Real women do burlesque

By SARA FAITH ALTERMAN  |  February 17, 2007

“I think the standard definition of burlesque is that it’s comedy, and that it’s visually relevant,” says Ms. Dish, “Old-school burlesque came to be because they were taking a piss on the upper classes. It was bawdy — thought of as underground. We try to keep it current to what’s interesting right now.”

The Babes use their routines to wink and nod at pop culture and politics, with a healthy dose of playful sexuality. One routine calls for all of the “Boinklanders” (there are seven of them) to take the stage in all-white underwear, a sort of nod to those ubiquitous Hanes commercials. Complete with white bras, white panties, and, you know, white restraints. Paging Dr. Freud.

The feathers quiver maddeningly as she glides around the stage, piercing onlookers with a “should I or shouldn’t I?” stare.

There is a school of thought that shedding your clothes in front of an audience is empowering. It’s certainly liberating, and, at the very least, a little bit chilly. The mission of one troupe, Thick, is to enable its members to appreciate their own bodies, whether or not the crowd does. Thick is the burlesque division of Big Moves, a dance organization that is exclusively for plus-sized women. I meet Marina, founder of Big Moves, for a post-rehearsal dinner because, as she put it to me in an e-mail, “fattie’s gotta eat.”

Thick has only been performing for a few months, and was born from the idea that burlesque is a body-forgiving art form — that is, burlesque dancers traditionally have lush, full figures that are considered, socially, to be less than perfect. Marina’s dancers wanted to experiment with a sexier style of dance, so rather than sex up their routines, she gave them Thick. To hear her tell it, the troupe is an exercise in self-esteem and sexuality.

“I was at a stage in my own development as a performer where I was starting to come face to face with the idea that I was sexy and I should be perceived as sexy,” Marina says over a plate of hummus and tabouleh. “I could make people understand that I was sexy. That was important to me. Dance had already brought me to a certain point, feeling comfortable, feeling strong. Burlesque took me beyond that to my sexuality as a functional, strong, powerful thing. And fat women in particular are not encouraged to feel that at all. It seemed like the right place to go myself, and in terms of being a role model for ‘together’ women.”

It’s true: burlesque is an art-form for the pink-cheeked zaftig who doesn’t want to lounge around posing for Botticellian portraits all day. While modern burlesque does tend to feature some tight, taut bodies, it is still a safe place for the physically “imperfect” to own their sexuality, and the audiences, for a song or two. The whole “confidence is sexy” thing is terribly cliché, but sitting in a darkened theater and watching a woman take her clothes off is all the more exciting if she looks excited. This is where I’m most confused by the stripper/burlesque comparison. Pole dancers just look bored most of the time, don’t they? As though they’re waiting for their song to just get the hell over so they can rush backstage and smoke a cigarette or snort a line. Burlesque dancers savor the spotlight — seem enraptured by their own naked bodies. They give the impression that they’d be just as enthralled by their own sexuality if there weren’t a room full of voyeurs cheering them on.

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