Some 60 years before Britney got down with a snake and Christina got “Dirrty,” Lili St. Cyr was gyrating across a Las Vegas stage, paving the way for countless temptresses to come. And now, a new pack of fans want you to know all about her.
St. Cyr, Dixie Evans, Bettie Page, Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm and the original pioneers of burlesque are finding new life among a whole new generation of devotees. Drawing heavily from the popular stage shows of the 1940s and ’50s, performances that blend dancing, humor and strictly PG-13 striptease have begun popping up in small towns and big cities across the country and gaining influence in the strangest places.
“I was always interested in ’30s entertainment and that’s one of the reasons I moved to Hollywood,” shock rocker and burlesque fan Marilyn Manson explained. “Some of that imagery has popped up on Antichrist Superstar, and ’70s glam rock was sort of the ’70s doing the ’30s and ’40s. Bowie was definitely bringing back that glamour and decadence. For me, it’s just the world falling in place or catching up to speed.”
The influence of burlesque and the shimmying pin-ups of yore can more obviously be seen in the belly-baring popsters of today, but many are getting more hands-on in saluting burlesque. In Hollywood earlier this year, stars like Christina Aguilera, Carmen Electra, Gwen Stefani, Nikka Costa, Brittany Murphy and more hit the stage with the Pussycat Doll Revue, a burlesque-style cabaret act. Meanwhile, such acts as the World Famous Pontani Sisters, the Southern Jeze-Belles, the Fluffgirl Burlesque Society and Burlesque As It Was practice a more pure form of burlesque in clubs across the country (Click for photos of the Pussycat Dolls and other burlesque performers ).
But lest you think this is the stuff of a Mötley Crüe video, think again. Live music, elaborate costumes, perfected dance routines and a hearty sense of humor give the audience a taste of old Hollywood glamour. While many acts perform striptease, the emphasis is on the tease, not the strip (many performers go no further than bikinis or pasties and panties).
But what puts the jiggle in that wiggle? Dita Von Teese, perhaps the grande dame of the burlesque revival (and the woman who calls Marilyn Manson her boyfriend), said that it’s the music that matters. “I think it’s very important, probably the most important part. It can make or break your act. A live band is always the preference, of course, and working with a band you know is ideal.”
For some, the music comes courtesy of a small jazz band, belting out the bawdy hits of burlesque’s heyday. For others, though, the soundtrack can include ’50s exotica, ’60s surf or ’70s punk.
“We dance to a live band [Ronnie Magri's Shim Sham Revue Band], and the drummer is the bandleader, so we confer with him a lot,” explained Nina Bozak, choreographer and dancer with the Southern Jeze-Belles. “It has to be within the era for us. I know a lot of groups around the country do different things and have different takes, but we like to keep it traditional, from the 1950s back.”
No matter the music, it is always matched with a look that is over-the-top glamour. Towering headdresses, styled hair and perfectly matching pasties are the norm. Von Teese, probably the most sparkly performer in the neo-burlesque movement, creates her fabulous costumes with fellow entertainer Catherine D’Lish. “We usually spend about a month making each costume — one of my last costumes has about 20,000 rhinestones, put on by hand, one by one,” Von Teese explained.
“People from our generation aren’t used to going out to a nightclub and seeing performers dancing onstage in headdresses or doing big glamorous stripteases,” said Angie Pontani of the World Famous Pontani Sisters. “I think they are ready for it.”
Laura Herbert agrees. The webmaster for The Exotic World Movers & Shakers’ Burlesque Museum (ExoticWorldUSA.org) has been chronicling burlesque culture, old and new, since turning on to the scene eight years ago. “The whole retro body thing appealed to me, because the contemporary female body never appealed to me or represented me,” Herbert said. “I got into reading about these women, like Mae West and Sophie Tucker, these bawdy, really intelligent sarcastic awesome ladies. They were sexy when sexy was menacing.”
Based in New Orleans, Bozak found inspiration in her first-hand experience with burlesque’s original stars. “I met some of the old women who danced on Bourbon Street back in the ’40s and ’50s and listened to them talk and tell stories about the different bands they used to dance to. That was when I realized it’s kind of a dying art form, let’s bring it back!”
Just as bands interpret music differently, all the groups interpret burlesque in very different ways. New York City’s World Famous Pontani Sisters — Angie, Helen and Tara — give their shows an updated vaudeville twist, dancing in bikinis and go-go boots to songs from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. “We’re able to go and perform for people who wouldn’t normally go to see a dance company perform, yet they’re coming to see us and they’re loving it — the whole punk rock Rockettes thing — ’cause it’s cool,” Angie explained. The group is currently on tour with the surf rock band Los Straightjackets, whose music they perform to live, and will be appearing on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” on December 17.
The Southern Jeze-Belles perform weekly as part of a larger production, the Shim Sham Revue, which includes a master of ceremonies, a torch singer and a comedy act. Their routine, entitled America: A Broad History, takes a light-hearted look at feminist icons such as Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt. “As a movement it’s kind of post-feminism, and women have kind of realized that being a feminist is reveling in femininity. There is a particular style to it and a glamour that is lacking in culture for women,” Bozak said.
Dita Von Teese’s highly stylized performances evoke a 1940s Technicolor musical, whether she’s performing Lili St. Cyr’s infamous fan dance routine, or her show-stopping martini glass bath — complete with a giant olive sponge. As Playboy‘s December cover girl, Von Teese is hoping to bring the medium to the masses. “I want to perform for larger audiences. I want to have the opportunity to do more shows for more types of people. I’d like to do shows for the average Joe.”