Nearly five years ago, Southern Miss graduate and dance choreographer Rebecca Chandler and songstress Abigail Lenz Allen teamed up to create the high-energy burlesque show, Hattiesburlesque. Since then, the show has developed into a fixture of Downtown Hattiesburg, with the most recent performances being held from April 11 through April 13 at the Thirsty Hippo.
After meeting through mutual friends, Chandler and Allen bonded instantly through their love for live music, dance performance, musical theatre and the local downtown scene, according to Hattiesburlesque’s page on the Thirsty Hippo’s website.
Prior to creating the show, neither Chandler nor Allen had ever performed in a burlesque style show.
“We’d both been dancers and performers our whole lives, and we just thought it would be something fun,” Chandler said.
The first year of Hattiesburlesque included four separate shows with one night of performance each, but the show has now developed into two separate shows with three nights of performance.
“The first year was a lot—we almost dropped dead,” Allen said.
Despite their initial struggle, both Chandler and Allen agreed that their very first show continues to be their favorite performance.
“It was like magic. The dress rehearsal the night before was a complete disaster—people were crying,” Allen said at this year’s dress rehearsal between bites of sausage. “But the actual show, it seemed like God reached down and carried us through that show. He made us flawless and magical because he knew this part of the world needed a little more juicy, good love. If we were carried through that show, we’d be able to do it again.”
While the cast of performers has developed into a wide array of ages, body types and ethnicities, the creative duo did not initially envision the show to encompass this type of diversity.
“With the first casting process, we had planned it for years before it actually happened. Finally, Julie White, the director of dance education at USM, said she would send out a message to the dance majors if we gave her specifics about the rehearsal schedule and the dates they would be performing, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to commit,” Chandler said.
After putting out their first casting call, the response was not what they expected.
“We really thought that we were going to get mostly dance students, and we did not. We got postal workers, moms, teachers—there were less dancers and more people who thought they would try burlesque if they ever had the opportunity,” Allen said.
Because of the wide variety of ages, sizes and colors, Chandler and Allen felt that they could not turn anyone away.
“That’s not the case these days, but we love how the cast has turned out. We’ve had a few open auditions in the five years that we’ve been doing the show, but that’s only when we have a large group of people that are traveling for work or they have too much going on with their kids,” Chandler said.
Because the creative duo no longer needs to host open casting calls very often, they decided to create Hattiesburlesque Booty Camp, where participants can take a class, which Chandler said is essentially rehearsal, and do their own show.
“There’s no live music, but everybody gets the experience of doing the show, and we also get the chance to see how they work. We can see if they come to rehearsal on time, if they’re nice people to get along with—not just if they’re good performers or not,” Chandler said.
Allen clarified that their number one rule is that every member of Hattiesburlesque must always support and love every other member.
“If you can’t be supportive and kind, we don’t really want that, regardless of how good of a performer you are. You just really have to be stinking cool,” Allen said.
The performances seem to require endless hours of practice, but the troupe actually only rehearses for a few months.
“We do Wednesdays and Sundays for a couple of hours, and for this show, we started at the end of January. It seems like we would practice a lot, but we really don’t,” Chandler said.
Allen said she and Chandler believe the show has developed into a machine.
“We finally sort of seem to know what we’re doing, which feels crazy, but we really do learn so much every time we do another show,” Allen said.
In addition to the dancers and choreographers, the band members serve as the backbone for Hattiesburlesque. Southern Miss graduate Imani Steven has performed as a singer for two shows and said she looks forward to watching the audience’s reaction.
“I love seeing how our art is received. The dancers and the house band put in so much hard work, so it’s really nice to see how it plays out,” Steven said.
Despite the adult-themed elements of the show, it rarely garners negative reactions.
“I think you can’t really understand it unless you come. I guarantee any negative comments come from people who haven’t actually seen the show,” Allen said. “It’s a celebration rather than any sort of objectification.”