By MARTHA IRVINE / AP National Writer
CHICAGO — In the Depression-era days of Gypsy Rose Lee, burlesque dancing was about as naughty, and as nude, as it got in public. The emphasis was on the tease more than the strip, until Playboy and harder-core pornography came along in the 1950s.
Now burlesque is back with festivals and club performances, from Amsterdam to Alabama. It’s seen as a chance for some bawdy fun and, some would say, even a little empowerment for the performers who are often amateurs with other day jobs.
But its growing visibility, in mainstream clubs and theaters, is also sparking a debate, and some confusion about what it is and whether it’s appropriate in those settings.
Is it performance art, as some contend? Or is it, as others say, just a (very) thinly veiled excuse to strip in public, even if most performers end a routine in pasties and G-strings?
“The performers are interested in being sexy, but not being pornographic,” says Rachel Shteir, a DePaul University professor who’s written books about burlesque. “They’re trying to strike this middle ground. But that’s very difficult to do in our culture.”
A few recent cases highlight that point.
Earlier this year in New York, burlesque performer Tara Lee Heffner filed a lawsuit against the Learning Annex for referring to her as a “porn star” in an online ad for classes she was teaching. She claimed the label damaged her reputation.
This summer in London, one club owner also shut down long-standing burlesque shows after being told he’d have to purchase an adult entertainment license, something generally reserved for more traditional strip clubs with dancers who make use of laps and poles.
“There’s no doubt that some men watch burlesque and find it as sexy as other forms of entertainment,” says Alex Proud, whose club in the city’s Camden borough bears his last name. “But at the end of the day, the naked bit lasts about three seconds.”
And many audiences of burlesque shows are filled with women, who often focus as much on the costumes, glamour and dancing as anything.
“True burlesque is more of a kitschy Vaudeville act than anything else. It’s all about the art of the striptease, a cheeky and titillating performance that can induce chuckles, cheers and longing sighs all at once,” says Katie Laird, a burlesque fan in Houston.
“Performance is the key word here, not naked gyrations for dirty dollar bills.”
At recent shows produced in Chicago by burlesque dancer Michelle L’amour, performers donned large feathered fans, in the tradition of Depression-era starlet Sally Rand, and costumes that ranged from a scantily clad secretary to a 1950s housewife. The midnight performances at the city’s historic Music Box Theatre also included slapstick comedy acts and a campy magic show, as well as a couple of male “boylesque” performers.
“Even my super-conservative grandmother is totally OK with it,” one performer, Cherokee Rose, said of her work with L’amour’s troupe, the Chicago Starlets. Still, the 28-year-old Chicagoan preferred to use her stage name, rather than her real name, because she’s looking for a job in the psychology field. “I wish people in my field were more accepting of this,” she says. “But sadly, they’re not.”
Most of L’amour’s troupe are professionals or students who started by taking classes with L’amour and moved onto the big stage when she considered them ready. For them, burlesque is a hobby.
The 29-year-old L’amour is, in fact, one of a few dancers who’s made a living at burlesque since its comeback in the last decade. Other professionals include Jo Weldon, a.k.a. “Jo Boobs,” and Dita Von Teese, who regularly makes red-carpet appearances and who’s become a bit of a fashion icon.
Theirs is a style that is more “classic” burlesque, focussed more on subtlety, artfulness and humor. But, L’amour says, it’s no wonder people are confused about what burlesque is when you have harder-core strip clubs featuring burlesque performances or even pop music acts, such as the Pussycat Dolls, referring to themselves as a “burlesque troupes.” Singers Cher and Christina Aguilera also are set to star in a movie titled “Burlesque.”
“It’s become a bit of a pitch word to hook people’s interest,” L’amour says.
In this latest rebirth, even many women can’t decide what they think of burlesque.
“Is it porn? Is it feminist? I would hesitate to say either,” says Shteir, the DePaul professor, whose books include “Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show” and “Gypsy: The Art of the Tease.”
Others say it depends on the context.
“As a feminist, I do not assume that, when women engage in performances that highlight their bodies or sexuality, this is necessarily degrading,” says Barbara Scott Winkler, head of the women’s studies department at Southern Oregon University.
For their part, performers talk about the camaraderie they feel with one another. Often, they create and oversee the shows themselves and make their own costumes.
“It’s about embracing the female form, no matter its size,” says Ruby Rose, founding member of London’s Burlesque Women’s Institute. She led a street protest of the Camden Council’s adult entertainment license requirement and is in talks to get them to reconsider.
In a statement, the council said its only concern was nudity. And that’s an issue that’s not likely to disappear anytime soon, says Molly Crabapple, a New York artist with ties to the burlesque community.
“When you do anything that involves nudity, even performance art, many people want to stigmatize it,” says Crabapple, who founded a group of burlesque-influenced drawing clubs called Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School.
However it’s defined or maligned, Proud, the club owner in London, says he thinks burlesque makes life more interesting – though he has no plan to buy an adult entertainment license.
“Nightclubs should still be a little risque or on the edge. If they’re not, you can just stay home and drink a bottle of wine,” he says.