Real women do burlesque

By SARA FAITH ALTERMAN  |  February 17, 2007

Gyrating and tassel twirling don’t exactly smack of innocence, but besides those hips, Miss Mina’s got a brain. A big one, which earned her a master’s degree from Brown and a certificate from the Harvard Extension School.

In fact, most of the Boston Babydolls have an advanced degree of some sort, a detail that makes them a fascinating study in all things Jekyll and Hyde. During the daytime, these women work as project managers, defense contractors — hell, one of them works at MIT. But when the sun sets, out come the glamour, the glitter, the false eyelashes, and the very real bodies — a classic brains/beauty paradigm, a contradictory combo that comes through loud and clear when one of these multifaceted performers begins to move.

Take Betty Blaize, a veteran Babydoll. Betty’s body wiggles like a serpent when she dances, a product of several years of Middle Eastern and Indian dance studies. A self-described math nerd with a “glitter problem,” she earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the Rochester Institute of Technology and her master’s from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. She spends her days geeking it up for a government agency as a computer engineer, and admits that her day job doesn’t exactly lend itself to the same level of femininity as her moonlighting gig allows.

“I work in a male-dominated field. My career and burlesque is a good balance for me personally,” Betty says. “It’s very easy to stop feeling like a girl when you’re surrounded by a bunch of boys. To go and do something super feminine in the evening is a nice balance.”

Balancing gothic femininity with otherworldly talents is yet another Babydoll, Dominique Immora. This 23-year-old burlesque wunderkind is a one-woman Cirque du Soleil. She’s skilled in the art of fire-eating as well as in poi, a traditional Maori dance that involves swinging balls on a chord (Dominique calls it “exercise and a weapon”), and the less-traditional craft of hooping. Strip hooping. Most of us can barely hula two or three revolutions, much less spin a hoop at the speed of light while stripping down to next-to-nothing.

Satin gloves climb endlessly beyond her elbows, cloaking creamy vanilla skin. She plucks the fingers of a glove one by one with her teeth, and spends what seems an eternity slithering it past her forearms, her wrists, knuckles, fingertips.

Genuine burlesque is a balance of sexuality and comedy, of the softness of the body and the sharpness of the tongue. It’s tough not to hold your breath while you’re watching a show. Yes, you’re going to see boobs. But when? Skin takes a backseat to anticipation and theatricality; the promise of a bare arm becomes surprisingly titillating when a woman takes nearly a minute to remove a single glove.

Of course, burlesque can also be campy, kicky fun, which is exactly how Thru the Keyhole Burlesque likes it.

Thru the Keyhole has one platform heel firmly planted in burlesque and the other in the Boston rockabilly music scene, and they often team up with local bands for their shows. Trafficking more in 1950s kitsch than in overt sex, the Thru the Keyhole ladies have a tongue-in-cheek “oops!” aura about them, as if the audience just happened to catch them dancing around doing housework in their skivvies. All of the girls are done up somewhat cartoonishly, with vibrant makeup and impeccable, plasticized hairdos. Frankly, they’re adorable — a girl-next-door kind of naughty. They focus more on group numbers than on solo work, infusing every show with their signature kick lines.

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