CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Thru the Keyhole Burlesque's Tallulah Starlight (Photo by Mike Pecci); Thick (Photo courtesy of Emily Meghan Morrow Howe); Babes in Boinkland's Abby Normal (Photo courtesy of Vanessa White); Babes in Boinkland's Sugar Disk (Photo courtesy of Vanessa White); Backstage with Thru the Keyhole Burlesque (Photo by Prophet).
The catcalls get louder just before I peel off my top. The corset is black and ruffled, zipper at the side for easy access, and when it hits the floor I kick it away with my high-heeled boot and spin away from the audience to hide my chest, completely bare except for a pair of hot-pink pasties. Billie Holiday coos in the background, and as the lights go down, I spin back around and give my admirers a quick little taste of a bare-breasted shimmy.
No, it’s not Saturday night at Centerfolds, and hell no, I’m not letting tubby suburban dads stuff one-dollar bills in my crotch so that I can support a kid or pay my tuition. I’m trying my hand (and the rest of my body) at the art of burlesque. Mind you, I said art.
That’s what sold me. My interest in burlesque was piqued a few years ago, when a friend took me to see a show in New York. I was entranced by the glamour, the dancing, all of those rhinestones (they don’t call me “the raccoon” for nothing. Good lord, do I love shiny things). Back home, I did a workshop run by the Boston Babydolls burlesque troupe that promised to transform me into “an instant burlesque queen.” When classes were over, I thought, “What the hell? Let’s just do this.” So I signed up for a Babydoll-sponsored amateur night called Taste o’ Burlesque, and, well, gave them a taste of . . . something.
The uninitiated assume that burlesque involves bawdy women swinging their sparkly tits to the beat of some trashy-sounding vamp. Strippers, right? They’re strippers? Wrong. Burlesque artists combine dance, comedy, music, kitsch, innuendo, feathers, fans, and, okay, sex appeal, to tantalizing effect. It’s about the art of the tease, not the sleaze of the strip.
Born in the 19th century, American burlesque evolved out of the spontaneous/improvisational tradition of commedia dell’arte, and, back in the day, it didn’t involve disrobing. Initially, its performance themes spoofed Greek tragedies and the works of William Shakespeare. Eventually, performers turned to more general satirical comedy, and burlesque became a platform for mocking the bourgeoisie — witty, sexy, and socially relevant — conceptually, the live-stage equivalent of the Marx Brothers crashing a millionaire’s soirée. Eventually, striptease was introduced into the mix, and that, unfortunately, though not surprisingly, is the ingredient for which burlesque is best remembered.
After lying seemingly dormant for decades, it’s no secret that burlesque is enjoying a national revival, even wiggling into mainstream media with nationally known acts such as the Pussycat Dolls, whose foray into Top 40 has propelled them to teen-idol superstardom, and Dita Von Teese, best known for her signature “chick in a giant martini glass” routine and for her now defunct marriage to shock rocker Marilyn Manson. Burlesque troupes have cropped up all over the country, and New York, San Francisco, and Las Vegas all boast booming burlesque communities.