By William Launder
All eyes inside Manhattan’s Slipper Room are glued on Jen McClelland, aka “Clams Casino,” who is spilling out of a lipstick-print bra and garter belt and jiggling to the dance hall baritone voice pulsing through the speakers.
“Mr. Lover lover, Mr. Lover lover, girl ...,” the song repeats, and a faint but unmistakable grin spreads across McClelland’s face as a crowd of devoted fans and curious newcomers cheer her on.
These days burlesque dancing is not as seedy as your typical strip club performance, but it’s not exactly what you saw in the movie “Chicago” either.
Neoburlesque, as a growing number of amateur dancers and their hipster audiences call it, is a reincarnation of the variety-show cabaret that once fused vaudevillian drama and striptease into erotic performance.
During its Depression-era heyday, burlesque stars like Sally Rand and the Minksy Brothers entertained viewers with a randy mix of comic storytelling and sensual dance. Today’s interpretation remains true to burlesque’s original goal of enticing without revealing all, and even risque burlesque performances rarely go beyond pasty-covered breasts and lewd humor.
“It's not about what you want to see as an audience; I determine what is sexy as the dancer,” said McClelland, 27, an advertising account executive whose alias and skimpy costumes provide a new identity each time she takes the stage to perform a bawdy rendition of an Irish river dance and other erotic dance skits. “I’m totally in control the whole time.”
Celebrities have jumped on the bandwagon too: Sting plans to open a burlesque club in Manhattan with the financial help of friend David Bowie. Dita Von Teese, a burlesque stripper married to shock rocker Marilyn Manson, penned a dual-titled volume called “Burlesque and the Art of the Teese/Fetish and the Art of the Teese” that appeared in book stores this March. The Slipper Room and its dancers even helped create the setting for a filmed tribute to singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen in which Bono made an appearance.
Burlesque dancers, whose day jobs range from doctor and schoolteacher to Goth-club dominatrix, say the dance form offers a unique opportunity to escape everyday lives while liberating the body and empowering the spirit. Some burlesque performers rehearse four times for weekend shows, but unlike pole dancers trying to earn a living through stripping, most burlesque performers say the dancing is about personal expression. Any money they make—rarely more than $200 a performance—is channeled back into costumes and stage props for future shows.
The dancers take pride in thrilling audiences that often contain more women than men. They say that burlesque appeals particularly to women who are tired of being inundated by media images of impossibly-figured runway stars.
“It’s the only scene I have found where women are portrayed as sexy and confident even if they are not model-thin,” said Sarah Hayes, 28, a law student at Fordham University and a regular at New York burlesque shows. “That makes me feel really sexy and empowered as a woman.”
Burlesque troops run the gamut from amateur groups playing hole-in-the-wall clubs to authentic revivalists like Big City Burlesque, which pays particular attention to vintage costuming. The Atlanta-based group has performed at gay and punk clubs as well as community fundraisers. It says it is just as likely to play cabaret classics like Eartha Kitt’s “I Want to be Evil” as the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.”
With groups springing up in cities like Los Angeles, Philadelphia and even Madison, Wis., over the last five years, longtime insiders wonder about the future of burlesque, and if the resurgence will die out like swing dancing did in the late 1990s.
“Whenever any subculture reaches the mainstream, there is a potential for it to be diluted by people who think it’s lucrative or just cool and trendy,” said Kelly Garton, leader of a San Francisco burlesque group called Hot Pink Feathers. She came up with the idea for the group after attending an annual burlesque convention called “Tease-O-Rama.” Garton says Hot Pink Feathers draws heavily on Brazilian carnival and samba.
Angela Richardson, an artist who once majored in women’s studies and visual communications, was likewise drawn to burlesque by a 2003 visit to "Tease-O-Rama," at which participants talked "tassels, twirling and tease.”
“Seeing women who recognize their sexuality and its power was a real experience,” said Richardson, 35, who now performs as “Olive Talique” with the Madison-based Cherry Pop Burlesque. “It made me see myself in a totally different way.” Family and friends, she says, have been enthusiastic about her dancing too.
“Women often don’t like to be looked at in a certain way,” said Richardson’s boyfriend, John Feith. “Burlesque allows the dancers to be seen in a different way where they feel good about themselves.”
Richardson links the burlesque revival to Third Wave Feminism, a fresh take on the women’s movement that stresses women regaining the femininity lost by an earlier focus on issues like workplace equality.
“Burlesque is fascinating terrain because it’s about sex and the body and it’s taboo busting,” Richardson said. “Its striptease without the baggage of the male gaze.”