerd review in the early ’90s, started by the The Brawling Beauty and her group Slippery Kittens.
Little: What’s your favorite performance so far? (I LOVE your pinup Amethyst, by the way!)
Stephenson: My favorite is “Gorilla” by Bruno Mars. It started off as a tribute to Steve Erwin. But I am currently adapting it into Jane from Tarzan. I am working on moving Amethyst from pinup to performance.
Little: How did you get started organizing events? Why?
Stephenson: Frustration. The blue laws here are very…unique (as the alcohol laws). There was also the frustration of the infighting between the various troupes. I am beholden to no one, so my shows are neutral ground. A lesson I learn from working with The Brawling Beauty and her Candy Cabinet Caberet.
Little: Do you consider yourself a feminist or a womanist?
Stephenson: I guess you can say that I am a feminist. I do have a problem with western feminism because of the issue of recognizing intersectionality, and the belief that a woman who enjoys her sexuality is somehow oppressed. Or the belief that trans women are not women. My feminism is one that is inclusive and is freedom and consequence.
Little: What do you say to people who think that burlesque is contradictory to feminism/women’s equality?
Stephenson: Usually words that are not fit to print. If I am equal, truly equal in your eyes, then what I do as a profession or hobby should not be any less valid if I was to not shave my arm pits or wear a pants suit. The goal of feminism is to give women sovereignty over their bodies and destiny.
Little: Do you have any plans to expand your event promotion to any other cities?
Stephenson: That is my goal. Salt Lake is a hard market for any artistic expression, and nudity to the mix and it is enough to make you flip a table. I would like to book performers nationwide, with my main dream of opening an old school burlesque theater. Live band, full-blown productions, che Ziegfeld Follies.
Little: What burlesque-related thing are you most proud of?
Stephenson: I won Master of Improv for our regional Burlypicks competition in 2017 and went to Denver to compete in the world competition.
Little: Anything else you want to tell our readers?
Stephenson: Dance, perform, get out there. Men, women…doesn’t matter, but be seen. There is nothing like hearing, someone say, “I have always wanted to do this, you gave me the confidence to try.” At risk at sounding like a motivational poster. I say that if you want to do it, do it. If you feel that there is no safe space for you, or that you will not be accepted. Take a breath, grab your boom-stick and kick open the door, cause everything you want is on the other side of it.
Visit M’s Facebook page, Myzchief Du Voodoo, to keep up with her schedule!
A version of this post originally appeared on the Midwest Black Speculative Fiction Alliance blog in June 2017.