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Issue: 33 Section: Arts Geography: West Vancouver Topics: Women, performance art

February 27, 2006

Hot Politics

Women are leading Burlesque's international revivial

by Jane Henderson, Edie Jackson

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photo: Vancouver International Burlesque Festival
"Ladies and Gentlemen, Guys and Dolls, Chicks with Dicks…. Welcome to the show!"

It's the final evening of the first Vancouver International Burlesque Festival (Feb. 9-11, 2006), and two young men in suits and straw boaters are opening the night with a catchy, cheesy, antiquated song about loving scores of girls.

The theatre is filled with couples and friend groups of all varieties. Slender, spangled young women catcall each other, sip cocktails through straws between red-painted lips, and eat brownies. Tattoos are peeking out from under those frilly panties and camisoles. One woman has lollipops sticking out of – not pin curls, but a fantastic set of dreads. Tonight is a nexus of the neo-burlesque and proof of the accelerating comeback of this metamorphic genre.

The newer style of burlesque, situated in the 21st century and hence exhibiting a different set of concerns about the body – including feminism, AIDS, body types, transgender and queer community politics, and plain old desire – self-consciously uses sexualized play and the act of witnessing as the basis of empowerment for messages about sexual or sexualized issues. Some of these issues are progressive, and some are less so. Progressive politics are mixed with old-fashioned heterosexist versions of desire. The two have ample space to feed off of and reform one another.

A hundred and sixty years ago, the burlesque form took root in the low-class variety show culture of Great Britain and America. "Burlesquing" meant lampooning the operas and affectations of the upper classes. Audience attention was held by ribald parody and shapely underdressed dancers in an era when all proper women (not to mention tables) kept their legs well covered. By the 1960s though, shock value was redefined as full-nudity stripping. Performers joined the trend, by choice or just to survive professionally. Bump 'n' grind overtook campy comedy.

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photo: Vancouver International Burlesque Festival

Over the last decade, an international, women-led revival has taken place. There's a whole variety of variety shows out there, with wide-ranging ratios of strip to tease. Styles are as divergent as the women who participate. Some set out to recreate, others to wholly reinvent, vintage aesthetics of glamour. Using a retro aesthetic in costumes, props, or music automatically puts the performers in dialogue with that era. They may be teasing its values or meshing it with contemporary concerns (exemplified by a performer peeling off satin evening gloves and clumsily putting on latex ones instead).

The performer who goes by Your Little Pony, 29, says that burlesque performers share, "the experience of pushing the boundaries of self-presentation," with the added thrill of being watched while doing so. In comparing onstage and offstage sexualities, she explains, "The biggest thing is the witnessing. Both can be messy, erotic, personal. But on stage you're witnessed without a lot of touch. Offstage you're witnessed mostly by touch. Then there's how you witness yourself: offstage is slower and less influenced by adrenalin; onstage is a whirlwind and often more planned."

Witnessing oneself is central to burlesque yoga, an inventive practice that its creator and instructor, Little Woo, describes as "low-brow art meets sacred spirituality." Moves expressing archetypes such as mermaids, belly dancers, and kung fu fighters are taught as yoga postures, with emphasis on meditative breathing, inner connection, and refreshing hilarity.

Not everyone agrees with the powerful intentions behind some performers' playfulness. One producer declared that the variety skits are just work for theatre people who can't get into real theatre or for women doing it "just for the strip." Another scornful dancer commented, "Burlesque is stripping for fat people – you can quote me – and that's why I've moved on from it." (California's Big Bottom troupe, on the other hand, revels in reviving burlesque's historical preference for shapely dancers.)

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photo: Vancouver International Burlesque Festival

"Oh, some people want to see slick polished girls. But some just want to laugh," says Maz, 29, a member of BYO (Bring Your Own) troupe. The troupe formed after Maz's roommate walked out of a burlesque performance one night, tired of repetitive body types and hetero plots, determined to bring a more gender-transformative, DIY-attitude to their own productions. Maz adds, "What I learned from burlesque class is you don't need to take a class. You can just do it."

"I always say amateurs are the new professionals," laughs fellow performer Coral, 33. "We're empowered as amateurs, more hot, edgy, raw. Everyone's got a repertoire. Just get those moves together!"

"It's not even about nakedness. If you have humour, you don't need nakedness," Coral continues. "Not that we'd want to impose limits or rule out full nudity!" Verotica143, Seattle's erotic mime, comes to mind as someone who can pretend to take her clothes off more sexily and more wittily than most people would imagine possible.

Your Little Pony explains a key point: "Dancers choose how they are portrayed, so you have the power over the dialogue, and the audience meets you in the middle with feedback." Burlesque gives women (and the less-numerous men and intergender folks who also participate) a chance to laugh, redefine gender archetypes and body type ideals, to form communities of sexual solidarity through interaction, and to just plain be sexy within a wider horizon of repercussions and contexts.

People love a little saucy sass, after all. Turns out that with the right music, female empowerment can look like pulling green onions out of a sequined corset. Or dressing up like a skunk. Or twirling pasties on your bum while, as Your Little Pony wrote, "a crowd of people FREAK OUT!"

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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