Super Troupers

Austin's acclaimed burlesque troupe returns to stage for first time since pandemic

Austin's internationally acclaimed burlesque troupe returns to stage

The Jigglewatts dance troupe lines up for a photo, laughing.
The Jigglewatts co-producers Ruby Joule (third from right) and Jolie Goodnight (second from right) program burlesque revues with music history in mind, both past and present. Photo by Roj Rodriguez

One local dance troupe with international reach is coming back to the stage for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. The Jigglewatts Burlesque Revue focuses on performing to live music, which often means centering local artists performing in historical styles, and almost always means they deal in the art of the unexpected.

Jolie Goodnight, a lifelong Austinite, and lover of and participant in music history, sees improvisation as a way to keep the spirit of jazz alive. She flows in between historical accounts and talking about The Jigglewatts, for whom she serves as co-producer with another native Austin dancer, Ruby Joule, who is trained in ballet and hula.

“[Musicians and dancers] got so good at working together, that the drummers would try to screw up the dancer a little bit and make her laugh, and see if he could keep us on our toes,” Goodnight says. “And, same thing, she would do something kind of wacky and the drummer would have to keep up. It's cool to go do that again.”

Shaken up by the pandemic, the Jigglewatts had to divert from their live music “symbiosis,” using what both Goodnight and Joule called “canned music,” which Joule points out has only been available to dancers in recent history. On Thursday, May 26, the troupe is returning to the stage with jazz swing band The Copa Kings, in a vaudeville revue emceed by drag queen Selma Bawdy. The commentary will touch on the historical significance of each performance, letting the eight dancers let loose and simply dance.

As an audience ambassador, Bawdy’s job is not to make the show accessible, but to expose the accessibility it innately carries as an art form. Goodnight compares burlesque to the friendliest table in a school lunchroom — a safe haven for people who haven’t found their crowd yet. Despite the inclusive nature, there is a taboo audiences have to get around just to make it to the show. Decades ago, that might have been shame about sex in entertainment. Now, it might just be the feeling of showing up naive in an audience deeply invested in the very intersectional burlesque culture.

“Now when you go to our shows, they don't feel particularly taboo ... You have access to many number of things that look tame, but there is something about taking the step to come to the show that people will feel a little apprehensive about,” says Goodnight.

There’s a strong element of theater involved in this semi-improvised dance, often touching on cultural memes and current events. When Brooklyn's famous House of Yes streamed Justin Timberlake's 2018 Super Bowl halftime performance — his first return since exposing Janet Jackson in 2004 — an aerialist dressed as Jackson dramatically unveiled one gloriously pastied breast. Drag fans, in explosive numbers now, understand this in cabaret art, but the in-jokes and unspoken etiquette can be intimidating for newcomers despite how mainstream drag has become.

Joule adds that audiences often expect something more scandalous than what they ultimately see. “There's always that gasp when you drop the bra strap … you're looking at them, you're seeing them see you, and they're like, ‘I wonder what's under there … Oh, it's pasties.’”

For this show, the theme matches what the Copa Kings play, jazz standards reminiscent of the Golden Age of Hollywood, revived for Austin’s entertainment and maybe a little paradoxical reflection. Goodnight points out that in recordings of Austin blues greats, it doesn’t sound like there’s much of an audience — often, because there isn’t. She sees the population influx since artists like Townes Van Zandt and Blaze Foley as an opportunity to support great artists while they’re up-and-coming, rather than immortalizing them later.

“This has the chance to be a heyday. It has the chance to be the roaring ‘20s,” says Goodnight. “If the number of people moving here really [does] support live entertainment, then I think people will be able to look back on this time really, really fondly.”

Tickets for The Jigglewatts Burlesque Revue featuring The Copa Kings at The Ballroom at Spider House ($25 for general admission) are available through Eventbrite.