Photo and Story by Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com.
It’s less than a month from a divisive Presidential election that has drawn dark lines between Americans.
This is Detroit, Michigan, a city in the midst of reinventing itself after devastation by the longest recession in U.S. history. We’re rebuilding by improvisation and inspiration. We’re making it up as we go along. It’s the rise of a fallen empire to a new beginning, a new ethic. Young, questioning, unconventional, accepting and experimental.
And it is time to party.
This is the annual masquerade sensation “Theatre Bizarre”, a performance art celebration and costume party held in the remarkable Masonic Temple built in 1920. The monolithic concrete building is one of few to survive the destruction of Detroit in the automotive collapse. It’s a natural location to raise the dead, celebrate the living and push the boundaries of acceptance toward a new norm that is anything but normal.
The event is maze-like and massive. There are 1037 rooms here, from closet-like secret offices to massive, high-gabled ballrooms, theatres and galleries. Tonight almost every one of these hosts some type of act, display, or performance. They range from people suspended by hooks piercing their skin to mime-acrobats delicately negotiating a suspended steel gantry in an aerial ballet with no safety net. There are people twirling flaming torches, contortionists defying physiology and performances bending gender well past the breaking point. A nude performer produces an effigy of tonight’s mascot, “Zombo”, a mad clown icon, from her vagina during an exotic dance. Red light and smoky fog pervades the passageways. Centerpieces of taxidermic goats and candelabras garnished in candy corn are everywhere.
Because this is a costume affair it eliminates the distinction between spectators and performers. Everyone here is performing. And while some of the performances and exhibitions initially smack of disgust or revulsion, the line between fear and prejudice breaks across the anvil of amazement. Like it or not, you are drawn in to worship the formerly bizarre, and now remarkable.
I am here mostly to see one performer: Roxi Dlite.
Roxi Dlite is a performance artist and burlesque performer from across the Detroit River, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. She is also an icon, an unlikely hero who has revived the old art form of burlesque using the new medium of multi-media with a purity and elegance that won her the World Championship of Exotic Dance.
But more than anything else, Roxi is a knock-out.
Jet black volumes of curls like shiny black lava erupting from a volcano over a liltingly seductive innocent round face that transitions to guilty inference with her trademark smirk. And from there, an opulent shape like luxury itself, round and perfect in defiance of gravity at every turn, and there are a lot of turns…
We’ve secured a high balcony opera box to view Roxi’s performance tonight as the headliner of the event. Following a litany of musicians, performers and curiosities Roxi will do one of her trademark dance recitals in homage to the event’s icon, Zombo, a kind of horrific clown figure.
Finally it is time, and Roxi emerges in a black satin ball gown soon to be removed. Her apparel, first layer formal and subsequent layers increasingly intimate, are discarded in a cyclone of dance and centrifugal force, garments being flung from her opulent body in time to the music as she whirls. Her energy and force are breathtaking.
I suddenly realize that, while Roxi Dlite is a physically beautiful woman beyond measure, it is her incendiary vitality that makes her so beautiful and desirable. She gives off heat, and this city is drawn to her flame.
Her performance is… well, you get the idea. And I am breathing harder now. I note my wristwatch heart monitor recorded a spike at the exact time of her recital. Now we walk down from the balcony through dark, misty passages crowded with masked voodoo priestesses in repurposed wedding gowns and men clad in leather harnesses like roman gladiators. There are more exhibits to see, more oddities to ponder, more unique talent to remark at.
One of the downstairs medium sized rooms is packed with people. Negotiating the crowd is tricky because some of the costumes are so elaborate. And then suddenly, next to one of the tables, holding court with fans, is Roxi herself, in the flesh. Mostly flesh.
Roxi wields around, and in an instant, despite my mask, recognizes the stunned stupor induced by her charisma (and curves). She is accustomed to seeing it from little boy-men like me. She subtly juts out a pouty lower lip as she sees me, dark eyes like tractor beams. She takes a sauntering step, wraps her arm around me, presses boobs to my body and then skillfully uses her opera-gloved right hand to clear away a trove of encroaching fans so Jan Mack, my girlfriend, can get a photo of Roxi and I intertwined as such.
You won’t see that photo here, as it is an honest depiction of a star-struck 55-year old little boy who grew up socially awkward and remains so. I look like an idiot. Roxy, well, Roxi looks like a star with enough poise and confidence to fill a city.
This is my one chance to say something feigning intelligence to her. One instant to thank her for bringing all of us together, for challenging us, shocking us, uniting us, inspiring us, turning the bright lights back on in Detroit when they had been dark for so long.
But all I can get out of my mouth after releasing my delicate grasp of her corseted waist is, “….Thank you….”
And she is gone. Off to work the room in a flurry of selfies and fan photos and winks and curtsies with men and women wishing a brief audience with the new Queen of Detroit’s comeback.
While this divisive political season has torn us apart, Roxy Dlite and her exotic, erotic circus have brought us back together in a new era of tolerance, acceptance, understanding and amazement.