By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks
Wikipedia defines burlesque in part as “a literary, dramatic or musical work intended to cause laughter…” and that definition certainly applies to Catharine (Cat) Littlefield and her troupe of Lock and Key Burlesque performers. When you watch her perform you’re left wondering who’s having more fun, Cat or her audience.
Cat grew up in Decatur, Illinois and was involved in both visual and performance arts including training in opera performance. “I’ve been performing since I was 10 years old,” she recalled. “Performance is in my blood. My mom is a singer but my dad couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.” She transferred to Millikin University in Decatur at the start of her sophomore year to major in music but discovered she’d have to be in choral music, “And I hate choral music!” she explained. With her love of visual art and experience with photography in high school she switched her major to studio art with a basis in photography.
After college she began promoting her photography by attending car shows and taking photos of the cars for the exhibitors. Along the way she struck up a friendship with a gal who had some background in burlesque. “It started out as a way to get out of my parents house and find something fun to do,” she said. “We had an exercise tape of burlesque routines and it snowballed from there.”
They evolved from “being in someone’s living room and pushing all the furniture aside” to performing at a local bar. Cat began performing under the stage name of “Kitty Catscratch – Always Classy, Never Trashy” and became completely hooked on the burlesque performance experience. “Anybody who gets up and stage and says they don’t get a rush from the audience response must be dead,” she said.
Modern burlesque also includes the art of striptease. “Burlesque is the origin of stripping, so I can’t say I’m not a stripper,” Cat explained, “but I’m not a stripper. I’m not working for dollar bill tips and I’m not getting close to my audience. We don’t do it for the pay because we don’t make a whole lot of money. We do it for the thrill. I’ve done shows where I don’t take anything off and I’ve done shows where I get down to the pasties and G-string – which as far as it ever goes. Even the men wear pasties in burlesque.”
Transitioning from opera and dancing in a friend’s living room to doing a burlesque musical routine on stage isn’t easy. “It was horrifying the first time I did a show,” she said. “At that point I hadn’t told my parents but my brother and cousin came. I think I forgot the lyrics a couple of times. It was interesting to say the least!”
Unlike most stage performances, burlesque encourages audience enthusiasm and shouting encouragement to the performers is part of the experience. Cat loves the feedback and frequently improvises during solo performances as she plays to the audience. She explained that there’s a saying among burlesque performers, “If you ever hear your bra hit the floor then you’re doing something wrong. As long as you can hear the audience you can improvise and play to it.”
After a couple years performing in Decatur and elsewhere people moved away and the original group dissolved. Eventually Cat found herself married and living in the Peoria area. She was doing burlesque parties and that led to teaching burlesque classes at California Style Fitness. Last year she put out open call auditions for “Lock and Key Burlesque” and organized a troupe locally. The troupe has been successfully performing locally and is now planning auditions for the 2016-2017 season.
“I’m chasing burlesque,” she said. “It has something I want. My Grandma was classic old style with red lipstick and I think looking back at all those photos captured my imagination at a young age. Here in Peoria it’s chasing history too. Sally Rand, who is the most famous fan dancer, performed at the Majestic Theatre in 1953. All these amazing acts came through Peoria and nobody knows about it so I’m trying to promote that too.”
You can learn more about “Lock and Key Burlesque” as well as their upcoming open auditions on their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/lockandkeyburlesque. You can learn more about Cat’s burlesque classes and burlesque parties at www.castylefitnessstudio.com.