Sarasota prudes take note: Nobody puts Virginia Hughes in a corner.
Meet the 24-year-old founder and leader of the Black Diamond Burlesque Troupe.
A 2008 Ringling College of Art and Design graduate, Hughes is a photographer, a former assistant gallery manager, a voracious collector of all things relating to 1950s pin-up culture and the latest marketing- and social-media guru to join the staff at the HuB in the Rosemary District.
If she looks a little proper right now in her tea-length leopard print dress and peep-toe pumps, don’t worry. You’ll see a whole lot more of her next Wednesday at Selva Grill.
She’ll be dancing in a lollipop corset under the stage name, Miss Petite Coquette, which means Little Miss Flirt in English, a name she says she picked because she’s 5-feet tall and an unabashed temptress.
“I feel like burlesque has always been this underground thing people unfairly associated with stripping,” Hughes says, “which is offensive to burlesque dancers. Burlesque is the art of tease. It’s about celebrating femininity. Nothing is ever completely revealed. It’s more a provocative stage show.”
A quick glance around Hughes’ North Sarasota apartment reveals that the dancer is much more than an exhibitionist.
From the leopard print throw pillows she sewed herself to the splintered Rooms To Go coffee table she covered in images torn from old pin-up magazines, Hughes’ infatuation with burlesque rivals that of any history buff.
Even the light box she created this spring for Rosemary Rising included a scanned magazine tear-out of a pin-up model.
“Every type of performing arts is represented in Sarasota,” Hughes says. “I feel like burlesque could be really big here. It’s huge in Paris, L.A. New York, Miami ... ”
She trails off, surveying her living room: her blue beach-cruiser bicycle, her 11-year-old rescue cat; the statement-making photographs she took when she was a student at Ringling.
Her eyes land on the hardcover book, “Va-Va-Voom: Classic Hollywood Pin-ups,” her unofficial handbook.
"You can only go to ‘Drag Queen Bingo’ so many times,” she says, smiling.
It’s hard to believe Hughes is new on the burlesque scene.
A native of Lexington, Ky., she grew up in a conservative neighborhood, unsure of herself and her place within what she describes “the herd.”
“I never felt like I fit in anywhere in high school,” Hughes says. “I was an art kid who didn’t look like an art kid.”
It wasn’t until she moved to Sarasota and started her freshman year at Ringling that she felt she finally found a place where she belonged.
After graduation, she moved to Miami, where she lived for a year and worked at a contemporary art gallery.
In 2009, she returned to Sarasota to work as the assistant manager at Ringling’s madeby gallery. The off-campus boutique sells work produced by Ringling grads and current students, including Hughes, who left her post at madeby earlier this summer shortly after auditioning for a burlesque troupe in Tampa called Les Tease.
She had no professional dance experience.
“I like to dance and I knew I could dance,” Hughes says. “But dancing when you’re out with your friends is different than dancing in front of 150 people scantily clad.”
The Tampa troupe leader liked Hughes’ look, casting her as the rockabilly, cutesy, plaid skirt-wearing sweetheart of the ensemble — a role Hughes found uncomfortable.
“That’s so not me,” she says. “I have a naughty side. I can be sweet and innocent, but I can embody much more. I have an alter ego. We all do.”
This explains the rose tattoos crawling up her right bicep.
She danced with Les Tease for only two months. She says she felt “boxed in” as the goody-goody girl of the group.
Her first performance however, was a terrifying rush. She felt a connection with the dancers and pin-ups she’s idolized over the years. She felt a kinship with her icon, Betty Paige.
“I felt alive,” Hughes says. “Completely in my element.”
It didn’t take Hughes long to organize a troupe in Sarasota with two other dancers: Joelle “Lotta Love” Davis and Mariel “Mademoiselle Rowdy Pants” Purdon.
The Black Diamond launch couldn’t come at a better time.
Dirty dancing will be peddled to mainstream audiences in November, when Sony Pictures releases the Cher/Christina Aguilera film “Burlesque.”
Hughes says the movie will help “validate the art form.”
She says she plans to book a Black Diamond gig at a different Sarasota venue every month. She would eventually like to grow the troupe to include more dancers and guest performers.
“I have a feeling opportunities will come out of the woodwork after this,” she says, rising to get the bright-pink suitcase in which she stores her costumes.
Hughes lugs the case into her living room, pops it open and a mess of shimmering lingerie spills out — corsets, sequined bras, panties, blue-feathered collars, eye patches, top hats, gloves, stockings and, yes, pasties.
As she pulls out tantalizing bits and pieces, her face lights up. Some women would feel weird flashing their undergarments to a stranger.
“A lot of people who know me or have seen my photography know that showing a little skin is nothing new for me,” Hughes giggles. “The thing that makes a great burlesque performer is confidence and I feel like I finally found mine.”
“She was a sweet and innocent girl from the South like me.”
“It was the first I ever knew of the burlesque world. I was a freshman in high school. I’d watch it every day when I got home from school. It was an obsession.”
‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ by Led Zeppelin
“This song makes me want to turn on a red light, smoke cigarettes and drink whiskey –– and I don’t smoke cigarettes and drink whiskey!”
if you go
Black Diamond Burlesque will perform Wednesday, Sept. 29, at Selva Grill. Door opens at 9:30 p.m. The show begins at 10 p.m. Tickets are $20. To make a reservation, call 954-8800 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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