FALMOUTH – Aanjes Larkin Hershfield loves lingerie. She also loves performing.
Lingerie plus performing with a sprinkling of humor equals burlesque and, that is the short answer to the question of what led Hershfield to form the Brazen Belles, the Cape’s one and only burlesque troupe.
The Brazen Belles are performing a benefit show for the Falmouth Theatre Guild Saturday, September 12, at 8 p.m. This is their last performance before they head out to Las Vegas to perform at the Las Vegas Burlesque Festival to prove that Cape Codders can bump and grind with the best of them.
Hershfield, 36, is founder of the Belles, leader of the troupe and artistic director. A hair stylist by day, she performs in the Belles as Pepper Grinds.
The daughter of a musician and a NOAA fisheries marine biologist, Hershfield performed music and acted in high school and college. But she wanted a outlet that allowed more creativity and that combined music, acting, singing and comedy.
“When I was performing music, there’s only so much you can do with it,” she said.
Four years ago, she found that outlet in burlesque, an old performing art form that has had a resurgence in recent years with the likes of Dita Von Teese and, two big influences for Hershfield, the Atomic Bombshells Burlesque from Seattle and Sugar Blue Burlesque from Australia.
Hershfield said the form of burlesque can encompass a wide array of performance styles.
“We’re burlesque but we’re very vaudevillian and cabaret,” she said of the Belles.
Besides Hershfield, the Belles troupe includes Katie Meyer, a nurse who performs as Sundown Shenanigans, and Jodi Edwards, who works at the Kettle Ho! in Cotuit and at a real estate office, and performs as Bobbi Pins. A couple of the Belles, namely Savannah Boudreau and Ophelia Love prefer to keep their real identities more under wraps, so to speak.
Besides the main troupe of Belles, usually six or eight ladies, there are two “stage belles,” stagehands, who go by the names Ginger St. Stevens and Rita Men Weep.
There is also the master of ceremonies, the mysterious Curtis Suede, who prefers to keep his identity a secret.
Hershfield has a quick answer for what the members of the Belles get out of the experience.
It is about something she calls, “womanship.”
Hershfield said, “It’s a sense of camaraderie and friendship but also a place to feel excited about their bodies in a positive way. To put themselves out there and show women that they can be sexy and smart and funny and show women we are all different and we are all beautiful.
Mostly it’s just a lot of fun. For everyone, it’s a way to get outside the box. It’s something different.”
Assuming the affinity for lingerie and the enthusiasm for performing, what, dare we ask, are the other qualities of a Belle?
If you speak to two of the other Belles who will be performing at the benefit show, Isel Garcia-Renart, who performs as Olive Mia, and Leah Trafford McRaven, who performs as Mini Teasecake, the experience of being a Belle is all about having fun.
Garcia-Renart, who is 32 and is returning to the troupe seven and a half months after having a baby, said being in the Belles serves as “a creative outlet for all my crazy ideas.”
A musician whose family moved to Falmouth when she was 10 years old, Garcia-Renart said choreographing routines, dressing up and performing is like a return to childhood.
But what keeps her with the Belles and what brought her back to the troupe after having her daughter is the camaraderie of being with the group of women in the troupe.
“It’s a strong group of women. It’s refreshing. It’s over the top. We’re trying to bring joy to people and make people laugh. We take what we’re doing seriously but we don’t take ourselves seriously,” she said.
Like Hershfield, she has an affinity for what Hershfield calls “old-timey” music. For Garcia-Renart, that means performing to the music of some of her favorites—Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald—who have influenced her as a musician.
McRaven, 28, studied all types of dance, including ballet, tap and jazz, as a child and teenager, so she enjoys the performing aspect of the Belles. But more than that, “it is about performing with that group.”
Born in Ontario, Canada and growing up “all over,” she came to Woods Hole to work as a technician in the physical oceanography department at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She heard about the Belles troupe and decided it might be fun to join them.
After being in the group for two years, she left in 2014 to attend Columbia University to work towards her Ph.D. in physical oceanography.
The contrast of being a scientist/burlesque performer is something she thinks about a lot.
“I don’t fully understand it. I definitely grew into myself with the Belles. It’s a fuller expression of myself. I’m much more confident,” she said.
She described her character, Mini Teasecake, as also one of contrasts. “I’m channeling a slightly deranged Vegas performer, like Miss Piggy, plus channeling old-fashioned elegance through classical dance,” she said.
She said, for her, returning as a featured performer at this weekend’s benefit is all about being around the women of the troupe.
As Belles have come and gone, moving out of town or not having time for the activity, Hershfield has occasionally held open auditions for members, putting the word out on social media.
Those auditioning are asked to wear something comfortable and learn a basic dance routine.
Though some of the Belles, like McRaven, have classical dance training, it is not required.
“You have to have some rhythm and know how to dance,” Hershfield said. “Most are self-taught.”
The main requirement is attitude.
“The requirements aren’t anything crazy—they just have to be comfortable with themselves and comfortable with what we do. There’s a general attitude of camaraderie. Ideally someone is ready to go and is interested in doing a solo right away,” Hershfield said.
And of course, it helps to have a strong affinity for lingerie.
– Laura M. Reckford