by Laramie Glen
- USA -
Miss Delirium Tremens traipses on-stage. Her skin is white, her hair black, her lips red. Covered only by two scarlet feather fans, she begins a coy dance to music that is dedicated to the art of the tease. First she turns towards the audience, one fan in front of her, the other behind. She does a twirl and now her back is to the audience, only this time the fans seem to be wings on her back. You still see nothing but a glimpse of her pale skin through the feathers. As the song continues, she has yet to reveal anything from her neck to her knees.
The Slipper Room is not alone in featuring burlesque dancers. Venues like The Fez, The Cutting Room, and the Va Va Voom, all have shows or events on a weekly basis.
From May 22-24, 2005, the Third Annual New York Burlesque Festival celebrated such acts as The World Famous *BOB* and Miss Dirty Martini. Later that year, in September, the Tease-O-Rama Burlesque Convention debuted in San Francisco featuring over 200 pin-up queens and burlesque dancers, where you could watch performances, take classes, or catch the latest screening of “SuicideGirls: The First Tour” (a documentary highlighting the 45-city tour of burlesque performances by the SuicideGirls).
So why a burlesque revival? “It’s in part due to the retro/revival mentality of our culture,” says Miss Tremens. “It has kitsch appeal. It’s not stripping in the sense of strip clubs. It’s female empowering and generated (most shows are run by women), and the gay support changes the whole feel of the audience from a strip club as well.” It seems that people find something alluring about having to work for, or at least wait for, the final scene, where the dancer takes it all off.
Backstage at the Slipper Room, amid phrases such as “But I could just wear my tassels,” and “My fishnets smell like corn nuts,” Peekaboo Pointe and Lukki are putting the final touches on their makeup and adjusting their costumes in the 4x7 dressing room. As she adjusts her platinum blonde wig and pierces a peach onto her homemade fruit hat (which will later be eaten onstage), Lukki offers her own interpretation about why there is such a revival. “Burlesque is an amateur art form. It’s the same reason why people like the Gong Show. Part of the allure is that the audience feels, ‘I can do that.’”
Lukki is also known as Dr. Lynn Sally, a professor in New York University’s drama department who teaches the history of American burlesque. Lukki is a self-professed “female drag queen” and performs regularly in New York City clubs and theatres, including The Slipper Room, The Cutting Room, Fiffi’s and others. Among her heroes, Lukki counts Gypsy Rose Lee, Auntie Mame, and Miss Piggy. She epitomizes the burlesque performer’s ideal of vamping it up as well as inserting her own humor and style into the act. One of her sets is performed to the song, “The Morning After,” by Maureen McGovern, and in this non-traditional act, she performs a backward striptease. She begins sprawled out on the front of the stage in what is obviously last night’s club clothes, smeared lipstick, and morning-after hair. As the song begins, she raises her head from the ground, looks at the audience and gags while pulling a condom from her mouth. The tease ends with Lukki fully clothed and in a business suit, saluting the audience.
“It’s evolved past fans and boas. In the beginning, it was much more nostalgia-based,” says Jackie Baer, a bartender at The Slipper Room, offering her own take. “Now the music has become more contemporary and it’s a lot more rock and roll. It has an interpretive edge. The running theme of the song will match up to the number, as opposed to the bump and grind with the feather fan.”
“It’s evolved from the more traditional form,” her co-worker Douglas Gillock adds. “There are girls who still perform the traditional burlesque, but it’s evolved to become open to interpretation. Now, there are aspects of fetish and each performer has her own unique style.”
Originated around the 1860s, burlesque became associated with a form of theatrical production that was a combination of the minstrel show and vaudeville. The striptease was introduced by Little Egypt, a Syrian belly-dancer, at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. In 1908, the four Minsky brothers, in an effort to save their failing movie house theatre, took the striptease out of the back room and put it onstage in the first burlesque show in the United States called “Burlesque As You Like It—Not a Family Show.” This titillating act, though slowly becoming more and more popular, developed a sleazy reputation and by 1937, seven Broadway theatres dedicated solely to burlesque were closed. Dancers such as Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee had to walk a fine line in order not to be fined for being too risqué.
Burlesque persisted as an art form well into the 1960s and even the 1970s, but in the mid-1970s, with the rise of hard-core pornography, burlesque seemed to lose its audience. Beginning in 2001, a “new burlesque” began to evolve, bringing aspects of strippers, specialty acts, and comics together into a form of entertainment wrapped up in a new term: neo-burlesque.
Neo-burlesque spans both the West and East coasts. There are differences between the coasts, however. Miss Tremens says, “The West Coast performers tend to have more elaborate costumes and set ups. The New Yorkers tend to emphasize the idea behind an act.” While many burlesque performers seem to agree that there is a difference between the coasts, they pretty much agree that one form is not better or worse than the other.
The West provides the performers with the space to erect sets. A well-known modern burlesque dancer, Dita Von Teese, has a signature act that includes dancing in a giant martini glass; her contemporary and sometimes partner-in-crime, Catherine D’Lish, performs in a giant champagne glass. With the rising popularity, however, similarities have been noted, regardless of location, between burlesque and another clothes-free art form: stripping.
Considering the fact that stripping and burlesque prance arm-in-arm, is there an actual difference?
“Of course,” says Mara Picca, 21, a New Jersey native and amateur burlesque dancer. “Burlesque is sexy; stripping is obvious. The thing about burlesque is it’s more empowering than stripping. It’s not just like, hey, here are my boobs in your face. It’s more of a tease; it’s more of an art form. It’s more easily enjoyed by both men and women. Burlesque is the thinking man’s stripping.”
The music is still playing. Delirium is still toying with the audience. She walks to the front of the stage, moves one fan away from her body, and uses the other to cover herself just as quickly. She walks to her right, shimmies, and crosses back to the center of the stage. With just moments left in the act, she seductively glances over her shoulder, throws her arms up in the air and finally displays her gold seashell panties and glittering pasties. She has, in this moment, achieved the art of the tease.
About the Author
Laramie Glen received her BA in Journalism at Rutgers University in New Jersey, by way of Arizona and California. She has been previously published in Debonair Magazine, an online men's magazine based out of New York City.