Burlesque is Back in Town

A new generation of feminist-inspired performers is reviving the art of striptease

| May-June 2001

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.”