Anja Keister kneeled on a cramped stage in the raucous back room of a Lower East Side bar. She wore a hooded cloak and her eyes were obscured by luminescent blue contacts, a nod to the most distinctive feature of the White Walkers, the baby-murdering ice monsters in Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin’s much-loved series had inspired the performance that was about to unfold onstage, and true to Game of Thrones form, there would be no shortage of bare breasts.
As Foreigner’s “Cold As Ice” blasted through the room, Anja began to peel of her clothes: first her gloves, then her belt, then her cloak. Before she snapped off her bra, the lights went out and two glowing pasties popped up in the darkness, illuminating Anja as she shimmied across the stage in a black thong. Then, to close out her performance, she grabbed a doll and bit off its arm.
To anyone with a keen interest in the naked female body, it was likely a titillating spectacle. But more than anything else, the set was funny, in a wink-wink sort of way. It was goofy. It was pretty damn weird.
Anja has dedicated her working life to this gleeful combination of fandom, comedy, and erotica. She is the founder of D20 Burlesque, a company that deals exclusively in geek-themed performances. And Anja is not alone. Over the past decade or so, the intersection of burlesque and so-called nerdery has coalesced into a vibrant sub-genre with its own name: the aptly titled “nerdlesque.”
Anja both produced and starred in the Game of Thrones show, which drew dancers from New York and abroad. Some of the characters they assumed were obvious choices, like the sultry Melisandre. Others, not so much. One performer emerged as a bearded Khal Drogo; by the end of the set, she was naked and covered in fake blood. Another dressed up like Little Finger, complete with a cropped wig and a false moustache, which she kept on as she took her clothes off.
Perhaps because Game of Thrones is so well-known, the crowd was sizeable: every seat was filled and guests lined the walls of the bar. But D20’s shows are often unapologetically niche. The name of the troupe, in fact, derives from the 20-side die used in Dungeons and Dragons. Anja herself has designed a striptease based on the Settlers of Catan board game. She has taken on the persona of Marty Mikalski, her favorite character from the horror indie Cabin in the Woods. She has performed as Cthulhu, the tentacled creature dreamed up by H.P. Lovecraft.
Anja Keister is not, of course, her real name, which she prefers to keep private. When she started out in burlesque, Anja was working as an art therapist, and she did not want her clients to discover her nighttime hobby. Now that burlesque is Anja’s primary form of employment, her alter ego has permeated into her everyday life. She introduces herself as Anja to everybody she meets. “Even my girlfriend calls me Anja at this point,” she told Women in the World. But just for the record, Anja will also answer to “The Dicey Dame of Burlesque” and “The Kitsch Bitch of Brooklyn.”
A few weeks before the Game of Thrones show, I met Anja in a café in Greenwich Village. She arrived late because she had stopped at Bergen Street Comics to pick up a stack of graphic novels. She wore thick glasses and a pair of earrings decorated with a photo of Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks. Anja is beautiful, with soft blonde hair and light eyes, but hardly comes across as the type of woman who regularly takes her clothes off in front of cheering crowds.
There was nothing about Anja’s background that suggested she would grow up to be the nerdy queen of New York nightlife. She grew up on a small farm two hours north of Philadelphia and expressed her creative side in a fairly typical way: craft projects and theater camp. She studied fine arts at Moravian College, obtained a Masters in Art Therapy from Maywood University, and then began working as an art therapist.
It was Anja’s supervisor who introduced her to the burlesque scene. They attended a burlesque festival in Philadelphia together—her supervisor’s idea—and Anja was quickly enthralled by what she saw. She moved to New York and took a four-week intensive course at the New York School of Burlesque (yes, it exists), which gave her the opportunity to perform in a student showcase. Anja was terribly nervous and made the mistake of eating Indian food before the show—an unfortunate combination for her stomach. But the act, thankfully, went well.
“I went out there, I was shaking,” Anja said. “It was a very short act, I think three minutes. I did it, and I got offstage, and I was like, “Great, I’ve accomplished it … I want to keep doing it.”
Like many women, Anja has struggled with crushing self-doubt. She describes herself as a bit of an introvert. When she started out in burlesque, she wasn’t particularly confident about her body and she would often wear masks during her sets to keep her face covered. But as Anja immersed herself in the burlesque scene, she found a cushiony network of positivity and support.
“A burlesque audience never wants the performer to fail,” Anja explained. “When you grow up not liking your body … you always feel like nobody is going to want that. Nobody is going to want to see that. This is a scenario where [with] each thing you do, the people are getting more and more excited for it. It becomes very freeing.”
Still, there was a void. “I wanted to do this nerdy stuff, and I had these acts in mind that I really, really wanted to perform, but they were a little bit too strange,” Anja said. “At the time, I didn’t think a normal burlesque audience would get it or really appreciate it.”
So in 2011, Anja founded D20 Burlesque, a troupe of diehard nerds catering to other diehard nerds. The nerdlesque movement was in its nascent stages at the time—there was only one other nerdlesque company in New York—but it has been steadily expanding, with troupes popping up in urban centers across the globe. In 2014, the first ever Nerdlesque Festival, which Anja helped produce, was held in New York.
Though there has been a proliferation of geeky burlesque in recent years, Anja’s D20 operates with a loving specificity that sets it apart—at least according to Jessica Obrist (aka JoJo Stiletto), a performer and producer who is working on a book about nerdlesque.
“I honestly really like what [Anja] and D20 are doing,” Obrist explained. “In the nerdy burlesque world, they’re going super niche. They’re saying, ‘We love this really specific thing, and we’re going to do this really specific thing for our audience … It wasn’t about putting on a costume and stripping out of it. It was really about fandom, and love, and celebrating and finding your people.”
When Anja sings the praises of nerdlesque, she mentions all the positives that have been touted by female performers who deal in more traditional forms of the craft: It’s exhilarating to strip off your clothes to the soundtrack of a cheering crowd. It’s a joy to create characters, dance routines, and narratives. And it’s empowering, so very empowering, to present a seductive version of yourself in a context that you can control.
But for Anja, nerdlesque serves a purpose that non-geeky burlesque cannot: to carve out a safe space for women in the nerd world, which has proven itself to be less than welcoming towards girl geeks. Anja and her fellow performers have been trolled, and booed, and called out for being “fake” fans. During a performance at a gaming convention, a male patron shouted that he wanted to slip Anja a roofie. She stopped the show, told him off, and then proceeded to strip down.
“[It’s because] all of that baggage of the nerd world that I feel like nerdy burlesque and nerdlesque is really important,” Anja said. “It’s showing women in ownership of their passionate loves when it comes to fandoms and things like that, expressing it in a way that’s not slut-shaming and very pro-sexual. And they’re owning it, and it’s women producing, and it’s women performing.”
Armed with this sense of purpose, Anja spends her days booking performers, planning sets, securing venues, practicing routines, and making costumes. It’s not the most lucrative existence—Anja has to take side jobs in retail and as a make up artist so she can make rent—but to her, it’s well worth it. In the dusky back rooms of New York bars, Anja gets to feel beautiful while paying homage to her favorite characters. And that, she says, is a source of “constant happiness.”
On May 15 at 10 PM, Anja Keister and co. will perform the “D20 Burlesque Boardwalk Arcade” at Coney Island USA.