Dancing on airs

It’s a night of a thousand stars at the Civic Theatre as the Cha Cha Heels impersonate the glamour girls of showbiz with humorous imperfection. At the start, in the darkened auditorium, we hear the booming voice of an invisible MC who welcomes the mystery vamps “from behind a forest of false eyelashes”.

After a high-pitched curtain raiser we meet a heavyweight queen, alpha female Ines Beau Rivage, who divulges the rules:

1. Stay the fuck off my stage.

Drink plenty, because the more you drink the prettier we get.

3. Make as much noise as you can.

From there the girls do a battering ram of disco favourites “broadcast” by Radio Cha Cha that include versions of some rather stale old hits by pop’s royal divas, Tina Turner, Donna Summer, Cher and, of course, Gloria Gaynor.

The efforts at lip-sync to overwhelmingly loud music fall flat when it all becomes too much for the girl in the limelight. But persevere they do.

The frocks are, as one would expect, over the top with feathers and lots of shiny spangles. At some stage the chorus girls do a twirl in banana skirts á la Josephine Baker and that’s “when the marimba rhythm starts to sway”. It’s plain sailing from there with numbers from Chicago and a theme from an old James Bond movie.

But wait, there are also dancing boys. These are enlisted—and in one’s imagination one sees an oversized casting couch—for their muscles, tattoos and, in some instances, abilities to shimmy and shake. If the drags are men dressed as women then these are boys dressed as men.

As with all drag shows the delight is in the detail: a bandage wound around a big queen’s knee indicating a fall somewhere along the way, fat male toes stretched over the edge of a pair of petite platform shoes and cotton padding jutting out of a bra.

The names seem to elevate the girls to the status of exotic ladies of the night: Kitana Sluticia Klitorus, Charne Churchill, Betty Butterlegs, Foxy Brown, Chitta Revera and Raven Darkchild. Looking at them, beneath the finery, you can see they are really veteran denizens of a hidden Jo’burg nightlife.

“These are my summer diamonds,” says Beau Rivage. “Some are real, some are not.”

There is a certain type of self-deprecation that makes the Cha Cha Heels an act of genuine alternative drag. And South Africa has seen its fair share over the decades.

Gay history tells us of local heroines such as Madame Costello who held big township house parties, hairdresser Kewpie of District Six in the Fifties, the Nineties’ Pussies Galore of Troyeville (two of whom are now dead), the recent Tuck Shop girls and more.

Director Bryan Bester and choreographers Robin McBroom, Phillida le Roux and Duane Joaquim have created something that sparkles from the rough diamonds they have found on the street.

The Cha Cha Heels are at the Tesson Theatre, Civic Theatre Complex, Braamfontein, until August 10. Book at Computicket. Tel: 011 877 6800

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse

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