Through the Keyhole: Fathom Swanson Celebrates 10 Years as Madame of Casper Burlesque Troupe
You wake up in the middle of the night, but it still feels like you're dreaming. You're in your own bed, but it's in a different place. You hear music coming from down the hall. It's calling out to you, beckoning you, daring you. You wipe the sleep from your eyes and get out of bed, slowly walking towards the sound of the music.
The floorboards creak beneath your feet, but you don't notice. You're too busy listening to the music. The closer you get, the more you feel the rumble of the bass. You keep walking, and notice various items of clothing strewn about the hall. This isn't your house, exactly, but it still feels like home. It feels like this is where you've always been, exactly where you're supposed to be.
You come to the door and slowly reach your hand out towards the doorknob. You're nervous, shivering with anticipation. This is where you want to be; the greatest show on earth. You hear the laughter and the cheers, familiar sounds that warm you to your core. But you're still nervous. So you crouch down, take a deep breath, and look through the keyhole.
In showbusiness, every once in a while, audiences are introduced to legacy performers. These are 2nd or 3rd generation actors, models, or dancers who grew up with a parent, or a grandparent in the business, who then grew up to be performers themselves. Some of the greatest showbiz families include the likes of Debbie Reynolds and her daughter, Carrie Fisher. There's Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, Bruce and Brandon Lee, Francis and Sofia Coppola, and on and on.
These are people who grew up in the world of show business and passed on their love of the limelight, as well as (hopefully) their talent to their children.
Hollywood is full of stories like these, but Casper has one of its own in Fathom Swanson.
Swanson, the creator and Head Mistress/Madame of the Keyhole Peepshow Burlesque Troupe, has glitter in her DNA, passed onto her by both her mother and grandmother.
"Well I grew up on a showbiz family," Swanson told K2 Radio News. "I have several relatives that were dancers. My mom was a professional dancer; she took classes with Fred Astaire in the eighties before he retired. My grandmother was a pinup model; she was a very beautiful, amazing, successful model in her own right."
Swanson never stood a chance. She was born to be in the spotlight. In truth, she was actually in the spotlight even before she was born.
"My mom would dance while she was pregnant with me," Swanson revealed "So the minute I was born, I was in a dance studio. I started taking classes at 3 years old. I was actually part of a dance academy, so I took several classes where you have to wear a special uniform and it's all fancy and blah blah blah. And then I would take pro cheer, so my whole life was always in the arts."
Swanson stated that her mother was also very much into beauty pageants and the like, actually paying her way through college with the money she won in the pageants.
"Our trajectory in arts was very different," Swanson laughed. "It was very different, but still the same."
While Swanson grew up dancing and performing, it wasn't until she was a teenager that she discovered a love for...a different kind of entertainment.
When Swanson was 17 years old, she fell in love with Burlesque.
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines burlesque as "Stage entertainment, developed in the United States, that came to be designed for exclusively male patronage, compounded of slapstick sketches, dirty jokes, chorus numbers, and solo dances usually billed as 'daring' or 'sensational' in their female nudity."
In realty, burlesque is all of that and more. It's certainly no longer 'designed for exclusively male patronage.' Burlesque, much to the chagrin of critics, is not just about "dancing naked." It's about self-expression. It's about entertainment. It's about humor. It's singing and dancing and joking and twirling. More than anything, it's a chance for women (and, sometimes, men) to feel comfortable in their own skin and to use their bodies to tell a story.
That story began for Swanson very early in her life.
"I started when I was 17," she revealed. "So, technically, I started illegally. I'm pretty sure I have the very first pictures of the first ever burlesque act I did, which was in someone's living room, for a birthday party. So that's how it started."
She said it took a couple of years for her to realize that, yes, burlesque was the road she wanted to go down. But, she said, some version of that art had been a part of her life for years.
"It wasn't until I was probably like 19 years old or something, when I was in Montana and performing with circus stuff and they specifically asked me to do burlesque with the freak show stuff, and I realized 'Oh, this is what I've been looking for.'"
She'd been looking for it since she was a kid, but it was always there - beckoning her in her subconscious, whispering sweet nothings into her ear.
"I already knew what burlesque was, because I'd already dabbled in it, but the specific thing about burlesque is that it was for the weirdos," Swanson said. "It was the people that didn't fit into a box. I saw all of these amazing, talented people that had nowhere to go. I thought they were beautiful and magical and amazing. And so, to see all of these artists that weren't in a box, but doing all this really weird, crazy, amazing, cool stuff and I thought to myself, 'Oh, I wanna be that. That's what I want.'"
Swanson said it was the unpredictability of the venture that appealed to her most. In most burlesque shows, performers will be introduced to an audience and will immediately need to know how to read the room, sometimes altering their performance midway through to appeal to the demographic.
"Vaudeville in general naturally lends itself to crazy adventures. You have to go to other cities, you're performing in weird places (like living rooms for a birthday party), you're meeting unusual people," she said. "And that's what I loved about it because, at that age, I wanted to be wild and free. I didn't want to go to college; I wanted to leave behind my scholarship. I wanted to go completely against the grain and that's just what it was. It provided the vehicle to go on adventures."
Swanson's entire life has been one big adventure, with the usual mix of highs and lows, peaks and valleys, victories and defeats.
But one of her biggest victories has been the creation of Keyhole Peepshow, Casper's very own burlesque troupe.
"Initially, when Keyhole started, I had this idea to create something that Wyoming didn't have," Swanson stated. "There are just so many amazing artists that need platforms. Now, there's so many more options but 10 years ago, there was nothing. You were either in a band, or you traveled somewhere else and did drag."
Swanson said that, at first, she wasn't even sure how, or even if, she was going to create a burlesque show. She had performed in some, but performing in a show and producing a show are two entirely different animals.
According to Swanson, a performer friend of hers was touring the country and was on his way to a show in Denver, when he reached out and asked her to host him.
"He messaged me and was like, 'Hey, I'm gonna be in your neck of the woods, can you host me and also host me for a show?'" she remembered. "I said I could definitely host him, but burlesque doesn't exist where I am. So then, I just made a show, simply to showcase my friend that was traveling."
That original show went so well, even for just a random night in July, that she decided to host another show in October, typically one of the biggest months for burlesque-type shows. That show was also successful.
"Then I'm like, 'Well, now that I've done two shows, I guess I'll keep going,'" Swanson said.
And that's exactly what she did. She's been going for 10 years, with no signs of stopping. Her shows feature local performers across a wide range of variables - like age, size, experience, talent, and much more.
Because that's the great thing about burlesque; that's the great thing about vaudeville - it has room for everything and everyone. It's for the misfits, the freaks, the midnight marauders. It's for the girls who don't fit into the plastic protocol of magazines and media who tell others what is or is not beautiful. It's for the boys who never felt comfortable until they put on a pair of heels. It's for all of these people and so many others, who never felt like they had a place in the world.
Many of these people found their place in Fathom's troupe - the Keyhole Peepshow.
"We have teachers, we have medical people, we have people that work in government offices," Swanson said. "You can see an 80-year-old performer next to an 18-year-old performer in the same show. We're just vaudeville, because I want to welcome any weirdo and whatever happens happens. And that's Vaudeville in general; it's what makes it so unique and special. Vaudeville is the oldest artform there is, next to Greek theater. And it welcomes so many people. There are no rules. There's no limits. There's nothing. It can be anything you want it to be."
It's the welcoming nature of these kinds of shows that appeals to audience members the most; it feels like a place to which they belong.
"I specifically know of examples of women who came to the show because the girl on the poster looked like them," Swanson said. "And that made them want to see it. They say, 'Oh, she has the same body as me. I want to see someone that looks like me being represented. I wanna see what she does.' And then, when people come to the shows and are inspired by them, they definitely get a little bit of confidence."
And it's not just the audience members who are emboldened and empowered by this kind of show; it's the cast members as well.
"For a lot of people, that's the whole reason why they actually love burlesque," Swanson revealed. "It's because they are in control. They are in power. They decide how they want to look and feel. No one else. And then it's so amazing when you decide how you look and feel and then get cheered and people love it. So it's okay to be themselves. And then the confidence goes through the roof."
And, maybe, that's why Swanson continues to produce shows. It's not easy work. Sometimes venues cancel. Sometimes performers call out sick. Sometimes the drunk guy in the back catcalls just a bit too much. But she still puts on these shows, both for the audience and for her girls.
"Here, they have a family," she stated. "A lot of the people that come to me, they feel lost, you know? And that's when they see this, that's when they see that it's okay to be them, that it's enough to just be them. And that's the point, right? The point is to not blend in. The point is to be yourself. And that's when they say, 'Well, I have a family that I never thought I'd have.'"
That's what Fathom Swanson has created. She has created a burlesque troupe, sure. She's created an entertaining show that performs a handful of times a year at various locations (including The Bourgeois Pig and their new, now permanent home, The Void) throughout Casper and beyond. But, more than that, she's created a space for the people who never quite fit in; who never felt like they were enough. She created a safe place for them to play, to explore, to learn, to grow and, most importantly, to find love and understanding for themselves. That is what the last 10 years has been about, and it's what the next 10 years will be about, and the next 10 years, and the next, and the next.
So what's the plan for the next year? Or the next 10?
"I want to accomplish the world," Swanson smiled. "I'm a fiery redhead; I want it all."
Throughout her life, Swanson has been lucky enough to be able to learn from both her mother and her grandmother about how to be a performer. She's taken the best aspects of each of them, and created her own image, her own style, her own self. Swanson said that both her mother and her grandmother have seen her perform countless times, and that's been an experience she will never forget.
Her grandmother passed away just about a year ago. Swanson said that she died peacefully, in her sleep. Thankfully, Swanson was able to perform in front of her countless times over the last 10 years. And her grandma always had the best advice. So if she were still here today, watching her beautiful, graceful, supremely talented granddaughter perform on a Casper stage yet again, what would she say to her?
According to Swanson, "She'd say, 'Well don't give up now. Keep going. The audience alone has let you know that you need to keep going. It doesn't matter if it's someone's backyard or basement, you need to keep going. Don't give up.'"
Fathom smiled, her eyes glistening just a bit.
"'She'd say, 'Okay, so you've done 10 years. So what? Come back to me when it's 10 more.'"
You come to the door and slowly reach your hand out towards the doorknob. You're nervous, shivering with anticipation. This is where you want to be; the greatest show on earth. You hear the laughter and the cheers, familiar sounds that warm you to your bone. But you're still nervous. So you crouch down, take a deep breath, and look through the keyhole. It's exactly what you expected; a gothic menagerie. A circus of wonders. You remove your eye from the keyhole, and you take a step inside.
Keyhole Peepshow is currently in the midst of a 2-night affair at The Void. Shows take place at 7:30pm both nights, and tickets are $20 each. They can be purchased at the door, or by visiting this link.
Photos of Fathom's career through the years can be seen below, as can photos of her grandmother. A true family legacy: