To move through life in a woman’s body is an inherently political act. Society, for centuries and across cultures, has been conditioned to police women’s bodies—socially, physically, legally.

For Hard Candy Dancers creative director Marquette “Markie” Carrington and the dozens of performers in her Denver-based dance company, however, burlesque is one way of reclaiming that power. “Burlesque dancing is really about the art of the tease,” Carrington says. “It’s about engaging with the audience and giving them a little preview of what they can never have.”

Carrington had dreamed of a career as a professional dancer since she started dancing at three years old. But after years of working with dance companies in Kansas City and Denver, and later performing as an aerialist and pole dancer, she grew frustrated with the lack of opportunities for—and discrimination against—people of color and other historically marginalized identities and body types in Denver’s traditional performance spaces. Carrington also believed the potential of commercial jazz, burlesque, and other theatrical or circus styles of dance had long gone untapped in the Mile High City, where ballet and contemporary dance seemed to dominate.

So Carrington founded Hard Candy Dancers in November 2015 as a body-positive dance company open to all identities and styles. “It was very much taking power of my body, taking power over what people thought dancers’ bodies were supposed to look like, what dance was supposed to look like,” she says. “[Hard Candy] was based on how you needed to feel. How you needed to portray a story. How you needed to release that energy of ego and drive—just that unrelentless feeling that you need to share with someone.”

What began as a four-person troupe has grown into an ensemble of more than 40 dancers and aerialists. The women, Carrington says, are redefining the parameters of burlesque and perform everything from solo and small-group shows to large-scale narrative productions, including an ongoing Kill Bill-esque series Carrington wrote about a sisterhood of assassins titled Bang Bang.

Hard Candy Dancers. Photo by Casey Racer

Hard Candy Dancers has held residencies for several years at Summit Music Hall and Temple Denver—and starting this past February, the troupe launched a residency at Cherry Creek’s bespoke bar Five Nines, the semi-hidden, velvet-laden lounge that opened on the ground floor of the Clayton Members Club & Hotel in early 2022.

Although there are still misconceptions about burlesque, Carrington says Hard Candy’s newest gig at Five Nines continues to challenge those stereotypes. “A lot of times, people will see a pole, and it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, this is too sexual.’ You know? ‘How dare these women show [the] power of their bodies—not just by having a body, but by showing strength.’ Because it’s incredibly difficult to pole [dance],” she says. “However, it’s been so thrilling because we really are taking this culture of Cherry Creek and changing the dynamics, so that people are like, ‘Wow, I never thought of taking a pole dance class. I’m gonna go take pole dance!’ ”

Carrington has seen countless people express interest in dance after watching her shows. “You get doctors, you get therapists, you get the mom who has three children, you get women who just need to break out of their shells,” she says. Many of the Hard Candy Dancers, including Carrington, teach their craft at studios around town.

For Ashley Franz, a longtime member of Hard Candy Dancers who trained in ballet and jazz, the confidence that comes with dancing burlesque was part of what made it so easy to embrace. “In the dance world, there’s a lot of self-esteem issues. Getting into more of the burlesque space, they love embracing the sexiness of curves and that movement,” says Franz, who works in tech for a living. “I just feel so much more in my body, and it’s natural. And it’s just so fun.”

Raediance Terrell, who joined Hard Candy Dancers this summer, agrees. “My career before this, I was actually a pastor,” she says. “So that’s an interesting change; I was taught a lot to cover myself, and in the churches that I had been in, it wasn’t really acceptable to show your body in that way. So I feel like it was a switch, going from this not being a thing I can do to, ‘Wait, this is my body, this is a safe space.’ ”

In addition to Hard Candy Dancers, other inclusive burlesque and aerial companies have started to crop up around the Front Range, including Circa Vida Entertainment, Dream Girls Burlesque, and Deja View Productions. Community leaders and activists are taking notice, too, as Carrington frequently books event requests from groups like InvestHER, a nonpartisan organization that backs pro-choice candidates seeking to get into politics. Hard Candy Dancers also donated $1,000 of its ticket sales this summer to Keep Abortion Safe, a local abortion fund and support network, and plans to donate additional proceeds from its upcoming show Bad Girls Club Burlesque on July 21.

More than anything, though, Carrington hopes the group’s growing presence empowers Denverites to reclaim autonomy over their bodies for themselves, and to understand that—whether it’s the captive attention of five people in a room or 500—everyone deserves to know how it feels to be the only thing that matters in that moment.

“People come to our shows and ask, ‘How do I do this?’ And that has to be the biggest compliment,” she says. “Because you can tell they’re like, ‘I saw myself on that stage. I can do this, I really believe I can. I can be that person.’ And they need to be that person. That’s when I push them to come take a class; start performing. You can do it.”

If you go: Hard Candy Dancers performs Wednesdays through Saturdays at Five Nines inside the Clayton Members Club & Hotel from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., every hour on the hour. The next company production, Bad Girls Club Burlesque, is July 21 at Temple Denver, 8 p.m.; tickets start at $25. The company’s largest show of the year, Diamonds and Pearls, is August 27 at Summit Music Hall, 8 p.m.; tickets start at $20. Anyone interested in auditioning for Hard Candy Dancers can contact Markie Carrington at hardcandydance@gmail.com or visit hardcandydancers.com for announcements on biannual auditions.

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