The room is dark, the spotlight is only showing what seems to be a tail of feathers. An up-tempo jazz song starts playing, the tail starts moving from left to right, and as the spotlight pulls back a woman dressed in an orange, French-inspired costume is revealed. She’s wearing an orange corset, a slip skirt with a feathery tail attached, matching gloves and an orange headpiece that looks like a peacock’s back.
The woman who’s dancing on stage is now revealed to be Erika Moon. She gets off stage and starts dancing around the tables, engaging flirtatiously with the audience. She takes one glove off, swirls it around and throws it across the stage. She takes the second one and does the same. She begins to strip-tease by taking off half of her skirt and the music suddenly changes to a sensual jazz song. She takes off the other half of her skirt and walks toward the audience as she slowly opens the back of her corset.
She’s now wearing a two-piece lingerie set full of rhinestones and glitter. She grabs two sheets of fabric, and starts swirling them around as she dances. Then she gets off stage and takes one strap off her bra and then the other. She keeps dancing around the audience until she’s back on stage. She’s topless; the only thing covering her breasts are shiny nipple covers. She’s still dancing with the fabric sheets, moving them around and across the air as she swirls on stage. The lights dim and it’s the end of the set.
Burlesque: the art form that breaches the gap between theatrics and striptease. A women-led industry with a performer whose life we know little about.
The term “burlesque” was first used in the 16th Century for any form of mockery or parody that was being made of literary classics, plays, people and the bourgeois lifestyle. What nowadays is known as burlesque is a theatrical performance including comedy skits, musicians, dazzling costumes and female strip-tease, like the scenario described above of a performance at a Miami restaurant named El Tucán where Moon performed “The Phoenix.”
“[A] burlesque performer is basically a stripper because a stripper is someone who takes off their clothes,” said Moon, a burlesque dancer for more than two decades. Originally from France, she now lives in Miami.
In a burlesque show, Moon further explained, “It’s how you take off your clothing.” Unlike strippers, burlesque dancers are acting on stage. There are also more theatrical aspects to it, like the research behind the costume design, the makeup, the dance routines and singing numbers.
It wasn’t as easy at first for Moon. She ran from the stage the first time she had to take off her top. Moon’s first time stripping happened when she was 17 years old, when she debuted as a go-go dancer.
Unlike burlesque dancers, go-go dancers usually don’t strip-tease. Instead they perform at nightclubs, wearing revealing clothes while dancing on podiums.
It was at a club named Le 400 in Bordeaux, France, that Moon started. She was the opening show and performed to a Michael Jackson song wearing a fedora hat, a coat, the single-hand glove and lingerie.
People started cheering when she began stripping, but the moment she took off her bra, she panicked. “I was so shy that when I took off my bra,” she said, “I ran away to my dressing room.”
When she got to her dressing room, her manager was there, and she encouraged her to go back on stage. “I came back on stage and everybody was screaming and yelling,” she said. “And I said [to myself] ‘Oh my god, this is so exciting.’ ”
In burlesque shows the audience expects striptease. It produces a buildup: the more the dancer takes off her clothes, the more howling you can hear from the public.
Moon explains that’s what performers feed off: the responsive energy in the room even when wardrobe malfunctions happen.
In show business there’s a saying, “The show must go on.” No matter what is happening, a performer must not stop. That has been Moon’s philosophy as a performer — and wardrobe malfunctions, or mistakes, are bound to happen.
One time, Moon’s bra got stuck to the opening curtain. “The curtain was pushing me to the side of the stage because it was attached to my bra,” she said.
Sometimes, wardrobe malfunctions accelerate or delay the stripping process. Moon’s dress has slipped before it was supposed to, and she has had to strip earlier in the show to make it seem as though it was on purpose. Once, the lace of her corset got stuck on her back and she had to cut it open in the dressing room.
“You readapt the set when things like that happen,” she said.
One of Moon’s acts involves dancing inside a giant glass of champagne filled with water. She stripteases in the water, which has caused the pasties she uses to cover her breasts to slip.
“Honestly, I don’t care because when you go to the Moulin Rouge in France the girls in there are topless,” she said. “So, for me, it doesn’t really matter. It’s better with [the pasties] because it’s nice and by law you are supposed to have nipple covers.”
Moon, whose real name is Patricia Antunes, began her dancing career one year after moving from her hometown, Pau, in France to Toulouse, where she went to attend fashion design school. She started looking for jobs and called a production company that was hiring go-go dancers. The agency, called DA Productions, was in Bordeaux, a two-hour drive from Toulouse.
Moon was attending school during the day and during the night she was dancing in Toulouse. On the weekends, she was driving to Bordeaux to dance at other clubs. Her new job started interfering with her school. “Some days I was falling asleep during class,” she said.
Once, the school director contacted Moon’s mother to warn her about how many times she was found asleep during class. Moon, however, didn’t tell her mother it was because of her new job as a showgirl, which was helping pay for her school projects.
Fearful of what her strict parents would think of her, Moon hid her job for a while. “I was afraid not that my parents would reject me, because they love me,” she said. “But that they would scream at me or yell at me. But they did not.”
After telling her parents, her mom expressed concerned about having her daughter develop a drug addiction because of the nightclub environment she was in. But that wasn’t the case. “I don’t want to waste my money on drugs,” she said.
The first time her parents saw her perform, in a dinner show in Toulouse, she got mixed reactions. “My mom was kind of bothered at first,” she said. “But my dad said, ‘You see all those girls half naked in the beach, so what?’ “
Moon decided to start her own production company when she was 24, after she began being booked on her own and was asked to create other shows elsewhere. “For that I had to have the company,” she said. “I needed to pay for the people who worked for me as well.”
Even though she had her own production company, Moon kept working for others. “I had to invoice people when they wanted to buy my shows,” she said. “But I was, as well, working as an independent contractor for other companies.”
Starting out her company didn’t require a lot of funding because she didn’t have to cover theater and transportation costs. Expenses were mostly for buying costumes, storing them, and paying the dancers.
Being in show business, and especially being a burlesque dancer, it can be hard to handle a social life outside of work. It cost Moon two marriages.
“Once you are in this industry, you work when people party,” she said. “So, you don’t have really a social life.”
Both of her marriages ended in divorce due, she said, to the high demands of the job, jealousy and possessiveness.
“My career got stronger and stronger,” she said. “Which was good for me but apparently not for the men.”
In the beginnings of her relationships, men were very supportive, said Moon. But later “the men start getting more possessive and more jealous.” Her first husband was a technical director from the entertainment industry and her second a businessman.
It didn’t help a marriage that she was traveling on the weekends and sharing the stage with different men while taking her clothes off.
“It cost me my two marriages because I’ve [been] doing that all my life,” she said. “And there’s no way I’m going to settle [my career] for a man because the man should be with you for who you are.”
Even though she was popular in France, Moon saw bigger opportunities in a different country. In 2011, she decided to start again in the United States. To avoid the hassles of managing two companies in two countries, she decided to close her first company in France and start anew in America.
Her introduction to the world of burlesque happened in America. She explains that although she was doing the same job in France, the words to describe it there at the time were “stripper” or “showgirl,” but now the word “burlesque” is just as common in France as it is in America.
Settling in a new country was very hard for Moon at first. She had to recruit dancers for her own shows without fully knowing English. “I was crying every night,” she said. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ ”
Moon’s first performance in America was her French cabaret show at The Colony Theater in Miami Beach. Now, Moon tours with her own production company, Erika Moon Productions, in South Florida and Texas.
Moon describes her show as a “Moulin Rouge type” of variety show. She said American burlesque shows are often centered around burlesque solo acts, such as one striptease act. Her shows offer a French cabaret experience, which includes different types of sets during the shows. Besides striptease, the shows have music, comedy skits and the most important of all: traditional can-can dancers.
In order to become a can-can dancer one is required to have years of experience, and Moon’s shows are always performed by trained dancers. “In France there’s no cabaret show without trained dancers,” she said.
Cabaret shows distinguish themselves from traditional theatrical performances because they are performed inside bars, restaurants or small theaters where people can talk during the sets while dining or drinking. Usually, cabaret shows are aimed at adult audiences.
“People come to my shows because (it) is more than a burlesque solo performance,” she said. “It’s a variety act with production that goes from the way the tables in the theater are set to the way the lighting is staged. Our entire show is an experience.”
The people who attend Moon’s shows are mostly couples and women ranging from 25 to 75 years old. Moon explained men don’t attend burlesque shows as often because they rather go to strip clubs. Women, she said, go to Burlesque shows because they enjoy the costumes and how tasteful the shows are.
Moon, now 40 years old, is still performing on stage 23 years after her debut. She thinks she’d only stop dancing if her body impedes her. When that day comes, she hopes to still be in the industry, producing shows.
“Forty is young, but as a dancer it gets tough sometimes,” she said.
Moon believes age is not a problem in burlesque. Recent women-empowerment movements have changed the status quo, she said, and it’s not a prerequisite in the industry to be young or follow certain beauty standards. For her shows she recruits trained ballet dancers and dancers who take care of their bodies and presentation.
“As long as your body can [perform] in terms of dancing, there’s no age,” in burlesque, she said.
Erika Moon can be reached at www.erikamoon.com. Follow her on Instagram: @ErikamoonOfficial or on Facebook: Erika Moon