Sindi Ray Boustier is very casual about the fact that she can swallow fire. Her mention of it was anecdotal, a fleeting thought she remembered after I asked her if there was anything else she wanted to go over as our interview drew to a close. “Oh, I can eat fire as well,” she said, as if the act of putting a flaming object into your mouth is hardly more daunting than walking down the street. For Boustier, who organizes, produces, and dances at burlesque events with the group she started, the Harrisonburg Harlots, it’s just another part of the act.
The first thing you notice about Boustier are her tattoos, which isn’t a surprise given her work as a piercer at Alley Cat Tattoo. The second thing you notice about her is her poise and drive. I was surprised to see her bring pre-prepared notes to our interview, especially since I had given her less than 24 hours of notice before we met. “I enjoy the crafting and putting my dance routine together, but the production side lends itself to my Type A personality,” she said. Boustier has been producing burlesque shows for the last three years, having spent time backstage at a friend’s event and becoming engaged in the revolving mechanics that make up a performance. “There’s a lot that goes into putting on a burlesque performance,” she said. “Unless you’re in the upper echelon, most of the ladies make all of their outfits. Every rhinestone is put on by hand, everything is stitched. We make our whole outfits, from the pasties to the gown.”
Since her first show at Court Square Theater in late 2012, Boustier has put on ten more events in Harrisonburg, many times accompanied by local Americana group The Judy Chops. “It’s a throwback to a bygone era,” said the band’s guitar player, Reverend Bill, “but one of the things I like about modern burlesque is taking that bygone era and updating it, which has been our idea with the Judy Chops from the start: to look back and move forward.” Boustier and the band coordinate the songs for each event, usually a mix of Judy Chops originals and covers for the dance routines. “It’s a lot of fun performing to a live band instead of music that’s pre-recorded,” said Boustier.
“Every rhinestone is put on by hand, everything is stitched. We make our whole outfits, from the pasties to the gown.”
Sindi Ray Boustier
The Harrisonburg Harlots is comprised of six dancers, but it wasn’t until 2014, after producing numerous successful shows, that Boustier added her own performance to the lineup. She began taking classes at Boom Boom Basics in Richmond under the guidance of Deanna Danger, whom Boustier considers to be a mentor and a goddess. “I told her she had the look and the drive. I didn’t see why she didn’t want to perform,” said the Reverend Bill. “It’s funny now to see her, she’s so focused on it. She’s taken classes, she’s lined herself with people who are really active in the community. She’s a people person which I noticed right away, she’s charismatic, beautiful, and people love her.”
Boustier’s mother comes to many of her events and her job openly supports her, but she and the rest of the performers go by pseudonyms to separate their on-stage persona from their daily lives. For both Boustier and the Reverend Bill, empowerment and inclusivity are at the heart of burlesque dancing. “The wonderful thing about burlesque is that you don’t have to be a size two or be a supermodel to do it,” said Boustier. “There are top performers in the world who are definitely not a size two and they are wonderful, beautiful women, and I wish I could perform as well as they do.”
The troupe splits their time between Court Square Theater and Three Notch’d Brewery in Harrisonburg, limited by Virginia law to venues that don’t serve liquor. Their events are for those over 18-years-old and ticketed events regularly sell out. “I was eating at the Little Grill one day and I had an older couple, easily in the 60s, come up to me,” said Boustier. “They said, ‘I don’t mean to bother you, but we think we saw you last week at Court Square for a performance. We just want to let you know we had so much fun!’ A lot of people think that burlesque is oversexualized, but it’s light-hearted, it’s fun.”
Boustier’s next event is February 13 at Court Square, a Valentine’s-themed event called the Cabaret of Hearts. “There’s gonna be a little something for everybody: a little bit of sideshow, some burlesque,” said Boustier. “It’s not just for those deep in love, it’ll be for those who have heartache as well. It’ll have a whole spectrum of love and things of the heart.”
The Harrisonburg Harlots and the Judy Chops hope to expand their operation in the near future. Initial plans for an outdoor festival are underway. For Boustier, the continued exposure of Harrisonburg performers means not only that they’ll be able to expand their profile and promote the culture of burlesque, but also continue spreading their message of positive body image. “I feel empowered when I’m on stage,” said Boustier, “I’m owning my sexuality. I’m deciding when, where, and what you are getting to see, how you’re getting to see it, the venue you’re getting to see it in, and how much of me you’re going to see.”
The Harrisonburg Harlots will be performing their Valentine’s Day show, Cabaret of Hearts, at Court Square Theater on Saturday, February 13. To purchase tickets, visit valleyarts.org.
Photography by Brandy Somers