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Burlesque Stars Fight Those Who Would Strip Away Risque History

Dita Von Teese

First Posted: 05/31/11 09:16 AM ET Updated: 11/16/11 06:11 AM ET

Like a feather boa placed tenuously over a busty dancer's cleavage, burlesque finds itself in a precarious position.

On one satin-gloved hand, the art form is at its highest level of popularity since the 1950s, thanks to a new generation of neo-burlesque stars like Dita Von Teese and Michelle L'Amour, who bring a 21st-century touch to the old bump and grind.

On the other hand, burlesque still deals with misconceptions both within the community of people who do it and the general audience, who still confuses it with stripping, Christina Aguilera's recent bomb notwithstanding.

Laura Herbert, the executive director of the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, is hoping to change that impression one pastie at a time.

"There's a joke that's more truthful than I'd like it to be," she said. "What is the difference between a burlesque performer and a stripper? Strippers make money. Still, I believe that if your outfit can fit in your closed fist, you're probably not a burlesque performer."

Discussions of where burlesque is and where it's going will be hot topics when the Burlesque Hall of Fame holds its 54th Annual All-Star Burlesque Reunion June 2-5 at the Orleans Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

Both modern-day dancers and retired legends will strut their moneymakers onstage throughout the weekend, competing to be Miss Exotic World 2011 and discussing the tricks of their trade offstage as well.

For Dita Von Teese, a world famous dancer who rose to fame as Marilyn Manson's former girlfriend, the event is akin to the Baseball Hall of Fame's annual induction weekend.

"There really isn't a title that matters more than this one for upcoming neo-burlesque performers," she told AOL Weird News. "But even more importantly, it brings burlesque performers and fans together from all over the world, making it a great showcase for new acts and for veteran performers to connect with the burlesque community."

That connection is important to Herbert, especially when thinking about the past. A self-proclaimed history nerd, Herbert fell in love with burlesque as a child despite growing up as the daughter of an ardent 1970s-era feminist.

"My parents wanted me to be a judge, but I wanted to be a 'Solid Gold' dancer," she laughed. "However, I think if you scratch a neo-burlesque dancer, you will find a feminist."

In fact, to stand-up comedian Jessica Halem, the burlesque dancers of the 1930s and '40s were the original feminists.

"With burlesque dancers, you're seeing the powerful sexuality of women being owned on stage," said Halem, who sometimes performs her comedy in burlesque shows. "Especially in an era when women otherwise were expected to be school teachers, mothers or secretaries. The women who did burlesque were saying, 'I don't want that. I want to travel.' They took a harder path, a path less taken."

SEE BURLESQUE STARS:

Loading Slideshow...
  • Stars Of Burlesque: Past And Present

    Internationally-renowned neo-burlesque star Dita Von Teese says the best advice she ever got came from Dixie Evans who told her to imagine that the feathers were her "wings."

  • Stars Of Burlesque: Past And Present

    Inga Ingenue of Seattle is, literally, one of neo-burlesque biggest movers and shakers. She just won the burlesque competition at Viva Las Vegas, an annual rockabilly convention in Sin City.

  • Stars Of Burlesque: Past And Present

    When she isn't performing, Jo "Boobs" Weldon is the co-director of education at Burlesque Hall of Fame and runs the New York School of Burlesque.

  • Stars Of Burlesque: Past And Present

    Dirty Martini, who was chosen Miss Exotic World 2004, is considered the No. 1 burlesque performer by 21st Century Burlesque magazine.

  • Stars Of Burlesque: Past And Present

    Burlesque performers are usually females, but some guys get into the acts as well, such as Tigger, who was chosen as the Burlesque Hall of Fame's first ever "Boylesque" winner in 2006.

  • Stars Of Burlesque: Past And Present

    Kitten DeVille, who was Miss Exotic World 2002, is called the Queen of Quake for her majestic "shimmy."

  • Roxy Dlite, the pride of Windsor, Ontario, is the current Miss Exotic World, and specializes in aerial performances.

  • Stars Of Burlesque: Past And Present

    Angie Pontani, Miss Exotic World 2008, was born in Brooklyn and uses that in her "Brook-lesque" shows.

  • Stars Of Burlesque: Past And Present

    Amber Ray says she is inspired by classic burlesque, high-fashion, old Hollywood and the feminine mystique visible in every era.

  • Stars Of Burlesque: Past And Present

    Kalani Kokonuts, Miss Exotic World 2009, is known for her super over-the-top shows, that include blinding rhinestones and sequinned costumes.

  • Stars Of Burlesque: Past And Present

    Juli Atlas Muz, Miss Exotic World 2006, combines burlesque with performance art, and one of her routines has her dancing with a balloon over her head.

  • Stars Of Burlesque: Past And Present

    Gina Bon Bon was a huge burlesque star in the 1960s, and alternately known as the " Argentine Bombshell" and the "Love Potion Candy."

  • Stars Of Burlesque: Past And Present

    Miss Astrid is an interantionally known burlesque emcee, who created the Va Va Voom Room in San Francisco.

  • Stars

    Dusty Summers was a nude magician back in the 1960s and 70s. These days, this Las Vegas local is a big supporter of neo burlesque and mentor to many upcoming burlesque performers.

  • Stars Of Burlesque: Past And Present

    In the 1960s and 70, Camille 2000 was known as "The Girl for Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow." She will be performing for the first time in 30 years at the Burlesque Hall of Fame's 54th Annual All-Star Burlesque Reunion taking place in Las Vegas June 2-5.

  • Stars Of Burlesque: Past And Present

    Dee Milo, was known as "The Venus of Dance."

  • Cynthia Yee is the founder of Grand Avenue Follies, an all-senior synchronized dance troupe from San Francisco's Chinatown. As a burlesque dancer, she was a headliner in many Chinatown cabarets.

  • Stars Of Burlesque: Past And Present

    Joan Arline, who was known as "The Sexsquire Girl," still performs and, even in her golden years, can still fit into her outfits.

  • Stars Of Burlesque: Past And Present

    Kitten Natividad, who, unlike other burlesque performers, has also worked in porn says the best part of performing is taking off her clothes in a room full of horny guys.

Herbert says the Hall of Fame weekend attracts many of these old school ladies -- who some might call "Burlesque's Greatest Generation" -- and allows them to look back with pride on a career choice that, at the time, may have caused them shame among their family and friends.

"One of my favorite stories happened at our first Legends night in 2004 -- that's where former dancers perform," Herbert said. "I was approached by a beautiful older women in her early seventies and she was tan and wearing gold lame pants."

"Her name was Ricci Cortez and she was known as the 'Sleepy Time Girl,' and we asked if we could introduce her in the audience with a spotlight," she continued. "By the second set, she had negotiated a spot in the show and I'll tell you, the spotlight is a fountain of youth for an entertainer. She strutted and stripped and ripped open her jacket down to her bra. And the next year, she did a full show!"

One woman who agrees about the youth-enhancing effects of the spotlight is Kitten Natividad, a triple-threat in adult entertainment due to her work in porn, in burlesque and as a stripper.

"It's nice to peel off a beautiful gown, and getting the guys anticipating," she said. "And not giving it all away at once."

Although Natividad crossed over into the mainstream with her work with soft-core porn pioneer Russ Meyer, she kept her jobs secret from her family when she was starting out in burlesque.

"We had to lie," she said. "I told my parents I was a secretary."

Natividad looks forward to the upcoming Legends show, when some of the classic cuties of burlesque take their tassels out of retirement. However, she admits that performing for other women is not the same as her typical shows.

"Dancing in front of a lot of horny men is different than dancing for women," she said. "When you're dancing for women, it's more art. I actually like the horny men myself."

Besides honoring past performers, the Burlesque Hall of Fame weekend looks towards the future. But to popular neo-burlesque dancers like Von Teese, that means not ignoring the art form's real roots.

"I think nearly all mainstream burlesque troupes, clubs and onscreen-portrayals are purposefully in denial," she said. "Pasties and g-strings were standard in 30s and 40s burlesque -- always! They are trying to take the main element out of burlesque to make it 'OK' for the public, and it's not doing anything to educate people on what burlesque was back in its heyday."

Von Teese says she is infuriated when she hears burlesque dancers claim they would never strip because their craft is classier than stripping.

In fact, that just shows "how ignorant they are" about the true history of burlesque, Von Teese said.

"For those of us that study it and respect the performers like Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand and Lili St Cyr that came before us and made this revival possible at all, it's insulting," she said. "Because all of them did strip and push the envelope with regard to nudity, and to insinuate that they weren't "classy" is just rude, blasphemous, in fact!"

The confusion shouldn't happen, according to L'Amour, who sees burlesque as an innate part of the human spirit.

"Burlesque is mysterious, but even kids who pick up a feather boa know what it's for," she said.

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