By Shiwani Srivastava for MSN City Guides
There’s a neo-burlesque scene in this country that’s bursting at the seams like a tight corset, ready for attention. What started as a slow and steady resurgence has officially made its glittering re-entrance onto the stage in most major American cities – and audiences are taking notice.
On a national level, stars like Margaret Cho and Dita Von Teese have played a major role in bringing burlesque back into the limelight. At the local level, there are individual performers, troupes and communities reimagining the historical art form in new and exciting ways.
Good old-fashioned fun
Burlesque blossomed alongside vaudeville in the U.S. during the late 1800s as a rough and raucous form of the variety show. By definition, it included an element of parody, turning social norms on their heads.
That being said, things can get sticky trying to pin down a definition. Miss Indigo Blue, headmistress of Seattle’s Academy of Burlesque, points out that “there isn’t just one burlesque,” although there are common elements. These include a performer-in-character interacting with a seated audience, elaborate costumes, a witty theme-based routine set to a song and a punch line finale – usually a striptease, emphasizing the ‘tease.’
Definitions aside, the real questions seem to be why burlesque, and why now? Perhaps Americans have developed a taste for satire with outlets like ‘The Onion’ and ‘The Daily Show.’ But Jo Boobs, headmistress of the New York School of Burlesque, feels that audiences are tired of “highly-processed entertainment – or in other words, the Kraft Singles of entertainment.” She adds, “don’t get me wrong, I love Kraft Singles – but at some point you want to be surprised and see people taking risks.” In other words, burlesque is more like brie.
And as with fine cheese, age makes you more seasoned and acclaimed in the burlesque world. “There are women in their 80s who are still doing burlesque,” explains Paula the Swedish Housewife, a Seattle-based burlesque performer and producer from New York. Miss Indigo Blue respectfully calls them the “grannies” of burlesque, some still performing with walkers and wheelchairs. “I view the early foremothers of burlesque as the original feminists,” adds Paula. “Talk about women who decided to go against convention.”
In fact, Paula, 48, has found that older patrons seem to have less trouble embracing burlesque. “I have a client who’s 80 and talks about going to traveling burlesque shows with her family in Idaho when she was 11. It actually has a tradition in family entertainment,” she said.
Today’s neo-burlesque shows aren’t exactly for all ages (check your regional listings for festivals and events featuring more family-friendly acts), but audiences are often surprised by what they find. “Once people see a burlesque show, they realize it’s all warm and cuddly,” said Paula. “They say, ‘If I had known, I’d be going for years.’”
A woman’s world?
In cities with prominent burlesque scenes, there are close-knit, supportive communities for performers. While there are certainly dialogues around male burlesque artists and the thriving ‘boylesque’ scene, there seems to be an inherent conversation around the art form’s historical roots in objectifying women and its contemporary positioning as an empowering form of performance.
Chicago-based performer Michelle L’amour, who appeared on ‘America’s Got Talent,’ talks about her own journey with burlesque: “I had trained in ballet and jazz, but never had that traditional ‘dancer’ body. I would get turned down in auditions even if I was the better dancer … It became very frustrating, so when I was asked to choreograph and dance in a burlesque show, I jumped at the chance.”
L’amour’s story reveals a common refrain in the burlesque world – there is no right or wrong when it comes to age and body type. In fact, many artists are skilled dancers and performers, trained in a variety of traditions and well-educated in their craft. Burlesque seems to provide relief from what Jo Boobs refers to as the rampant, conventional ‘looks-ism’ in entertainment and society at large.
But burlesque still celebrates beauty and glamour, which may be part of its appeal. “I think the world is ready for some charm. Somehow, over the years, charm went out the window in favor of orange-colored skin and low-rise jeans,” said L’amour. “[Burlesque] is about creating a full experience – costume, concept, and choreography.”
That charm fascinated Deirdre Timmons, director of the documentary ‘A Wink and a Smile’ about Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque in Seattle. “I grew up when women were being coached to act like men in order to compete with men – and it wasn’t very fun,” said Timmons. “Burlesque is part of a movement towards indulging our more feminine side in a very big (and naughty) way.”
Her film tracks students, professionals and mothers – ranging from 20-something to 50-something – as they learn to shimmy and dance in high heels and tassels just in time for the recital, which becomes a vehicle of personal discovery. Timmons also took the class and found that as a 41-year-old mother, it was fun being able to say, “Look at me, I’m compelling and beautiful.”
Miss Indigo Blue’s academy was the first of its kind in the U.S., establishing Seattle as a burlesque city now featuring a number of troupes like the Atomic Bombshells and Burning Hearts. Recently, New York has seen unprecedented growth in troupes and shows, though acts like the World Famous Pontani Sisters and venues like The Slipper Room have been at it for years. Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas are also burlesque cities – and there are a number of schools across the country now – making it harder to pinpoint ‘capitals.’
It’s also difficult to define how these burlesque scenes differ from one another because of the constant exchange of ideas and the myriad performers. For example, Miss Indigo Blue and Jo Boobs have shared ideas influencing each other’s teaching styles. And there are national and international burlesque conferences where performers and teachers can swap tricks of the trade.
Shiwani Srivastava is a Seattle-based freelance writer covering cultural trends and community issues. In her free time, she ponders the dilemmas of being bicoastal as the New-to-Seattle blogger for the Examiner online.