Leave Your Expectations at the Door: 'Lingerie' at Tabard

by Kaijing Janice Chen | 10/11/17 2:30am

Whether it is a giggling sprint across a bridge, an interrupted final or a quick getaway in the stacks, the scandal of nudity has always played a role in shaping common Dartmouth experiences. But acting out these traditions is always short-lived — most of the time you’re moving fast to avoid something: the wrath of Hanover Police, accidental eye contact with a professor or the (un)-conscious embarrassment of being naked in public. Adrenaline-filled and hasty, some Dartmouth traditions simultaneously recognize that being naked violates the social code of clothedness, while illuminating just how much the bare body is to be protected from the public eye.

At Lingerie, the termly burlesque-variety show held at Tabard gender-inclusive fraternity, nudity or other iterations of the body take front and center stage. The body is no longer a passing blur, but the very locus of performance itself. According to oral tradition, Lingerie originated as an in-house drag show twenty-odd years ago when the Wednesday meeting before a big weekend metamorphosed into a concentrated celebration of body positivity and queer culture by members of Tabard. Because Tabard meetings are open, Lingerie soon became a public event that welcomed the wider Dartmouth community to join in on the celebration.

Paul Vickers ’19, current president of Tabard, first performed in Lingerie last fall and has hosted the show every term since. Thinking back to his first experience on stage at Lingerie, Vickers talked about how it allowed him to step outside the confines of what is accepted and rejected as attractive or sexy in our proverbial understandings of masculinity.

“You have this model in your head about what sexy is, and I don’t fit that usually,” he said. “But on stage at Lingerie, I did, just for that period of time.”

Vickers strode onto stage last Wednesday in a black faux-leather catsuit and six-inch heels, donning deep magenta lipstick and midnight-blue false nails. Every time he hosts a Lingerie show, he likes to consider how he can challenge the audience to process and embrace new ideas and ways different people enjoy spending their time on campus.

“I like seeing someone who has never interacted with a drag queen, or has never seen one before, and being like, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’” he said. “I think the audience questions a lot what they think coming into the performance, and, for the performer, it makes it fun to challenge them.”

Carlos Tifa Jr. ’19, who performed in Lingerie for the second time last Wednesday, feels similarly about the show, and views it as one of the many opportunities at Dartmouth where students can stretch their minds beyond what they already know about the world.

“In a way, it helps people grow,” he said. “Watching up front a new experience and having to digest it then and there.”

Unlike some of the other acts, Tifa Jr.’s are never choreographed and performing is always a spur-of-the-moment decision. For all the audience knew, however, Tifa Jr. may very well have had rehearsed the piece for weeks, with its powerful questioning surrounding BDSM and queer masculinity. In many ways, Tifa Jr. embodies the spontaneous spirit of Lingerie — the show itself is never collectively rehearsed beforehand and the walk-on format means acts often come as a surprise to even Tabard members themselves.

“It’s kind of an organizational trainwreck from start to finish, and that’s the beauty of it,” said Jett Oristaglio ’17, a Tabard member and regular Lingerie performer.

As much as Vickers, Tifa Jr. and Oristaglio revel in the potential of Lingerie to challenge the audience, changing minds surrounding gender, sexuality and body positivity within the specific context of this show is not something they are looking to do.

“I don’t think we are focused on changing minds, but I think providing the space, and opening it up, and making it a safe space can at least open people’s eyes to the existence of other experiences besides their own,” Oristaglio said.

Vickers echoed this, adding that no experience level is expected as prerequisite to performing in or attending the show.

“We’re open to everyone having different comfort levels, different experiences,” Vickers said. “We’re all different. You go into the house knowing you’ll interact with people who are at different comfort levels than you, and you’re okay with that,”

Although opinion-swaying is not built into the intent of the show, it’s rare that an audience member does not walk away from Tabard after Lingerie thinking through the thoughts and feelings that arose while experiencing the performances. Like any good art, Lingerie forces the audience into an active questioning of not only what is on stage, but what the performances reveal about themselves and their fellow audience members. In many ways, the show doesn’t stop at the stage but moves beyond and into the audience, where the hoots and cheers that spur on the performances become something to think about in and of themselves.

“The show doesn’t happen without a supportive crowd,” Oristaglio said. “Even if the people don’t necessarily understand the performance, the vast majority of them are still there with an openness and an appreciation of, ‘Hey, this isn’t my space, this is something that I’m a guest at,’ and they respect that.”

With that in mind, Oristaglio is also critical of how the public nature of Lingerie gives way to people who appropriate the space for their own needs.

“The experience of the audience is always dependent on where you are in the audience, and who you’re associating with in the audience, and also which performances are going on at the time,” he said. “Part of the challenge is also that opening it up to campus and making it an open show in one way is empowering to people who don’t necessarily have space for something like a queer-friendly cabaret, and in another sense opens the stage for a group of white frat-dudes to get on stage and awkwardly grind on each other because they think it’s transgressive as a persona that they can take on and be funky with.”

Tifa Jr. hopes that in participating in the show, some audience members might find the inspiration to continue the termly Tabard tradition.

“The role of the audience is to take part in the celebration of the body, because when I go on stage and when I perform, I want people to feel like they can do that too, here in this space, at that time,” he said.

Just as the Lingerie experience can never be passive for the audience, for many performers, it is an act of self-exploration and coming to terms with aspects of themselves that the space of Lingerie is particularly apt for.

Oristaglio, who has performed at every single Lingerie that he has been on campus for, started off with more fun and purely performative acts — his first was a tango to the song “Anaconda” by Nicki Minaj with “some amount of leather”— but soon moved towards a more premeditated and meaningful assessment of his own masculinity.

“As a performance, it’s provided an outlet or a pivot point for me to understand my own insecurities about control and sex and relationships,” he said. “It’s helped me to conceptualize the ways that my masculinity can be performative. It helped me question the assumptions, and the taboos, and the ideas of normalcy I have, and we as a collective society have.”

His performance on Wednesday was comprised of a dance with fellow Tabard member Valentina Garcia Gonzalez ’19 and looked into themes of dominance and its implications for masculine sexuality.

“For me, Lingerie has been about exploring questions about: Can you still be masculine while being dominated by someone who’s much smaller than you? Can you still be masculine if you are being tied up, or if someone else has power over you? What does it mean to have masculinity in a way that’s not dominating or controlling or necessarily sexually oppressive? And then there’s also: How can you have masculine sexuality that is dominating, and does control of the person [but] isn’t abusive, can be nurturing, is consensual?” he said.

Even as Oristaglio spoke about the importance of Lingerie in his life, he acknowledged that inherent in a show that seeks to break taboos and transgress societal norms is a danger that audience members either walk away with the false assumption that the performances at Lingerie are tantamount to the queer experience, or that queer individuals leave feeling alienated and misrepresented by what happened on stage.

“There is a problem with Lingerie in that it curates a very thin slice of queer culture, or specifically queer sexuality,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the case that everybody who goes up has to do a highly sexualized, super subversive performance.”

At the same time, however, he commented on how Lingerie can only go so far in developing visibility and understanding of queer and marginalized experiences at Dartmouth.

“That’s why I don’t think the show should stand alone as a representation of queer culture on campus,” he said. “It’s not something that you have to do if you’re comfortable with your sexuality. And this is not something that you have to be comfortable with.”

Lingerie, as it is now, represents a small kernel of difference in dominant Greek life, an emblem of ownership and pride for the members of Tabard and parts of the queer community.

“To me, it’s always been a place where I’ve seen other queer people just having fun on stage,” Vickers said. “It’s a celebration of everything that makes Tabard different. We’re all different and unique but we all feel how beautiful and sexual we can all be.”

Tifa Jr. echoed that Lingerie exemplifies what makes Tabard unique.

“We operate as a sort of counter-culture to what is your normal Greek experience on this campus,” he said. “We provide a sort of ... spice to Webster Ave.”