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A real kick for
Burlesque performers revel in
stripping that is often comic, satirical
By Claire Zulkey
Published June 30,
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.
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.
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.
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
"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,
"Nobody is paying their rent from doing
burlesque," Ingraham says.
Despite the producers' and
performers' financial struggles, there is promise of growing
"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
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
"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.
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
"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
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
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."
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
"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
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.
resurgence has everything to do with the more supportive groups that
did low- and high-budget shows for the art of it," Ingraham
"That's a tradition that's carried through to today:
Burlesque dancers look out for each other," Terrell
Where to see, reach troupes
Flirt Chicago: Information available
at the Black Orchid, 312-944-2200
www.sissybutchbrothers.com/ (Next show: July 16-17, The Abbey Pub,
Lavender Cabaret: www.lavendercabaret.com (Next
show: Sunday, Darkroom, 773-276-1411)
Chicago Burlesque &
Vaudeville: www.chicagoburlesque.com/ (Next shows: July 7, 21 at
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