“Have you ever done Wii Fit before?” Alex Furuya, assistant director of Lipstick Theatre burlesque, asks before launching into a raunchy description of his most recent Wii-themed solo stripping routine. “At one point I was on the floor, taking a Wii remote out of my pants and deep-throating it.” Furuya concludes his act with a hula hoop routine to a mashup of the Mii channel theme music and Khia’s “My Neck, My Back.” The crowd roared for every second of it, while for another performance of Furuya’s, everyone watched in silent awe as he sensually hula hooped in much more modest attire to the accompaniment of fellow senior Eric Zheng’s saxophone recital titled “Swan.” 
Furuya began his dynamic burlesque career nearly two years ago after witnessing Lipstick Theatre’s spring show as a sophomore. The group had recently joined Northwestern’s burlesque scene, so he figured it would be a new, exciting way to make his own debut. “I never really imagined myself dancing, but when I saw burlesque I kind of saw myself. It’s just so sexy!” Furuya laughs. “It seemed so fun and I wanted to be a part of this group of fun, confident people.” Ever since, Furuya, who also identifies with his stripper alias “Fireball,” has dominated campus burlesque and even made a name for himself in Chicago.  
Furuya rarely performs without a hula hoop in hand. In fact, the first burlesque-foreshadowing activity he recalls from his childhood was his hula-hooping expertise in the third grade. Though he has no history in dance of any kind, he felt drawn to the organization early on in his college career. “There is so much artistry to it,” he explains. “Taking off clothes is something we do every day. It's nothing too special, but the way burlesque teaches us to do it makes it magical.” Sophomore year of college, he finally ordered his own hula hoop from Etsy, and the rest is history. 
Growing up as a Japanese-American gay man, Furuya struggled with body positivity and self confidence, in part due to a long history of de-sexualization of Asian men in the United States. “I remember seeing burlesque [for the first time] and I saw these bad-ass Asian American men on stage,” Furuya said. “I remember thinking ‘oh wow, that's so cool.’ It meant so much to meet a group of confident people that made me feel confident.” Furuya was then able to turn around years later and inspire others in his same position. Fans even reached out to him after a show to convey how refreshing it was seeing a fellow Asian American man taking ownership of his sexuality on stage. 
Furuya earned the title of assistant director after years of dedication to Lipstick Theatre; though there is no clear hierarchy between cast members, he prefers to choreograph his own solo routines first and then have the directors watch and critique, an overall collaborative process. “For the life of me, I hate rehearsing on my own,” he professes, explaining how critical he can be of himself. “During tech week, the week leading up to our performance, we perform for each other and that's when it really comes together. I think even soloists have more fun performing in front of others because it's such a safe space.”
Self confidence is a huge factor in burlesque, and a key trait in a successful performer. Auditions are open to basically anyone who has a stage presence and exudes confidence. Furuya describes burlesque as a celebration of the body, an art form that is “changing every day, but for the most part is all about confidence and willingness to be vulnerable, and also to have fun.” While uncomfortableness is certainly a part of the process, it doesn’t hold anyone back from experimenting with technique. An unspoken tradition of drinking before the show definitely helps. Furuya had not taken to the stage since a high school bassoon performance before his burlesque debut. “Performing is something I'm always nervous about,” he confesses. “To be honest, I got pretty drunk before my first [burlesque show] and it was really fun. Call it liquid confidence, you get a little drunk and it's a little more relaxing.” Performers also occasionally warm up with “mini dance parties” to loosen up, and make team bonding a priority to mitigate feelings of discomfort or pre-performance nerves.
Though Lipstick Theatre draws on a larger fan base, it is actually one of two annual burlesque shows on Northwestern’s campus, both of which Furuya performs in. March of 2018 marked the second annual B. Burlesque show, formally referred to as People of Color (POC) Burlesque, with a cast size up 30 more performers than the previous year. Toni Akunebu, treasurer of the organization and a dancer in the show herself, was first introduced to burlesque through Lipstick Theatre. According to Akunebu, B. Burlesque identifies first and foremost as a platform for marginalized identities, though, like Furuya, plenty of performers participate in both organizations. “I think that is the beauty about the burlesque community on this campus,” Akunebu says. “Each space is unique and liberating so I just encourage everyone to explore both spaces.” 
Furuya believes the key difference between B. Burlesque and Lipstick Theatre is that the former provides a space dedicated entirely to celebrating and supporting people of color. “For the most part, it's all about questioning and raising awareness of these preconceived ideas we have about different bodies." In Furuya’s opinion, performing in B. Burlesque is less of a challenge at Northwestern, where the majority of the audience is somewhat open-minded to the concept of stripping as an art form, but he would have just as much fun, if not more, performing on a campus where this is not the case. “I'd be super excited just because I could see all these people who have some sort of preconceived notion about who I am because of what I look like,” he explains. “I would take that preconceived notion and fuck it up for them.”
As a member of both burlesque organizations, Furuya appreciates the distinction, believing Lipstick Theatre should do all it can to remain inclusive while B. Burlesque should also be given its own designated space on campus. Both Furuya and Akunebu stress the importance of B. Burlesque as a space where people of color learn to truly love and appreciate their bodies in ways they were not able to before. “The dynamic is pretty impactful,” says Akunebu. “Here we have these beautiful individuals, inside and out, wanting to create something so magical and wonderful together.”
However, after a controversy in 2016 when the program was accused of streamlining the soloist audition process to only accept white performers, Lipstick Theatre as an organization was heavily scrutinized. “I do think there's legitimacy in how Lipstick Theatre has been predominantly composed of white, cisgender, able-bodied people,” Furuya explains. “I think even though the original B. Burlesque came from that, I would also say it was a very necessary space for people of color to have their own space to perform.” Akunebu did not comment on the controversy, only positively speaking to how things have progressed since. 
According to Lipstick Theatre’s online presence, a core objective for the organization is to create a safe space for all students regardless of gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, ethnicity, religion or race. Though everyone defines safe spaces in their own way, Furuya believes Northwestern burlesque best exemplifies the concept because of the audience they attract and the values they believe in. “I think [a safe space] looks like active listening and being confidential of each others lives,” Furuya explains. “And a sense that you're not going to be judged for what you do or who you want to be.”
Burlesque aims to make a show out of social commentary; ironically, some believe it advocates for the objectification of the male and female body. Furuya would like to challenge the people who believe this to look deeper. “When you come to our show, don't only look at the parts where we're taking off our clothes to be sexy,” he says. “Also pay attention to when we're making a joke or making some kind of social commentary. Truly look deeper, and you might notice a story line about identifying as a sexual assault survivor and how to take ownership of one’s body after experiencing such intense pain.” 
Take this scenario: two girls strut across the stage dressed up as “golfer bros,” according to the program. They aggressively grab their crotches; they theatrically twirl around golf clubs. Two other girls enter stage right, clearly intended to be the caddies. And yet, there’s a plot twist – roles reverse, and the golfer bros drop to the ground, circling the former caddies on all fours. Though it remains open to interpretation, Furuya equates the storyline with body ownership. “It questions why we have such ideas about gender and our bodies, and why [the ideas] are so artificial.” 
Furuya was so positively impacted by his burlesque experience on campus that he could see himself pursuing the art form as a career path post graduation. Professional performers often establish mentor-mentee relationships with performers of a younger generation, and Furuya was able to connect with guest performers visiting the set of B. Burlesque. “They come and workshop us, whether it be on how to tell a story on stage or actual techniques for taking off clothes,” he says. One of the guest performers got into contact with Furuya after watching his performance. “She said she'd love to have me perform my solo, that I’m a boss ass bitch, and I was like ‘this is so crazy, my idol's actually talking to me,’” he gushes. She expressed interest in taking him under her wing while she produces several POC shows down the road. “I might initially start out as a stage hand, a photographer, or with ticket stuff. I just want to help out. This is the first time I thought ‘maybe I can do this for a living.'"
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