Virago Nation: On Culture, Community and Claiming Indigeneity in Burlesque

They’ve come here to chew bubblegum and shake ass at colonial typecasting, and they’re all out of gum

Megan Amato // Opinions Editor
Valeriya Kim // Illustration

The enduring monuments of burlesque are clothed in the heart-shaped pasties and tassels of Mae West and Dita Von Teese. Now, performers like Virago Nation, an all-Indigenous collective, are breaking the Eurocentric mould and colonial narratives to reclaim their Indigenous identity through the art of burlesque.

Four years ago, Shane Sable posted online looking for Indigenous burlesque performers in the Vancouver community and pulled together a group seeking to explore their Indigeneity on stage through humour, dance, performance, politics and culture. “We came together in the spring of 2016, initially as just a group of Indigenous people who also happened to perform Burlesque and thought, ‘Hey! You’re also Native, let’s chat about that!’” said Scarlet Delirium, one of the original six performers who would join the collective. 

Six months later, RainbowGlitz would join, and the group decided to name themselves Virago Nation after the Latin word describing women as strong, dominant warriors. “A Virago seems to have two meanings; the first is an ill-tempered or violent woman, the other is a woman of masculine strength or spirit—a female warrior,” said Scarlet Delirium. “Virago Nation leans towards the latter meaning. However, we definitely will not put up with patriarchal nonsense, which to some may come across as ill-tempered, and that is just fine with us.” Today, there are eight performers, including Ruthe Ordare, Shane Sable, Scarlet Delirium, Manda Stroyer, Sparkle Plenty, RainbowGlitz, Monday Blues and Lynx Chase. 

RainbowGlitz explained that for many of the performers, their goal wasn’t only reclaiming sexuality but recovering culture that many hadn’t grown up with. “It was supposed to be this community support system,” RainbowGlitz added. “Not only to get together and talk about their experiences in burlesque and the world in general but for them to come together and even just go to powwows together and not feel awkward because they had a buddy to go to this new thing that they didn’t grow up with.”

Photo by Fubarfoto Photography

Burlesque first appeared in 16th century Italy, near the same time that the infamous Italian colonizer sailed across the Atlantic, kick-starting centuries of European imperialism and exploitation in what is now called the Americas. It became popular in North America in the late 19th century and began thriving in Vancouver in the 1920s with shows at colonial relics such as the Pantages Theatre (demolished in 2011) and the Orpheum. Today, burlesque shows are held in alternative establishments such as the Biltmore Cabaret, the Rio Theatre and the Wise Hall. 

Both RainbowGlitz and Scarlet Delirium began their burlesque journey by taking the Becoming Burlesque course put on by the Screaming Chicken Theatrical Society at the Wise Hall. The workshop was run by Melody Mangler and taught all the elements of burlesque, including movement, comedy, aesthetics, stage tech and name workshops. 

Scarlet Delirium first debuted in 2013 under the stage name The Vermillion Viper. “I thought it was strong and powerful and commanded attention. Which it did, but I grew frustrated with constantly being asked what my ‘real name’ was, and I also felt, after a time, that Vermillion Viper wasn’t an echo of who I was becoming as a performer,” she said, adding that her current stage name was pieced together from two different sources. “Scarlet was the title of a high-school photo project in which I was a model, so that name always stuck with me. Delirium is a fun and loopy character from The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman. I thought the two together sounded beautiful and felt like me.” 

After learning to sew in highschool, Scarlet Delirium began to take costuming seriously when she started doing burlesque as it was more cost effective to make her own outfits. She graduated with a diploma from CapU’s Costuming for Stage and Screen program in 2012, and despite the film-heavy focus, she has put her diploma to good use both in the film industry and burlesque. One of her favourite outfits is a costume inspired by her family crest that she made for the orca routine. “It is a piece of what I consider to be burlesque regalia, honouring heritage and where I come from, the West Coast and my ancestors,” she said, then laughed when she talked about brainstorming the costume. “How the fuck do I be a sexy whale? I had no idea how to do it, I didn’t want a tail as I would be flopping around on stage.” 

“I think so many of my lessons came from Comedic Burlesque Dancers, mostly their facial expressions and how they really emoted. I’m not a trained dancer and when I began this journey I didn’t have much money to take dance classes,” said Scarlet Delirium, who performed with Screaming Chicken Theatrical Society, The VanDolls and Boutique Cabaret before joining Virago Nation. “Eventually I focused on my version of emoting, connecting with each audience member and making them feel like they’re the only one who exists in the whole room.”

RainbowGlitz studied fashion design at Blanche Macdonald Centre where she hoped to gain the skills to start her own lingerie house. However, the school had more conservative views and she struggled to get them to even teach her how to make lingerie. After she decided to do burlesque professionally, she went back to Blanche for freelance makeup. “I make probably 90 percent of my costumes at this point—most of the underwear and pasties, sometimes the dresses,” she said. “Anything with Indigneous designs are my actual designs that I drew myself using the Haida artform, using my crest.”

“I definitely use my Kwakwaka’wakw heritage in little ways throughout my performances. Whether it be traditional dance, family crest, a political opinion or just a showcase of artwork and formline within my costumes.”

Photo by Tom Gould

“I fell into burlesque. I did it for a queer, LBGTQ+ talent show they had for the Vancouver community. I didn’t know I was doing burlesque,” she said, talking about her first burlesque show at 16. “I thought it was a cool thing with a showgirl outfit with hip-hop dancing. When I finished, they were like ‘you’re really good, but can you wait until you’re 19, and it’s called burlesque.’” She took the words to heart. By 2013, she wasn’t only performing burlesque but doing it professionally, describing her style as “Rainbow Goodness™” with inspiration from the PussyCat Dolls, hip-hop and pop. 

However, breaking into the burlesque scene wasn’t as easy as working for it and being good at it. RainbowGlitz shared that as an “overtly sexual” Indigenous woman in an art form that plays on coy glances and sly sexuality, the industry didn’t embrace her. “I am not a traditional burlesque artist. I definitely don’t do classic burlesque at all. I’ve never really played that coy card in my act. It’s not really me,” she said. “When I came into the scene, they were mostly only doing classic burlesque or alternative burlesque, which was a neo-white version of what burlesque could be. The Vancouver community [had] more of an alternative rocker vibe, more so than inclusive.” Despite pop music being nearly shunned in the burlesque scene, RainbowGlitz was one of the few pussycat-style performers in Vancouver, which led her to be hired by The Geekenders as a stormtrooper in Star Wars burlesque spectaculars.

Due to the prevailing whiteness in the Vancouver burlesque scene, role models also tended to be white, and that was something Virago Nation wanted to change. Not only did they want to create a specific safe space for Indigenous performers, but they also wanted to provide community resources and outreach. Now, Virago in collaboration with Diasporic Dynasty and The Geekenders as Showpony Studios, have launched a crowdfunding initiative to take over the “Chicken Coop” studio. The studio would provide safe, community-driven space for rehearsals, workshops and even livestream shows for fans in the midst of the pandemic.

“Community is a huge part of Virago Nation. We have had incredible opportunities to offer no-cost burlesque classes, nipple tassel classes, Beading drop-ins, shows/showcases all around Vancouver, and into smaller Indigenous communities—like Ft. St. James and Haida Gwaii,” said Scarlet Delirium.

“An important aspect that leads Virago Nation is community building and uplifting and holding space for women to feel sexy in a supportive environment.”

Photo by Chantal Laurie

“Virago Nation has a clear mission: to reclaim Indigenous sexuality from the toxic effects of colonization. That in itself is vastly different than a typical Burlesque Show, and because of the Virago Nation mission, I find that it feeds my soul, as opposed to my ego,” Scarlet Delirium added when asked about how performing with Virago Nation differs from other troupes. “I wish when I was growing up, I had a healthy representation of Indigenous Sexuality with the media or theatre or whatever I was taking in. I didn’t; none of us did. To try and create space for healthy sexual representation and a safe space for Indigenous Women to feel sexy is powerful in a way that a standard Burlesque is not.”

Exploring identity on stage before joining Virago Nation wasn’t easy in a scene that valued traditional burlesque over others’ traditions. “I’ve always wanted to insert bits of my culture into my performance, but until Virago Nation, didn’t feel comfortable or supported in doing so,” said Scarlet Delirium. “Since the formation of the group and having a safe space to explore what that integration would be, I definitely use my Kwakwaka’wakw heritage in little ways throughout my performances. Whether it be traditional dance, family crest, a political opinion or just a showcase of artwork and formline within my costumes.”

As a mixed-race woman with Haida (raven) Yalh’ jaanas, Squamish, Musqueam, Hawaii’an and Black heritage, who also happens to be a part of the LGBTQ+ community, RainbowGlitz has many intersections in her identity to explore. Unlike some of the other performers who began exploring their culture with Virago Nation, RainbowGlitz grew up surrounded by it. “I grew up with an Indigenous mother who I guess never gave me the option of not being Indigenous, or not growing up Indigenous, because that’s what my mom was. I grew up going to powwows [and] potlatches. I grew up with my culture,” she said, adding that exploring her Black identity was more difficult. “I come from slaves. I don’t really full-on have a Black identity. [It] came from hip-hop [and] American Black culture. Using hip-hop and pop music in general and saying that I’m Black is the only thing I can do for that.”

Overall, RainbowGlitz states that elders and members of their community have supported Virago Nation, but there have been some folks who confuse Indigenous colonial tradition with pre-colonial Indigenous tradition. “For me, that’s my biggest thing, always trying to teach people that as Indigenous people, we thought of our bodies as sacred but not precious. We thought of our bodies as scared, treated them well, but we never thought of them as being precious or [that] we had to hide it, cover it or it was considered a dirty thing—that was a very colonized point of view.”

Even during COVID-19, Virago Nation continues to make a name for themselves internationally and has added two new members during the summer. “It’s always been evolving,” said RainbowGlitz. “We may all share the title Indigenous Burlesque artist, but none of us has the same style or the same view on what burlesque means…Whenever we have a year together, it’s forever changing, and the dynamic is always changing. You can’t really say anyone is the leader of the group because everyone takes that role when they need to.” 

Virago Nation has four workshops available, including a beginners class called Dangerous Curves; Decolonial Self Love; KISS: Keep It Simple Showgirl: Striptease 101; and Not Your Auntie’s Craft Class: Making Nipple Tassels! Keep an eye out for them as they launch a digital platform in the spring where you can watch their performances online and their classes will be more accessible to those at home. You can support Virago Nation by liking and sharing their content on social media and by donating to help keep their classes low-to-no cost for Indigenous women.

You can find out more about these workshops, the Virago Nation performers themselves, and more on their website www.ViragoNation.ca.

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Megan Amato

Opinions Editor | Columns Editor

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