Say the word striptease and what comes to mind is more strip than tease. Maybe it's a symptom of our overexposed society, but for most modern Americans, the word conjures up images of balloon-breasted babes wearing G-strings and swinging on poles.
Not so fast, say a growing number of young women who are rediscovering the art of burlesque. Inspired by this American art form's rich history, elaborate costumes, and unique opportunities for female bonding, neo-burlesque troops with names like the Velvet Hammer, The Devil-Ettes, and the Gun Street Girls have been popping up around the country. In May, in fact, more than 200 performers are gathering in New Orleans for Tease-O-Rama 2001, a weekend of singing, dancing, and, yes, stripteasing.
But advocates insist that there's more to neo-burlesque than just taking off your clothes. “It's not about instant gratification. It's not even about showing everything,” says Lorelei Fuller, Tease-O-Rama organizer and founder of the New Orleans burlesque troupe the Shim Shamettes. “It's about a woman choosing to display her sexuality in a comedic way. I think burlesque led the way to women's sexual emancipation in America, and we're just celebrating that.”
American stage burlesque began in the mid-1800s as a variety show, often featuring singers, dancers, and slapstick comedians. Silent-screen idols like Al Jolson, W.C. Fields, and Mae West started out in burlesque houses, but, striptease artists like Gypsy Rose Lee, Lili St. Cyr, and, later, Bettie Page and Tempest Storm became the biggest stars.
By the late '60s burlesque's “less is more” approach to titillation had given way to the bare-it-all philosophy that now rules most “gentlemen's clubs.” Drawing a sharp line between the two, today's burlesque aficionados say they are anything but strippers; rather, they are performance artists, dancers, even historical researchers and archivists.
“Most of the women who are involved in burlesque now were part of the whole swing music scene a few years ago,” says Rose Apodaca Jones, a Los Angeles fashion editor who curated an exhibit called The Velvet Hammer: A Peep at the Neo-Burlesque Show. “They got fed up with how Disneyfied the swing culture got, and they moved on to burlesque. So this is a fringe of a fringe culture. It's got a life of its own now. The interest just keeps growing.”
Fuller, who dances under the name Lorelei Lane, was inspired to start the Shim Shamettes three years ago after the reopening of the Shim Sham Club, a former Bourbon Street jazz spot once owned by swing legend Louis Prima's brother Leon. The new Shim Sham, relocated on Toulouse Street, features authentic New Orleans jazz and other period music. Fuller, a former dancer, says she had always been interested in the “costumes and artistry” of burlesque. She found some friends, convinced the club's owner to give them a shot, and a sensation was born.
Today the Shim Shamettes, backed by a jazz band called the Shim Sham Revue, perform at the club at least once a month. The shows are elaborate, with live music, an emcee, and promotional posters. As many as 20 women perform in each show, and they all wear over-the-top costumes—some vintage, others created by local costume designer Oliver Kroeten.
“We try to keep it very true to the time period,” Fuller says. “We get a lot of our ideas from old footage of burlesque acts, and books, and articles from old men's magazines. Part of the fun is making the costumes as authentic as possible.”
And the dancers' bodies need to be authentic, too. This means real women's bodies—not the surgically enhanced type. When Melissa Duke, who performs with L.A.'s Velvet Hammer as Bubbles LaRue, first saw the new burlesque, she remembers being “blown away by the fact that all the women involved were real women and they looked so amazing.”
“Here in L.A.,” she adds, “we're so used to seeing women looking all perfect and tall and thin, but these were real women who were curvy and fleshy and soft in the middle, and they were all dressed up and having so much fun. It looked empowering. I wanted to be one of them, too.”
What's so powerful about taking your clothes off in front of a roomful of strangers? First of all, not everyone takes her clothes off, says Nina Bozak (a.k.a. Nina “Boom-Boom” Boomavitch), the Shim Shamettes' assistant director and choreographer. And, because the performers choose how much to remove (though no true burlesque dancer goes beyond pasties and full-bottom panties), they call the shots. It's a strangely powerful feeling.
“During one of our shows, there was a point where I was dancing with a group and I took off my skirt,” Bozak recalls. “The crowd went wild. They cheered and laughed. It was great. I felt like a rock star.”
Neo-burlesquers may feel like rock stars, but they certainly don't get paid like them. During the heyday of burlesque, top dancers may have commanded a queenly sum, but today it's nothing more than a labor of love.
“Absolutely nobody is getting rich here,” Fuller says, adding that solo performers pay for their own costumes, “but right now that's not the point. We're doing it because we're having fun, getting together with our friends and performing. It's like a big game of dress-up, and everybody gets to be the star.”