The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2012

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FEB 2012 Issue

Burlesque, Beer, and PowerPoint

Image by Gabriel Held

Brooklyn Brainery’s Society for the Advancement of Social Studies hosts a night of sexy history… .

On a Tuesday night in February, it’s standing room only to watch a series of PowerPoint presentations. At least a hundred people have gathered at Public Assembly to drink the cocktail of the evening (the Valentine’s Day Massacre—a five dollar whiskey and juice concoction) and be lectured on history… sexy history. 

Because when discussing love and/or sex, there is no juicier, saucier, steamier, or frankly more disgusting source than our own human history. The Society for the Advancement of Social Studies (a k a S.A.S.S., an offshoot of Brooklyn Brainery) banked on the appeal of sexy history when they planned this mid-winter event—one of six since the organization’s first in September 2011. In that short time, they’ve made everything from the Russian Revolution to the Mayan calendar to the Holy Crusades seem, well, kind of fun.

The first presentation, “A Brief History of Marriage,” dances around the racy edges of history: the ancient Greeks being down with gay marriage; Mormons staying out of the Civil War in order to avoid federal crackdown on their polygamy habits; and the fact that Einstein, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Darwin were all, as the presenter Josh Levie puts it, “cousin fuckers.”

The phrase shocked no one. In fact, when Levie casually mentions finger banging, someone in the crowd shouts “Digitus crepitus!” Which, if you haven’t brushed up on your dead languages lately, is Latin for finger banging.

But the night is just beginning, and no sooner has Levie left the stage than a 1920s-sounding song starts up and the applause is replaced by hoots and whistles. Dottie Dynamo, that “lovable bundle of tits n’ trouble,” has begun to dance.

Dottie Dynamo is a curvy, tattooed, red-haired burlesque dancer who, in less than 15 minutes, gets entirely naked, save for a pair of tit tassels and a patch of sequins over her crotch. The room is 80 percent women, and of the Downton Abbey-watching sort, so the requested whistles and shouts soon die into a smattering of embarrassed applause and a few shouts of politically correct words of encouragement: “I appreciate your body confidence!”  It may not be the response that a burlesque dancer is looking for, but it could be worse.

While burlesque is pertinent to the topic, the performance mostly serves to make the room uncomfortable. This crowd is engaged by the lectures, and in fact the meat of the evening is “Sex Scandals Through History.” The topic has all the appeal of People Magazine without the guilt—after all, it’s history, which, like Brussels sprouts, must be good for you. “All the history you knew but forgot, and all the booze you need to forget it again” is, in fact, the S.A.S.S. motto.

Presenter Larissa Hayden (one of S.A.S.S.’s two founders) claimed to choose her case studies by telling several scandalous history stories to her friends and then asking which ones they remembered after drinking a beer.

“What can I say, I’m a scientist,” Hayden shrugs and winks, hamming it up for the crowd, who showers her with applause after the presentation on Cleopatra, Henry XIII, Marilyn Monroe, and Charles Lindbergh. Each of the sample subjects fits into one of her “Four Types of Cheaters Through History” categories: people who want to save their country, people who want heirs, people who don’t know what they want, and people who like sex (and are weird).

The audience calls her out for botching a key fact—announcing that Marilyn Monroe’s first husband was Joe Montana (as opposed to Joe DiMaggio), but Hayden handles herself with great aplomb. She laughs, “You guys aren’t paying for this”— the geek quotient in the room provides all the quality control needed anyway. She proceeds to tell us all about Charles Lindbergh’s secret families, which shocks a good portion of the Wikipedia-savvy crowd—there are some things you just don’t think to Google.

Last is “Underwear Through the Ages”: from loincloths to petticoats, corsets to union suits, and finally back to where we are today—a glorified, breathable version of the loincloth. The evolution of underwear truly was futile—and at times painful—a lesson that some things should just stay simple. The one positive new invention? The thong, which presenter Anna Rasche (S.A.S.S.’s other founder) explains was a result of Mayor LaGuardia’s prudishness. He asked the nudie dancers at the World’s Fair to cover their crotch and cracks, and they did precisely that—and nothing else.

This last presentation closes to impassioned applause. “That was the best use of PowerPoint I have ever seen,” says one clapping spectator, shaking her head reverently. The throngs of lady-geeks sip free Buffalo Trace whiskey and wait to see who’ll win the lingerie raffle from Brooklyn Fox. And we reflect on perhaps the most powerful, memorable lesson of the evening:

“If you’re going to fuck around,” Hayden intones solemnly at the close of “Sex Scandals Through History,” “just make sure you’re the ruler of a country. Or that you die before someone finds out.”

S.A.S.S. events happen on the first Tuesday of every month at Public Assembly. On March 6, they’ll be presenting on the Great Depression. Learn more at


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2012

All Issues