If any of the organizers of Decorah’s Women’s Weekend Out-sponsored event, “Extravaganza Eleganza” – a musical and theatrical production featuring some of the top drag queens in Iowa – had concerns about getting people to check out a show the likes of which has not been seen before in Decorah, they need not have worried. had The extravaganza, set for Friday, April 4, from 9 p.m.-midnight at the Elks Lodge, is already sold out. 

Gina Belle – a lead performer in the show – sees the upcoming performance as a great opportunity on several levels. 

“I’m going to assume that most of our attendees haven’t seen a [drag] show before, and this will be the best way to educate, dazzle and entertain our audience,” she said. “Like any art form, there are a million different takes … The show will be the best way to see all the different styles of our art form in Iowa.”

Sharon Huber and Debbie Paulson, co-owners of Fancy Pants in Decorah, are organizers of the event.

The show is about “celebrating diversity,” Huber said. “This is a pretty inclusive community … I think people will be blown away by the talent and the beauty and the amount of courage and time they put into this.”

Nine of the 10 drag artists performing Friday night will be at Fancy Pants the next morning, at 10 a.m. – out of drag – for a meet-and-greet with the public.

“They’re really excited to come here,” Huber said.

While new to Decorah, drag shows and drag art, in general – which essentially involves a person of one gender dressing in a costume of the opposite gender as a means of entertainment -- have developed a rich tradition in Iowa.

Wartburg College’s annual cabaret/drag show, for example -- which began in 2005 -- has become a phenomenon in its own right. 
Currently the largest indoor drag show in the state, it brings in professional drag artists from around Iowa and also features students, faculty and staff performers.

“The show has grown tremendously over the past nine years,” said Cassandra Hales, residence hall director at Wartburg College and advisor for Wartburg Alliance, the student organization that sponsors the event each year. 

“We are getting more involvement in the show, more attendance, and raising more money for (Wartburg Alliance),” she said.

The purpose of Wartburg Alliance, according to its website, is “to provide a supportive and accepting environment for students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and to educate and provide resources to the Wartburg community to encourage open discussion about diverse issues pertaining to sexuality.”

To that end, Hales said, a significant component of the annual drag show involves raising awareness. A section of the Alliance’s website illustrates such an effort.

“The Wartburg cabaret/drag show honors how the gay rights movement in the United States first began,” the site notes. “During the last weekend of June of 1969, police raided and harassed clientele at a local gay bar called the Stonewall Inn, located in the Village of New York City, just as they had done for years before that. 

“Instead of taking this abuse this time, a local drag queen entertainer was said to have stood up and confronted the officers. This action encouraged others to lead a rebellion that created the ‘Stonewall Riots.’ This event is considered to be the catalyst that began the gay rights movement in America” (wartburg.edu/alliance/dragshow.aspx).

Chris Knudson, director of creative strategy in the marketing and communication office at Wartburg and former advisor to Wartburg Alliance, was involved in the first drag show held at the college in 2005. 

He said there was some backlash, early on, from the larger community.

“I think the hesitation is always the fear of the unknown,” he said. “The first few years of the drag show we did get some negative reactions from a very small number of people in the area, but those voices have disappeared over time. Most people who have problems with the drag show never take the time to educate themselves about what the show is really about.”

As a decades-long part of the LGBTQ community, drag art has been used as a form of entertainment to help raise money for individuals andcharities within the community, Knudson said.

“Examples include supporting those suffering from HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and ‘90s and even today, helping to provide funds for those cut off from their families, and raising funds to educate the community about issues they need to know about. 

“Years ago when there was not much support for LGBTQ (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Questioning) individuals, the community had to find ways to support each other both financially and emotionally. There was no agenda. It was for survival. Drag was a critical part of that effort,” he said.