Dare to Bare

Watching dancers revive the lost art of burlesque by going without their clothes.

Editors’ note: The links featured in this article are relatively tame, but some (particularly the performers’ Web pages at the end) might raise a few eyebrows if you click on them at work. We’re just sayin’.

The longer I live in New York City, the stranger my Fridays become.

I was in a bar called Element, on Houston Street in Manhattan. The crowd around me was filled with people wearing breast-lifting corsets, tight vintage clothing, fedoras, and top-hats, plus several cross dressing vaudevillians. Multicolored beams of light cut across the dark showroom, targeting the stage where a 6-foot-tall man in a bright blue leotard and bunny ears stepped up to the microphone and introduced the first performer.

She was gorgeous — a petite woman dressed in a skimpy retro flight attendant uniform with a dark brown 1940s hairdo, bright red lipstick and Mary Janes. After several minutes of dancing provocatively and teasing us with her agile body movements, she was ready for her big finale. She unsnapped her uniform, showing off her naked, marble-white body. And the only things covering her breasts were a pair of coin-sized, motorized propellers that barely covered her nipples.

Those Wall Street guys at the Hustler Club on the West Side don’t know what they’re missing. Strippers are so last year. Burlesque is in. Again.

Burlesque dancing started not too far from this very club. Born in the Bowery of Manhattan around the turn of the century, burlesque was a jab against social norms and parodied mainstream entertainment. Comedians, magicians, and musicians accompanied the dancers’ burlesque-style strip tease, which was the center of the crowd’s attention in a time when even partial nudity seemed risqué.

Fast forward more than a hundred years, and the burlesque movement has re-branded itself as the newest form of adult entertainment with a nostalgic twist. There are music and costumes influenced by both modern and retro styles, with music from the 40s to the present. Historical and pop culture icons and characters inspire costume ideas. With a heavy dose of comical double entendres and sexual innuendoes, people are calling it “neo-burlesque.”

Going into a burlesque show is like stepping onto the set of Moulin Rouge. There are red velvet curtains everywhere, and a variety of antique lamps dimmed down to yellowish-orange. If people were allowed to smoke in here, they’d be using those long cigarette holders and discussing Upton Sinclair’s latest novel over a couple martinis.

When the house lights go down, everyone’s attention focuses on the burlesque dancer in a statuesque pose onstage. A typical burlesque dancer performs in elbow-length satin gloves that she removed very slowly to the music. She also wears an hourglass corset with a vice grip to accentuate her breasts. Other accoutrements might include colorful feather boas and headdresses, fishnet stockings, and of course high heels.

But the trademark adornments in any burlesque dancer’s wardrobe are the tassels or pasties covering the nipples. They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, glittery or tasseled. These seemingly small dots are an homage to that classic censorship mantra: “It ain’t nudity unless you show nipple.”

You may think that this is all just a night of fancy strippers, and you’re sort of right. But I would call it “stripping with style.” Regular strip clubs feature fluorescent lighting, loud club music, and men in suits sitting on couches while naked women try to arouse as much money out of them as possible. The act is intense, one-on-one, almost intrusive with a surprising amount of physical contact and a strong aroma of baby powder, liquor, and sweat. Basically, the point is to feed the primal desire to see nudity and fall into a fantasy that someone like her wants to have sex with me.

The world of burlesque is different. Burlesque focuses on the tease, which can be more titillating than the typical full-frontal antics at strip clubs. Instead of seducing some poor schlub’s wallet, the burlesque dancer seduces the audience’s imagination — taking everyone back in time and making them realize that stripping can be funny and entertaining for both sexes.

These performances are all about theatrics, so dancers come up with the most interesting outfits and unique skits ever imagined, from hula hoops to pole dancing in pairs, aerial acrobatics to light S&M. At the 5th Annual New York Burlesque Festival last year, I watched as a woman in a KISS outfit and full makeup strip to “Rock and Roll All Nite,” complete with a strap-on dildo that shot fireworks. Try to find that at your local strip club!

The burlesque tribute to John F. Kennedy was even more bizarre. An army of black-dressed Jackie O’s in mourning marched onstage and a Marilyn Monroe sang and stripped while a radio broadcast playing in the background reported on JFK’s assassination in Dallas.

The NYC Burlesque Festival is a three-night event that brings together some of the most talented dancers from around the world, including performers from Australia, England, Italy, France, and the Netherlands. The lineup included some of the brightest burlesque stars — names like Angie Pontani and the Pontani Sisters, Miss Delirium Tremens, The World Famous *BOB*, Honey DeVille, Miss Lily DeLuxe, Jo Boobs, and Little Brooklyn. Accompanied by a live band and hosted by Murray Hill, the show redefined burlesque in an evolving world that quickly forgets its past.

My burlesque weekend was an eye-opening experience. It convinced me that the striptease doesn’t have to be focused on sleaze, fake tits, and sketchy backroom antics. With fashion and showmanship as its yin and yang, a vibrant burlesque subculture is on the rise. It’s worth checking out.

Also, here’s one more tip: Never ask these girls for a lapdance unless you want a knuckle sandwich from a bouncer named Mugsy.

Article © 2008 by Rob Roan