Burlesque is back. Fans of the fancy form of striptease that first flourished in Depression-era downtowns can find swiveling hips and spangled lingerie weekly in at least 12 U.S. cities.
The revival has even entered the mainstream on the stiletto heels of dancer Dita Von Teese, who hawks upscale lipstick, drapes herself on the covers of women’s magazines and was in a rocky marriage with rock star Marilyn Manson.
But in the clubs that nourished burlesque’s rebirth a decade ago, dancers and fans are noticing something new — it’s not just about women baring their breasts anymore. Burlesque has become intellectual.
“If you think of us as burlesque nerds, it makes sense,” said Jo Weldon, 45, a school teacher by day and a burlesque dancer by night.
Weldon recently launched “The Crimson Curtain,” a monthly burlesque salon that inspires dancers to infuse their acts with scholarship, political satire and gender commentary.
At a gathering in August, about 20 dancers sipped cocktails, watched dances under development and discussed the out-of-print biographies of burlesque legends in the hope of lending authenticity to their own acts.
“The base level of IQ is decently high,” said James Habacker, 42, owner of “The Slipper Room,” a burlesque-themed New York club that hosts Weldon’s salon. “Even in the last year the supertalented old school have really stepped it up.”
To the serious revivalist, a sense of burlesque’s past is as essential as false eyelashes. That’s why Peekaboo Pointe, a New York dancer and teacher who prefers her stage name, forces boozy bachelorette parties to sit through a seminar before she’ll teach them burlesque’s basic steps.
“I’m constantly doing research,” said Pointe, 28. She interviews surviving legends during pilgrimages to the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas and shares the results with her students.
“Everybody focuses on the fact that it’s girls taking their clothes off and misses the political satire,” said Habacker, who’s noticed a spike in acts mixing burlesque with politics.
An increasing number of dancers are strutting and stripping as President George W. Bush, reveling in the notion that the emperor has no clothes, he said.
Other shows raise money for causes that include access to abortion, animal rights and HIV/AIDS, Weldon said. New York burlesque also offers anti-war sentiment in acts featuring dancers dressed as soldiers.
In Austin — the capital of Bush’s home state of Texas — burlesque devotees mount annual Veterans’ Day shows starring female and male soldiers in uniform returned from Iraq.
“They strip out of their fatigues and all the medals and dog tags and it’s a huge relief for them,” said the organizer of the “Bring the Boys Home” shows, Audrey Maker, 31.
She has raised about $15,000, much of which she has given to soldier-support organizations such as Bake Sales for Body Armor, which buys protective equipment for soldiers overseas.
Other dancers use burlesque to criticize the prevailing standards of female beauty, especially slenderness.
“A lot of burlesque is about being an inappropriate female,” either in appearance or in lifestyle, said Weldon.
As a child, Weldon idolized burlesque’s original stars for living independently in a way that few women did at the time, offering what she calls an “undomesticated” alternative to the housewifely ideal.
But unlike classic burlesque, the contemporary form embraces all body types, said Karen Crow, 33, who attends Weldon’s salon and classes. It is the best dancers and most creative storytellers, not the most slender, who elicit the most raucous audience appreciation.
“We live in a world where if you’re not the perfect size, then you’re not beautiful,” said Lukki, a New York City-based dancer and tenure-track professor who won’t disclose her real name for professional reasons. “I like to explore ugliness in my acts.”
Weldon spoofs standard sexiness by doing a number that combines the skimpy allure of a classic striptease costume with a Godzilla head.
Another dancer, Creamy Stevens, turned sexy into scary at New York nightclub Lotus recently, opening her act as the girl next door trying to hitch a ride to Hollywood and ending it by spilling a suitcase of severed limbs onto the stage.
“What looks pretty on the outside isn’t necessarily pretty on the inside,” said Creamy Stevens, who’s in her mid-thirties and maintains a stage name to hide her dancing from colleagues at the nonprofit where she works.
Burlesque and feminism both aim to raise awareness of gender stereotypes, although that’s not all feminism does, said feminist historian Deborah Siegel, who wrote “Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild.
“They’re not all skinny young things on spring break,” Siegel said. “They’re doing their performance of their sexuality with a consciousness and an awareness. They’re trying to subvert norms.”