At an Exclusive Burlesque Salon, Glamour Still Exists in New York
Tansy’s Polite Society is an adventure in artistry and intimacy
Frank Sinatra purrs overhead. He fills the second floor of a 19th-century New York townhouse with jazz, wooden floors underfoot, crimson walls gilded with gold, fringed lamps casting a warm glow. On ordinary evenings, the space is empty: it’s typically only open during the day as Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon, all flowers and fine china. On Thursday nights since February of 2021, however, it’s become something different: Polite Society, “an improper salon,” hosted and curated by burlesque performer Tansy, “the Elizabeth Taylor of Burlesque.”
The idea for Polite Society was born when a rather eccentric client brought Tansy to Lady Mendl’s, where she was instantly enchanted by the space. With its wood-paneled walls accented with floral paper, its chaises and throw pillows, and fewer than 40 seats, Tansy realized it would be the perfect venue for burlesque. Her idea of the show gradually expanded to include artists of all stripes she had met throughout her burlesque career, both ecdysiast and not. The result was Polite Society, a glamorous, intimate evening of performance with just a kiss of delightful impropriety. It has been booked solid every week since it began.
Sinatra’s voice pauses to make way for Tansy. The performer, who seems to be in a constant state of delight, enters in a golden, beaded vintage cocktail dress and introduces the evening, as well as the background of the space. Born in 1859, Lady Mendl, née Elsie de Wolfe, was one of the first ever female interior designers who herself led an unconventional life at the time, partnered for 40 years to the Broadway producer Elizabeth Marbury while also married to British diplomat Charles Mendl.
Each week, Tansy curates a variety of artists who use the space to perform as they choose. One week, burlesque artist Jenny C’est Quoi dazzles with lush feathered fans; Malang Jobarteh sings and plays the kora; singer Aaron Marcellus warmly invites the audience to participate in song, later accompanying himself via tap dance; pantomime Tyler West retells the story of Humpty Dumpty in front of a single stage light; and Tansy herself floats in sheer powder blue, a cheeky glove removal here, a flutter of fabric there. In between performances, she offers stories of her life and the evening’s artists on and off stage. Each evening becomes as personal as it is inimitable.
“I love having all different styles of art together because it’s so rare. There’s variety shows, of course, but it’s always the same thing, it feels like,” Tansy says of the evening and her desire to create a new experience for audiences. “That room holds so much beauty in just its aesthetic and its warmth and its mystique that I think people just lean in, in a way, and listen.” Indeed, it’s mostly silent in the audience as performers move through the space, and it’s the good kind of silence: the crowd is quiet with awe and fascination.”They intuitively know to settle and take in art,” Tansy says. In the city that somehow, even after all of this pandemicry, is still one that doesn’t sleep, such a noise level is decidedly unusual.
The role of Polite Society in a still-not-post-pandemic world, then, becomes joyful and unique. Tansy remembers how it felt to come into the space after all of us had been hidden away so long, after she herself had been performing burlesque in masks. “This show saved me to a degree. To think I would come out of this past year having not worked for so long and then to come out of it with this new passion project was pretty incredible. It gave me a place to put my energy and focus and also to be nourished,” she says. “It was powerful and emotional. We all were getting back to our art we had loved and missed in front of an audience.”
The intimacy of the room and seating allows audiences to have big bites of glamour and performance in a small space, one where they don’t have to worry about being pressed up close next to hundreds of other bodies. And while the latter is still an experience people seek out, it helps to have the option to do something else if you so choose. “I would imagine more things like this will happen. It’s been pretty wild to see nightlife thriving in large numbers. People are also out in it but there is a need for these smaller spaces because a lot of people don’t feel comfortable going out to the big crowds,” Tansy says. “It feels a bit wild and definitely lively out there and that’s what I think makes Polite Society unique, that it is this wild beauty, but it’s on such a small scale.” With audiences that average around 30-35 people, Polite Society becomes a place of exclusive yet accessible decadence.
Though the event is currently free and fills up fast, there will be changes in the next few months. Tansy hopes to make the evening even more of an experience. She foresees a ticketed event in the future as she brings together a team to fashion a new cocktail and food menu while adding glamorous hosts, late-night cabaret-style performances, and utilizing the townhouse’s exterior as an introduction to the story of the event itself. “I am a Libra,” she laughs, “and I am aesthetically driven, and I will not rest until everything looks and feels as beautiful as the art that’s happening in the room and as the room itself.”
In a city, in a world, that’s still wrestling with the pandemic’s unknown, Polite Society becomes a place to feel transported. Suddenly it’s not 2021, but some other time, some other place. For a few hours there’s excitement and sparkle, an opportunity to dress up, to sneak away, to be perfectly improper.
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