top of page

Oberlin’s Hoe Era: The Success of Oburlesque

by Zach Terrillion

Staff Writer

art by Saffron Forsberg


To call Oburlesque a campus phenomenon would be an understatement. A phenomenon implies a quick spark of glory. It’s here, it’s fun, and it’s gone. Oburlesque has staying power with a popularity that only grows each semester. My first exposure to the club came when I was invited to one of their shows. I assumed it would be a more intimate affair where you came 5 minutes before the thing started. When I got to the Cat in the Cream, the line winded down Lorain Street, coating my face with flabbergast. Coming out of the pandemic, I had never seen so many Obies in one place. The doors shut just as I was about to enter, with the venue quickly reaching capacity. Damn. This Oburlesque thing must’ve been hyped. Having joined it this semester, I can say that it’s so well-deserved.

What perhaps stands out most about the organization’s productions is their sheer energy. I finally got to see one last spring. The theme was “time warp.” The electricity in the overheated Cat is hard to define in writing. It was one of the rare events where a spot on the pointy end of a couch is the best seat in the house. The 20 or so acts that night showed our school at its best. Sexy. Cutesy. Campy. A little Freudian. Sometimes tantalizing. Sometimes heartbreaking. All Oberlin. One of the acts even inspired me to dye my hair pink.

I knew I needed to get involved. I was always a modest person, but one of the reasons I first came to Oberlin was to take risks like wearing badass go-go boots on stage. Oburlesque understands this need more than many other spaces. The first meeting the club held this semester was a fruity oasis. The org laid out its inventory like a treasure trove. It ran the gamut from corsets of varying colors, devil’s tridents, skirts and stockings, and, of course, cat ears (wearing that last bit crossed an item off the bucket list). I needed all this in my life. I wasn’t alone in that need, as I and others rushed to sign-up for the next performance.

A form is sent out at the start of every Oburlesque rehearsal process. This form is where interested individuals sign-up to perform in one of the club’s variety showcases. To get the chance to deliver to the public fun, campy numbers in elaborate clothing (or in little clothing to begin with). Performance spots are limited and dealt out on a “first come, first served” basis. Last year’s Halloween show took a week for the acts to fill up. This year, it took four hours.

Oburlesque was not always such a phenomenon, however. “The most people we had in any given zoom call was like eight people,” according to Newt Pulley. Pulley currently serves as the organization’s media coordinator (and has drawn all the show posters from the past year). They first joined the club during his first year in the fall of 2020. At the height of Covid, the club had to hold all of its meetings virtually, which was a tricky situation for their performance focus. With no productions, the group instead held small discussions covering the history of burlesque, body positivity, and inclusivity.

Newt finds that “the club kind of fell into our hands because we were the only people left in 2021 after Caitie [the then-current club head] graduated.” The club’s Halloween performance that year would be the first test of its survival. At that point, the capacity of 20 acts hadn’t even been set, as the group was genuinely unsure of how many people would sign up.

I am part of a group number for this year’s Halloween performance, which dropped the last weekend of October. I’m serving as one of four backup singers for a rendition of Dentist! from the musical “Little Shop of Horrors.” It centers upon a rough-and-tumble character reflecting on his actual occupation, the one-worded title. In a way, the song speaks to many Oburlesque performers. In this space, they find a true sense-of-self. A true identity. Just instead of “I’ll be a dentist,” it’s “I’ll be a bad b***h on stage.”

For the next month or so, my group will operate out of a little dance studio tucked in the basement of South. The average rehearsal is loose, starting with a warm-up of us dancing and stretching to some pop. Next, we begin building the number. In a typical, de-yassified rehearsal, the choreography and blocking would already be decided. The main lead or director works in a closed-off room, drafting up plans that they make the performers replicate. At Oburlesque, the number is a collaborative process. We could all develop our ideas within a democratic and experimental setting. It’s a variety of suggestions, and these suggestions eventually come together into an often spontaneous number.

OBurlesque’s origins were also pretty spontaneous. According to organization treasurer Hazel Feldstein, it was founded in 2015, a newer organization for our nearly 200-year-old college. “She’s fresh,” in Feldstein’s words. The club was founded by Jackie Meger, or Miss Jackie, as the staff calls her. Burlesque had a small presence at Oberlin, but Jackie founded the club to make it a legitimate, regular institution.

Still, like every other campus org, the pandemic threatened to snuff out Oburlesque when it was just getting started. Caitie, the president, had to set up those virtual meetings, planting the seeds that a group of underclassmen then needed to sow. To pick up the pieces from a pandemic that has already struck down so much institutional memory. For Newt, “I have to give it up for Caitie, who did everything she could to keep it alive. It really could have died and gone under.” Today, the club email list hosts about 307 people, or over 10% of the student body—a far cry from an 8-person zoom call.

The dress rehearsal, also known as “undress rehearsal,” occurs two days before a show goes up. It allows all the groups to stage their number on the miniature Cat stage. However, as a reformed high school theatre kid, I had never seen a rehearsal feel so much like a rave. As people run their numbers, the scattered audience erupts into a chorus of hoots, hollers, and “slays!” The performers promptly returned that energy. My group soon went up to perform, the bright lights of the Cat creating an almost uncanny effect. Were we really on planet Earth right now? Had we ascended into a heavenly realm? I certainly almost did, falling out of my chair during our first run. Despite this, it was a hell of a time. A chaotic experience in the best way. It was why I chose Oberlin.

Some students fear that the college is losing its identity. Commercialization grows with a tighter budget and even tighter administration. That is perhaps why Oburlesque is more popular (and important) than ever. It’s Oberlin at its most “Oberlin.” For Newt, “I think the community that we’ve built in Oburlesque is the reason that people want to go here. The friendship. The queerness. The performance aspect of it. That is very Oberlin to me.” As for the future, they see things getting bigger, certainly in line with a bigger first year class every year. We might be living in Oberlin’s “Hoe Era.” A renaissance with Oburlesque leading the charge. According to officers, the club may just want more storage and an office in the future!

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page