The International Nerdlesque Festival: Bringing All Your Fanfictions to Life

By Rachel Simons

For most people, burlesque is something they have probably heard of, but haven’t seen. The common answers that are brought up when you ask them what they think burlesque is are usually something along the lines of “theatrical stripping” or “that movie Christina Aguilera and Cher were in” (we don’t talk about that movie). Because of the vague notion of what burlesque is in pop culture, talking about what nerdlesque is will most likely just get you blank stares. The International Nerdlesque Festival however, is trying to change all that.

Nerdlesque, as the name implies, is burlesque with a nerdy bent to it. Most often this means creating burlesque acts where the performer is portraying a fictional character from some sort of existing pop culture media, but it also can be less specific where the performer wants to take on general nerdy themes or tropes. Like with much of burlesque in general, the sky is the limit when it comes to creativity.

 “Nerdlesque gives performers the opportunity to reach into the chest of something they love and pull out its still beating, glitter-covered heart, and set it on fire in front of an audience that's screaming back their love” claims Rob Starobin, a local photographer in the New York burlesque scene.

And the pinnacle of this outpouring of love for many a nerdlesque fan, is the annual International Nerdlesque Festival at Coney Island. Just wrapping up it’s fifth year in New York City a few weeks ago, the Nerdlesque Fest as it’s often called brings performers from around the country and the globe to perform what is considered the best of the best in nerdy burlesque.

“It's like a sexier Comic Con!” says Betty Brash, burlesque performer and Festival stage kitten (stage hand). ‘I've loved being a part of the Nerdlesque Festival for the past three years because you meet so many fantastic performers from around the country and beyond that you might have never met otherwise. It's a fabulous networking opportunity for those of us in the industry, but also, it's just sheer delight to see how folks do nerdlesque outside of NYC. I especially love the choreographed group numbers because that's not a thing you see as often here.”

As the title of this article implies, nerdlesque is often about taking little vignettes you would most likely see in someone’s fanfiction and bringing them to life. While cosplay is simply about creating a character’s look, nerdlesque sets out to also tell a story through music, dance, acting, and sometimes singing or sideshow skills. Nerdlesque usually has a majority of solo acts, but it can also be a duet, like in the case of Draco Muffboi and Chasity Twist’s send up to the Draco/Harry ship, or an entire group number, like The Geekenders did with a sparkly dominatrix Darth Vader and her troupe of Storm Trooper back up dancers complete with oversized rhinestoned helmets. Sometimes, the boundaries of dance can be pushed to their limits, as was the case with Precious Ephemera’s act as Mona Lisa Vito where they only performed to dialogue from the movie My Cousin Vinny, or nerdlesque can also be used to express heartfelt personal and political feelings, such as Anja Keister did with her tribute to The Handmaiden’s Tale. Nerdlesque is as much an artform as anything else and the Festival reflects that by not just having performances, but also offering workshop classes and a performer peer review and brunch. Yes, while detractors still might say it’s only adding an extra element to the theatrical stripping, it’s giving nerds a chance to express themselves and their sexuality while also paying homage to the fandoms they love.