05/31/2011 08:16 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Burlesque Stars Fight Those Who Would Strip Away Risque History

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."


Stars Of Burlesque: Past And Present

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.