Lucky Lawler on the Town
A new series by Deirdre Brennan
Photographed by Lucky Lawler ©2008
“I’m horny as a billy-goat in a pepper patch.” Tempest Storm remembers
Elvis’s eloquent seduction the first night they became intimate as she sits during tech rehearsal in the Showtime Theater in the downtown Vegas Plaza Hotel. She is the closing act later that evening for the “Legends Reunion” show, the opening event of “Exotic World”, an annual weekend festival of sequins, skin and stimulating creativity in which the neo-burlesque movement pays homage to its roots. The international pageant draws performers from throughout the US, Canada, England and as far away as Japan, who meet together to compete for awards and celebrate the “art of the tease”.
The 80 year old rock star of classic burlesque, whose nature-defying body could put many a third her age to shame, will strip to little more than a net bra and g-string later that evening. As she recalls a long careerthat included relationships with John Kennedy, Sammy Davis Jr. & Nat King Cole, to name a fewshe also reflects on a business that freed her from the confining role of a woman in a sexist age yet forced her to deal with the image of “stripper”. It was a label she rejected and, throughout her career, one from which she worked to distinguish burlesque dancing. One could say she did, by playing Carnegie Hall in 1973.
The neo-burlesque movementwhich owes much to the mid-century era in which Tempest was a star attractionstarted in the mid-1990’s as a synthesis of 80’s downtown performance art and the creative response to Guiliani’s notorious 60/40 law, which required 60% of an adult-entertainment business to be suitably “family-oriented” content. While burlesque might not have been suitable for Junior, its playful, teasing take on eroticism offered the audience a gentle alternative to strip clubs: titillation with out the raw explicitness.
But the ideas of challenging social convention and redefining the concept of what is “beautiful” are what also inspire most of today’s artists, who regard the classic burlesque dancers of yesteryear, like Tempest, as fierce females who owned their sensuality. Taking that cue, they create acts that illuminate the singular beauty of the female form in all its variety.
One of the star dancers on the NY scene is World-Famous *BOB*, who uses her more voluptuous look to poke fun at today’s chafing standard of beauty. In her act “She’s A Genius”, at the 2006 NY Burlesque Festival, she performed a striptease as recorded voices in the background whispered comments about weight that she had heard throughout her own life. The insignificance of the commentary became more apparent as she shed more clothing. It culminated with the dancer spontaneously pushing male impersonator MC Murray Hill to the floor and straddling him. As her breasts poured over the quivering Hill while she laughed and bounced on top of him, the audience cheered at the charmingly bawdy bit of improv onstage…
Leroi the Girlboi’s particularly wicked act in the 2007 Miss Exotic World competition began with her dressed in a pretty yellow sundress, and climaxed with her in a g-string, simulatin “squirting” by squeezing streams of juice from a hidden plastic lemon. The audacious number by the Connecticut dancer was a tart example of what, for all, is an exercise in empowerment. Margaret Cho, who hosted the 2006 Exotic World Pageant, was so inspired by the overall energy of self-expression of the scene, that it gave rise to her current show, “The Sensual Woman.”
Many of the dancers take a cue from late nineteenth-century burlesque (which, although more demure in clothing, was more scathing in social criticism) and poke fun at stereotypes involving religion, gender and, on occasion, species. Little Brooklyn, who along with Creamy Stevens presents the weekly “Starshine Burlesque’ at Club Rififi, does a take on “King Kong” in an act where she plays both beast and femme fatale, with her left side (Kong) undressing her right side (Ms. Wray). Julie Atlas Muz, who trained in mime and theatre in Paris and who is defined by her inventiveness, performs with a “Thing”-like hand (her own) that tickles her, strips her and, yes, makes friends with her. And in a twist on gender that renames the genre in its own imageBoy-lesquewe have NY’s own male stripper Tigger, whose acts one needs to see to appreciate.
Others specialize in more classic acts, like the Grand Dame of NYC Burlesque, Dirty Martini, a classically-trained dancer who has performed all over the world and whose balloon and spider-web bits are, well, classic. Jo Boobs, passionate chronicler of the scene, blogger, and head mistress of her own School of Burlesque with instruction on everything from fan dances and tassel-twirling to eyelash application and how to work a chair over, creates acts informed by her love for the history the genre.
Not all burlesque is choreographedlike Tura Santana’s (of Russ Meyer’s “Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill!” fame) stage dive into the audience to attack a heckling girlfriend jealous of her man’s attention on the dancer. Then there’s the backstage drama, like Tempest’s revelation that itching powder was sometimes poured into a costume prior to a show by jealous dancers bent on sabotaging the competition. While today’s movement is more close-knit and well-behaved than that, it still is, for women, a license for self-expression. For men, it is an education in the broader definition of beauty, beyond the Hollywood esthetic.
The exchange between classic burlesque dancers like Tempest, Satan’s Angel, Candy Baby Carmelo, Tura and La Savonna and dancers within the neo-burlesque scene also reveals a theatrical craft informed by the sometimes divergent views of two different generations. The older dancers, or “legends”, don’t always agree with what the newer dancers are doing, and don’t fail to say so in online group list discussions; but it is discourse that shows burlesque as vital, artistic and creative, and distinguishes it from the mainstream strip-club fare.
With St. Valentine’s Day upon us, we thought it a fitting time to begin our salute to the hard-working ladies that still bring slap, tickle and bite to a downtown scene that has seen a good bit of its edge supplanted by the polished entertainment offerings of mainstream media. There are still a few of us left that remember when there was no shortage of live performance that fed an appetite for anything raw, human and, well, authentic; and while current options fitting that bill are fewer and farther between, the burly-girls of NY today are nothing if not the embodiment of that criteria. As they prove, the best way to generate heat on a cold winter’s night is to take off one’s clothes.
And as burlesque is performance art, striptease goes hand-in hand with the politics of rebellion. It flouts mainstream’s quixotic standard of female beauty in an environment where downtown creativity can offer curiously inventive ways to take off those clothes. That means women with real bodies that reflect the glorious expansiveness of the word “sexy”.
In the months to follow we will be bringing to you, on the pages of the NY Waste, Burlesque, Pin-ups and Performers.
Burlesque around town:
Aficionado Ed Barnas maintains an up-to-date of happenings in NYC & Brooklyn. Check out www.edbarnas.com/Burlesque/calendar.
Also, NY Waste’s Choice Cuts lists a few local shows
Here to tease you today actress, writer and lifelong subversive element,
Deirdre believes every occasion is an excuse to dress up.