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.
Which brings us to the near-naked ladies of Boston.
For all its Puritanical shrouds, Boston actually has a rich history of burlesque. Scollay Square (now Government Center, where all the politicos roam) was, in the early 1900s, the hub of all things burlesque, most notably, the legendary Old Howard theater. The original Howard Athenaeum building was a temple built by an ultimately disappointed sect of doomsday cultists and then converted to a theater in 1845. Over its long history as a legit theater, a music hall, a burlesque house, and a seedy movie theater, the Howard hosted everyone in show biz from John Wilkes Booth to Phil Silvers and Lou Costello to Minsky’s Burlesque star Ann Corio to an “exotic Indian dancer” named Princess Lahoma. After a few fires, some reconstruction, and several vice raids, the place was torn down in the name of urban renewal, in 1962.
Nearly a century after Boston’s burlesque heyday began, the city is now home to several burlesque troupes; each with its own vision of what burlesque revival should look like. There’s a purist troupe; a band of kitschy, rockabilly chicks; a troupe inspired by the scream queens of B-movies; a bevy of socially relevant modernists led by a former ballerina; and a collection of self-described “fatties” whose dance moves are larger than life. Most of these troupes will be shaking their thangs at the upcoming Great Boston Burlesque Exposition, a four-day public-invited convention, held February 16 to 19 at the John Hancock Hotel and Conference Center (see burlesque-expo.com).
(GIRLIE-Q: Meet the women of Boston's burlesque scene | SLIDESHOWS:Babes in Boinkland | Through the Keyhole Burlesque | Thick & Boston Babydolls)
A sliver of black fishnet peeks out from under a chaste coverlet of chiffon and sequins and lace, criss-crossing her legs like sinful tic-tac-toe.