Daughters of Eve. Charlatan. Harlot. Hussy.
These are words famously used to describe burlesque performers in their heyday. Now you'll hear them referred to more smugly as "glorified strippers." And yes, these girls do indeed take their clothes off; and yes, their closest cousin is the pole dancer (more accurately, burlesque is the mother of the modern strip club).
Take Windsor's Roxi DLite, one of the most famous burlesque dancers in the biz, crowned the Reigning Queen of Burlesque and Miss Exotic World
in 2010, named a "Top Performer" by 21st Century Burlesque
three years running, and described as "a circus in one woman" by fellow performer Hayley Jane. Roxi is a self-described "natural born stripper." She has always had the spirit of the performer.
"In grade school I used to ask my teachers if I could stay in during recess to come up with a dance to show the class when they came back in," she remembers. "Sometimes I'd even choreograph a routine for my friends so I could have back-up dancers. I swear this actually happened."
She began dancing in gentlemen's clubs to pay for college, then she discovered she really liked it…and was really good at it. She became a feature dancer (they make more money and actually get to perform full-blown routines, rather than just the routine lap dance), then one night a woman came up to her and thanked her for "bringing burlesque back." "I had no idea what the word ‘burlesque' [meant]," she says. "I Googled it when I got home; it was like a whole new world was being opened up before my eyes, I was totally seduced by this art form… Discovering a rich history behind striptease was really gratifying."
But Roxi is just one kind of burlesque performer. "What I have witnessed is women who do this are either ‘real' strippers, meaning girls who earn a living in strip clubs but cross over into burlesque because they get to have creative control there," explains Lily LaRue, an actress and burlesque performer from metro Detroit who now lives in California. "Then there are the types like me who came into this because they did ‘normal' day jobs to pay for their living expenses, and just want a chance to express themselves."
Many metro Detroit-based performers have other jobs to supplement their burlesque budget. "I'm also a server to pay the bills," says Lushes LaMoan, troupe leader of the Dizzy Dames. "It helps provide feathers and sequins!" Another one of the Dizzy Dame performers is Polly Glamorous, who works with brain-injured people as her full-time day job. Lushes explains, "We have another girl who is an engineer. These are girls who work very professional jobs."
"It really does interfere [with their professional lives] because there is such a stigma," she continues. "It's a neglected oral history. It's not given credit for what it has done. The first Tinkerbell was a burlesque performer! The traditional values [of burlesque] get a bad name because of other people attaching the name to something that it's not."
The bare facts
There is a huge respect for the history of burlesque within our local burlesque community. Performers like LaMoan, LaRue and fast-rising solo star Hayley Jane speak with tremendous respect and a commanding knowledge of the performance art's history and its star performers.
As another outgrowth of the traveling variety shows and performance acts of the 19th and early 20th centuries, burlesque dancers put the "devil" in vaudeville, scandalizing good, wholesome American families with their lewd and crude performances for over a century. It is as American as a pie in the face, a distinctly indigenous art form born out of the perfect storm of bawdy saloon variety, anti-Puritanism and a newfound opportunity for leisure activity courtesy of the Industrial Revolution. At its heart, burlesque is just another form of variety act, blending elements of comedy and choreography with the art of the tease.
"I think it's really reflective of the early- and mid-1930s," says Hayley Jane of the resurgence of this long-dormant performance art, citing the most critical years of the Great Depression as the golden years of burlesque. "It is a form of escapism. You lost your house, your car? Go and get drunk and see a show for $30. You can lose yourself, and [that's the appeal] of the neo-vaudeville movement that's happening in underground culture. It's accessible, it's low-brow, but it's not tasteless. You just go and have a good time."
When SPAG Burlesque
launched in Detroit in 1999 the neo-burlesque movement was already underway in other parts of the country, but in Detroit it really marked the beginning of burlesque's renaissance. SPAG was more of a gutter glam punk rock outfit, but it gave rise to troupes like the Dames and Hell's Belles Girlie Revue
, which separately split off in order to pursue more traditional vintage glam burlesque (with different themes, elaborate costuming, and classic Americana music). Performers like LaMoan, Ma Belle (troupe leader of Hell's Belles), and Hayley Jane all got their start with SPAG.
Now metro Detroit burlesque encompasses everything from touring troupes and solo performers to working professionals who dance the cooch as a creative outlet. Acts may include any number of other performance arts, from comedy to singing to tap-dancing to aerial acrobatics, or may only be loosely choreographed. And they almost ALL feature elaborate homemade costumes that take 80+ hours to construct...and four minutes to remove.
The local scene (Or is it seen?)
"A lot of times people come into shows not really knowing what to expect," Ma Belle (née Janis Glotkowski) explains. "They come to our shows and are blown away."
In a show called "Female Trouble" (which had a domestic woman theme), Sprocket Hole (née Karie Nora, another SPAG alum) walked around with a fake pregnant belly, smoking and drinking and getting dirty looks before "giving birth" to an octopus onstage. Polly Glamorous is also a fire performer and incorporates "vintage clown erotica" into her acts. At this year's Theatre Bizarre
, the burlesque stage was made to look like the Devil's head and the girls all danced on his tongue. You'll see glove peels and tassel tosses, stand-up and sketch. "It's family friendly if you have the right type of friendly!" LaMoan says.
"It's not about the strip, it's about the tease," Polly Glamorous states, echoing the sentiments of all the performers. For audiences, there is a certain accessibility and intimacy that you don't get with other forms of erotica. "Girls are like, ‘I can do that;' men are like ‘I can know her;' there's no difference between the girl onstage and the girl next door," Hayley Jane conjectures. "She's an office worker by day and a burlesque dancer at night. It's easy to reach, or it's completely mind-blowing depending on your perspective."
LaRue argues that in burlesque, the stripping is done with a clever and intelligent purpose. "It has a narrative, and a gimmick," she states. "It allows us to reconnect with live entertainment in this age of the Internet and home theater TV. There is just something about seeing a performer live right in front of you, about feeling that energy, and the energy exchange between performer and audience." Ma Belle agrees: "It's about confidence, not just sex, and being able to relate to the people onstage…there's something about baring yourself onstage that makes you more approachable."
The appeal of burlesque is just as strong for the performers as it is for the audience. In burlesque, "sexy" is redefined and everyone is welcome: whether they are in their 20s or 40s, erotic dancers or office managers, 18-year-olds or mothers of 18-year-olds, 100 pounds or 300 pounds, experienced or not. It's about expressing yourself sexually and artistically, connecting with people, and having fun. "It's all about embracing your own sexuality and putting it out there," Ma Belle says. "I think that's really important. It inspires women; they see someone they might identify with. I feel good about myself for saying, ‘I take my clothes off and inspire people'; it's wonderful!"
Burlesque is seeing its true resurgence in the underground rockabilly, circus and fire performance culture…really, the very same culture that first gave rise to burlesque centuries ago. "Detroit has a grass roots performing arts community that is hungry and thriving to perform," LaRue states. "They write plays and perform them in abandoned factories and warehouses. They build illegal carnivals on 14 city lots in the middle of the city. The spirit of the Detroit performer is unlike any other I have encountered."
You can catch the Dizzy Dames at the Park Bar this Friday.
Some burlesque-friendly venues in Metro Detroit include Cliff Bell's, the Park Bar, Corktown Tavern, PJ's Lager House, Northern Lights Lounge...events have also been held at Hastings Street Ballroom/Tangent Gallery, the Russell Industrial Center, the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit, the Masonic Temple and the Detroit Opera House.
Detroit Dizzy Dames
Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer and popular Metro Detroit food blogger. Read her blog at http://www.eatitdetroit.com
All Photos by David Lewinski
Photo of Roxi Dlite Courtesy of Roxy Dlite