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CURRENTS: ENTERTAINMENT
Shedd Aquarium
A real kick for dancers
Burlesque performers revel in stripping that is often comic, satirical

By Claire Zulkey
Special to the Tribune
Published June 30, 2004

Annie Terrell found herself living out many people's worst nightmare, and she was loving every second of it. She didn't originally intend to take off her clothes in front of 100 people, but it just looked like so much fun.

Terrell, a 25-year-old public health administrator from Humboldt Park, was in the audience of the burlesque show Gurlesque Burlesque last year when she found her calling: the bawdy, humorous dancing typified by legends such as Gypsy Rose Lee and Sally Rand.

"Some guy with a cheesy pickup line asked me why I wasn't on stage," she said, "But then I thought, `I can do that.'"

She spoke with the founders of the show, got a group of other performers together, and before she knew it, was doing a striptease to Queen's song "Fat-Bottomed Girls" at the next "Gurlesque" installment.

Women taking their clothes off for money is, as they say, one of the world's oldest professions. But now, as burlesque enjoys a resurgence, more are doing it as a hobby and art form, and people are paying to see them do it. At a time when flaunted sexuality is at once vilified and the norm, the burlesque revival seems to strike a balance between modesty and flagrancy, flirtiness and intelligence, that is as much fun--and perhaps more meaningful--for the performers as it is for the audience.

"The essence of burlesque is questioning norms while using humor," says Tara Vaughan Tremmel, a founder of Gurlesque Burlesque, a show featuring about 50 dancers. The female form, in all shapes and sizes, is celebrated, but so is the performer's personality, Tremmel says.

Dante Ingraham is a graphic designer from Wicker Park, who, like other performers interviewed, is reluctant to give her age because, she says, it could interfere with her act's illusion. By night, with Chicago Burlesque and Vaudeville--which, like other troupes, plays at various venues around town--Ingraham takes turns as a chanteuse, knife and whip target, and dancer, performing fan dances or coyly destroying her dress made of inflated balloons.

High production costs

Actress and Logan Square resident Monica Zaffarano, meanwhile, created and produces Flirt, a burlesque cabaret at the Black Orchid Theatre that features live music, singers performing from swings and props such as clear bathtubs with white plastic bubbles.

Flirt, which Zaffarano produces herself, has had just two performances, both in front of capacity crowds at the 300-seat theater.

While most burlesque shows cost patrons $10 to $30, the troupes themselves shoulder the production costs, including costumes, props and musical accompaniment, which explains the sporadic runs of many groups.

"When we put on our first performance, I spent about $400 to be a part of three acts," Terrell says. Gurlesque Burlesque will even fly in national burlesque headliners for each show, Tremmel says.

"Nobody is paying their rent from doing burlesque," Ingraham says.

Despite the producers' and performers' financial struggles, there is promise of growing audiences.

"There is definitely a burlesque revival going on," says Rachel Shteir, head of the dramaturgy department at DePaul University and author of "Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show," coming out this fall from Oxford University Press. Shteir says burlesque is stripping with a point, incorporating comedy and satire that often make political statements. "Traditionally, stripping is only part of a burlesque show," she says.

Alison Fensterstock, 27, of New Orleans, is an organizer of Tease o Rama, a yearly burlesque convention for performers and fans.

"We put on our first show in 2001, after we noticed how many people were getting back into burlesque," she says, noting that the convention's attendance has reflected burlesque's growing popularity.

"We've increased by a couple hundred people each year," she says.

Fensterstock says Tease o Rama offers performances, classes and networking opportunities for dancers. "It's burlesque historical preservation, punk rock and a feminist statement," she says.

Infused with modern twists

"Neoburlesque is alive and well," says Shteir, referring to contemporary burlesque performers who borrow routines from burlesque's 1930s heyday, infusing them with modern inflections, irony and often, gay and lesbian twists.

"It's already been catching on in New York and L.A. over the last five years or so and it's lasting," Shteir says. "Every day someone calls me to tell me they're starting a show, from Rio to Vermont."

"With the first show, I was so afraid no one would come, or even know what burlesque is," Tremmel says of Gurlesque Burlesque's 2002 Abbey Pub debut. "Then the only complaint we had afterwards was that people had a hard time seeing because it was so packed."

Mia Park, 34, a part-time talent broker from Humboldt Park, has helped several Chicago clubs book burlesque performances over the last two years.

"As I saw that the movement was growing, I thought it would be a great idea to bring them to clubs, as these indie-rock audiences enjoy kitsch, and this is sort of kitsch sex," she says.

Each show that Park has seen has drawn large audiences that she describes as the "cool crowd: men and women from their early 20s to mid-30s."

Burlesque performers participate in intimate acts that often involve stripping off clothes under a spotlight, but many, including Terrell, who has no background in performance art, find it empowering.

"It's a very potent art form," says Terrell, who is quick to point out the difference between burlesque and stripping. "Women get to take on roles that are both powerful and sexual. They're not just doing it for the viewers, like strippers do; they're doing it for themselves. Plus," she adds, "There's a lot of body confidence and diversity."

Burlesque dancers do differ from the standard long-legged, tanned, big-breasted Barbie doll look. At a typical show, a female viewer is likely to see what she may view in the mirror every day: an average female figure.

"Burlesque accepts all body types and celebrates the female form" says Michelle "Toots" L'Amour, from the Chicago troupe Lavender Cabaret. "If you know what you got and know how to work it, you'll be fine."

The sexiness of burlesque, however, isn't all in the bump and grind.

In one Gurlesque Burlesque show, two performers stripped and rubbed each other in oil to "God Bless America" while wearing George W. Bush and Dick Cheney masks.

Despite the fact that burlesque, like any line of show business, can be cutthroat, the performers bond over an art form that is still not mainstream, Shteir says.

"The burlesque resurgence has everything to do with the more supportive groups that did low- and high-budget shows for the art of it," Ingraham says.

"That's a tradition that's carried through to today: Burlesque dancers look out for each other," Terrell says.

Where to see, reach troupes

Hellcat Hussies: hellcathussies@aol.com

Flirt Chicago: Information available at the Black Orchid, 312-944-2200

Gurlesque Burlesque: www.sissybutchbrothers.com/ (Next show: July 16-17, The Abbey Pub, 773-478-4408)

Lavender Cabaret: www.lavendercabaret.com (Next show: Sunday, Darkroom, 773-276-1411)

Chicago Burlesque & Vaudeville: www.chicagoburlesque.com/ (Next shows: July 7, 21 at Berlin, 773-348-4975)

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E-mail ctc-woman@tribune.com

Copyright 2004, Chicago Tribune



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