Volume 19 • Issue 20 | Sept. 29 - Oct. 5, 2006

Miss Saturn, a regular at the Slipper Room and one of hundreds of burlesque dancers performing at clubs throughout the city.

Big teases: Burlesque is still booming Downtown

By Jennifer O’Reilly

Backstage at the Slipper Room, Miss Saturn debates the merits of several, go-go dancing wigs with her co-performer, Clams Casino. Her first choice of hairstyle is flamboyant, a circus-like fro of florescent orange and pink curls. Clams Casino smiles sweetly — she thinks the wig is a real find — but Miss Saturn isn’t quite sure that it goes with her outfit, a two-piece pink bikini, fishnet stockings, and shiny metallic boots. She settles quickly on another style, her own, natural blond hair coifed dramatically on top of her head, because in 10 minutes she’s expected on stage with a sparkling hula-hoop between her teeth.

Miss Saturn is one of hundreds of performers in New York currently expressing their personal style through burlesque. Traditionally a naughty comedy show that culminates in a strip tease — leaving the performer onstage with nothing more than a thong and some strategically placed tassels — the art form was born in the 1840s and practiced in New York ­until 1937, the year Mayor LaGuardia had it outlawed for reasons of indecency. Burlesque silently started to make a comeback in the city ten years ago, and has gradually evolved into an all-out boom. Today, burlesque can be seen at clubs all over New York, including regular shows Downtown at The Slipper Room, The Cutting Room, Mo Pitkins, Rififi and The Supper Club. Even Coney Island has its own show, aptly titled “Burlesque at the Beach”.

Some have dubbed the return of the art form as “neo-burlesque”, hailing its resurgence as a triumph of smart sexuality, and helping to remake the typical strip club into a place where women of all sizes can strut their stuff and express their femininity, sans the societal restraints of the 30s and 40s. Jen Gapay, producer of this summer’s fourth annual New York Burlesque Festival, agrees that the changing morays of today’s society have brought in a whole new audience.

“I think that burlesque has progressed a lot,” she says. “There are many lesbian groups performing now, and even male burlesque performers are turning up. It’s not so much about objectifying women as stripping often does, but coming up with a clever, original, often comedic act that keeps the audience guessing.” 

On a recent Friday night at the Slipper Room, this guessing game is in full force, as the emcee introduces the next performer, a dainty thing who goes by the name of Tigger. Like the ladies of Madison Avenue, Tigger is wearing a silken bathrobe and has her face covered in white makeup mimicking a chemical peel. But as the peeling of her clothes begin, we realizes that she is not a she after all and that her pasties are not at all necessary. The audience howls their pleasure at the unveiling.

Whatever the demographics of the audience, there is evidence that burlesque is becoming more and more mainstream. In San Francisco and Houston, “Burlesquercise” classes have popped up at local gyms while neo-burlesque pioneer Dita Von Teese recently landed a national advertising campaign with the glossy makeup line, M.A.C. Cosmetics. In New York, audiences at the annual Burlesque Festival — 1,800 this year alone — has more than doubled since its initial showing in 2002.

Yet Gapay warns against seeing burlesque as something “mainstream,” since many cities in the country have yet to add burlesque to their entertainment options. She describes it as more as an urban phenomenon, saying “In the last couple of years burlesque has moved into more of the mainstream in New York, but there are many conservative people in New York who would [find fault with it], and even more people in smaller towns around the U.S. who don’t really understand what burlesque is about.”

For Miss Saturn, who performs regularly at the Slipper Room, burlesque is about freedom of expression. “In burlesque, I find inspiration from everything. Walking down the street I get inspiration from clothes, from music, from makeup, from wigs,” she tells me before stepping out in front of the curtain to do her go-go dancing. “Modern life is all about creating an image.

And really, that is what burlesque is about.”


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