Photos and Videos by Arianna Gastelum

IOWA CITY, Iowa

Founder of the troupe, Auralie Wilde

Everyone copes with self-doubt in different ways. Many people deal with it by shopping at the mall, going to therapy, or finding a new workout routine. But in Iowa City, Iowa, the Heartland Bombshells fight self-doubt with burlesque.

The Heartland Bombshells, Iowa City’s only burlesque troupe, bring body positivity, sex positivity, and self-love to the forefront of the art of burlesque. Accepting yourself and others for who they are is an essential component of the Heartland Bombshells’ mindset.

Auralie Wilde, founder of the troupe, says body positivity is about accepting all body types–not just skinny or fat. “[It’s] creating a space that’s for curvy bodies that aren’t hourglass,” Wilde says. You’re going to be in it for the curvy people. You have to be in it for the people with large hips and small breasts.”

Wilde, who has been performing burlesque for seven years, says burlesque is a way for people to gain confidence in themselves. “In a college town where there are so many young people exploring their identities and learning their identities, it’s [important] to see these things are okay,” she says.

The Beauty of Burlesque

There are some common misconceptions that the burlesque community must constantly tackle. Some believe that burlesque is raunchy and distasteful because of the nudity and provocative dancing. But not only are all nipples hidden behind bright, glittery tassels—all other “sensitive” areas are covered. Sometimes the dancers don’t even undress at all.

Many also believe burlesque is solely intended for the male gaze and demeans the performers. However, Wilde says that isn’t the case today. “In the 1920s through 40s, it was pretty much about the male gaze. But when it got this revival in the 1990s, a lot of things shifted,” she says.

Francis Kuehnle, also known as Professor Sparkles, joined the Bombshells five months ago. Kuehnle explains the origins of burlesque actually lie in rebellion and defying the patriarchy, rather than oppression and coercion. “One of the great things about burlesque is that it originally started in ancient Greece, and it was used to give the finger to the power structure,” they say. “The word burlesque means ‘parody,’ so it can really be anything you want.”

“We have a great positive space for people–not only for people of all body shapes, but also people of all genders and identities.”– Cierra Laughlin

For Kuehnle, who is transgender, burlesque has been a way for them to learn to love their body in the process of transitioning. “Getting comfortable with my body was really hard for me, and it was a long process,” they say. “So [burlesque] was kind of a way to figure it out but create art at the same time because it’s a fun thing to do, and it’s like a fun creative process.”

The Queen FantAsia Wood from special guests, Haus Eden.

After joining the Bombshells five months ago, Kuehnle performed a song about being trans. “I transitioned onstage to Let It Go from Frozen,” they say. “I started off in the stereotypical princess gear, including a crown, wig, corset, tutu, gloves, and heels.” Throughout the song, Kuehnle took off the items. “My favorite part is that I had balloons filled with confetti as my boobs and popped them–getting glitter everywhere!”

Cierra Laughlin, a Bombshell also known as Arya Ready, says the Bombshells foster a community of acceptance that goes beyond just weight and size. “We have a great positive space for people–not only for people of all body shapes, but also people of all genders and identities,” she says. “We have multiple transgender members, we have multiple body types, [and] sexualities…”

Like Laughlin, Delia Belladonna, a recent addition to the team, also believes body-positivity is about more than just size. She joined the Bombshells in October after surviving breast cancer. “I had just went through having breast cancer and having a lump removed. My little sister had ovarian cancer,” she says. “So I was going through both things at the same time. My little sister didn’t make it, and I did.”

Body-positivity has helped Belladonna to not only move past her illness and grief, but also to feel more secure with her body and her scars. “I survived,” she says. “So I wanted to do something out of my comfort zone.” Her debut burlesque routine was based on The Bride of Frankenstein because of her scars. “I did a song called It’s Good to be Alive by Imelda May, and I was the bride.”

An Open Conversation

For the Bombshells, the performance isn’t always the most rewarding part of the burlesque experience–the audience is. Laughlin says, “You’re out there and you’re onstage performing and you hear the entire crowd cheer for you. And you know they’re enjoying themselves because you’re enjoying yourself.”

“So the more I give, the more I get and it’s like this conversation. And it’s beautiful and wonderful and you can’t live without it.”—Auralie Wilde

Wilde also believes that performing is about the feedback from the crowd. “People pay their hard-earned money to be here. Like, I really want to give them something in exchange for that,” she says. “So the more I give, the more I get, and it’s like this conversation. And it’s beautiful and wonderful, and you can’t live without it.”

Pictured in the top, right corner is Delia Belladonna. Pictured second from the bottom, right is Francis Kuehnle. Auralie Wilde and host, Jeez Loueez, are pictured in the bottom front.

Burlesque is more than nudity. It’s more than all the nipple tassels, corsets, sex, and pasties in the world. The Heartland Bombshells prove that burlesque doesn’t have to be about getting naked for someone else. Getting naked can be about rediscovering who you are and finding a way to accept yourself. It can be about what you’ve dealt with and how you’ve overcome it.

The Heartland Bombshells build people up in more ways than one. But most importantly, the Heartland Bombshells prove that showing support for not only others, but also yourself, is a much greater investment than any one performance.