Deb Au Nare sat with her long, dark hair swept casually over her bright yellow shirt as she sipped her iced coffee. Her eyes, framed by her dark-rimmed glasses, lit up as she spoke of her love of baking, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and how soon she will go home to make 10 pairs of rhinestone pasties.
Few people would know just by looking at Nare she spends most nights and days surrounded by loud music, G-strings, silk gloves and nearly naked bodies as the headmistress of the Burlesque Academy of Asheville.
“I have a weekly show on Monday nights and that includes a day of non-stop working until 2:00 a.m. sometimes. There are crazy days like that and then there are days like today where I’m going home to craft and make rhinestone things,” she said with a laugh.
As headmistress and founder of the academy, Nare assumes the role of owner, teacher and marketer. Some days she works non-stop making posters, putting on shows, entertaining crowds and teaching, while other days she spends time creating costumes and petting her cats at home. This diverse work consumes Nare’s life, she said, but also remains her passion.
Nare’s journey to headmistress began in Jacksonville, Florida as a child. She always loved to dance and be on stage, but hated how rigid formal dance classes were.
“I usually ended up dropping out of them before I ever finished because I didn’t like it. I didn’t like having to dance like everyone else,” she said.
Later, the love of the stage led her to work at a gay bar where she began a combination of burlesque and drag called go-go dancing. During this time she would lip sync and perform lap dances for tips.
She watched an actual burlesque troupe perform in 2007 and said she knew instantly she wanted to join. She quickly began to research burlesque by watching movies, reading books and taking classes. At the time there was not a true burlesque scene in Jacksonville according to Nare, but she did try to build one through teaching classes and putting on shows.
Six years later, Nare moved to Asheville where the burlesque scene was quickly dying out. As someone who previously taught burlesque, Nare decided she would try to revive the scene in Asheville.
Three years ago, Nare hosted her first class at the academy and the program continues to grow. Upon opening the academy, she took the name Deb Au Nare, as people do in line with burlesque tradition and currently operates all business operations under this name. The academy offers multiple classes with their most popular being a six-week course where students learn to put together a burlesque performance and then perform it at the end of the course.
Smiling brightly, Nare explained operating the academy continues to be rewarding. From putting together her own performances to watching other women prosper and learn to love themselves, she said she sees a major improvement in every one of her students.
“It’s my favorite part, seeing them the first week of class when they’re all timid and some of them don’t even really know what burlesque is and seeing them the day of the graduation show, confident and proud,” she said.
The success of her students also shows in their post-graduation activities. Nare, with a proud smile, said she recently met a student who was forming a traveling burlesque troupe of her own. This scenario occurs often, Nare said.
Nare reminds people burlesque differs from a striptease. Burlesque exists as an art focusing not only on female sexuality but also female empowerment through turning what you love into a routine.
A former student of Nare’s, Giovanna Hopkins, said Nare never failed to make her feel comfortable in her routine and within the academy she found a strong support system among the women.
“The behind-the-scenes culture is a very supportive, tight-knit women’s community. Women of all ages and body types learned to express themselves with this vintage art,” Hopkins said.
Nare herself changes a lot from on and off the stage. She laughed as she described herself as two different Debs. In everyday life, Nare describes herself as calm and down to earth, while her burlesque persona embodies an alcoholic drag queen.
“There’s like the yin and yang. You’ve got the best of both worlds,” she said.
Pushing her hair off her shoulders, she reminisced about her favorite performances.
In her current favorite routine, Nare holds a 10-foot-long boa made out of tulle while wearing very tall high heels, making her petite frame seem much longer than normal.
She adds her most memorable performance she does a take on the traditional burlesque routine of a girl sitting in a martini glass, by sitting in a large marijuana pipe and spinning around as if she’s the marijuana being smoked.
“It’s the Asheville take on the martini glass,” she said.
She giggles thinking about the routine in a way which makes one believe she may not be as different from her burlesque persona as she seems. Many of her students feel this way too. Darcy Davis, a senior at UNC Asheville and former student of Nare’s, said Nare exudes confidence and charisma.
“She really brings a sense of life and party and enjoyment into everything she does,” Davis said.
Even when discussing her hardships as headmistress, Nare did so with a laugh. Money is not always reliable in the burlesque business. According to Nare, like any art, people do not want to pay for it. In the future, she hopes to change this. Nare hopes people will come to appreciate the hard work put into what they do.
“We tell stories with our acts and sometimes we are making our own costumes, doing our own makeup, hair and choreography. You’re basically your own one-girl show on stage building an entire production,” she said.
Ice cubes clanked as she finished the last sips of her coffee, she looked around and added with a smile that anyone could do burlesque if they wanted to, it is all about taking the first step.
“Do it! Just do it. Take a class, do some research, go to a show, but yeah just do it. There’s absolutely no reason for anyone to ever not do burlesque if that’s something that they want to,” she said.
With that, she possibly gained her next student.