Slowly the young woman lowers the giant fan spanning her body—just enough that her shy eyes peek out. She blinks coquettishly at her audience before raising the fan again, high enough to show off her garter adorned with tassels that sway back and forth as her hips slowly undulate.
For most of the earlier part of the 20th century, this scene played itself out on burlesque stages across the country. Women adorned in lavish—often garish—costumes danced, performed novelty acts like fire-breathing, told comedic tales, satirized famous pieces of literature and took off their clothes.
The art of burlesque, with its vaudevillian origins, was virtually erased during the latter part of the 20th century. As our culture underwent a period of sexual liberation, burlesque dancers left their tassels, pasties and sequins backstage and began baring their bodies in an increasingly flagrant manner. Eventually, the art of burlesque dancing was all but extinct, leaving its descendant to take its place—stripping as we know it today.
The stripping genre today is associated with drugs, slutty outfits, seedy back room lap dances and, at least in Massachusetts, which doesn't require strippers to wear a G-string, gratuitous vaginal shots. Gone for the most part are the subtle tease, the feminine theatrics and witty commentary that make burlesque an art. In their place are blatant seduction techniques, pole theatrics and an element of voyeuristic prurience that permeates most strip clubs.
But over the last two decades, a burlesque revival has begun. The art of neo-burlesque is a modernized form of burlesque. While the costumes are similar if not more outrageous—think transvestite gear and putty witch noses—the shows feature a broader range of performances from mini-plays to robot dances, and, of course, the classic strip tease. Many modern burlesque dancers, including New York's Legs Malone, find performing burlesque empowering. Viewing the art of neo-burlesque as helping women feel comfortable with their bodies and their sexuality, Malone thinks the revival is a boon for feminism.
Malone, a 30-year old burlesque dancer and co-producer of New York City's Sugar Shack Burlesque, took time out of her tassel-rippling schedule to talk to the Advocate about how she began her career as a burlesque artist, how she thinks burlesque affects feminism, and how her family responds to her chosen career.
Advocate: How did you get involved with the neo-burlesque movement?
Legs Malone: This might sound a bit funny, but I literally heard a voice in my head during guided meditation. The woman leading us told us to ask ourselves what profession would bring us the most joy in our life. Literally, a voice in my head said, "burlesque dancer." I had no idea what it was.
What happened after that? How did you find out what it was?
I took a class at the New York School of Burlesque with Jo Boobs. Then when I was in England I started taking classes there. A friend and I ended up going to an amateur contest preceded by a class on how to bump and grind. As we were waiting for the show to start, the producer was frantically running around saying, "Can you perform please, please?" I guess some of the performers got cold feet.
Initially my friend and I said no, but then I decided to go for it. It was a complete disaster. Rehearsing in front of a mirror and being on stage are two completely different things. As soon as I saw the sea of faces, I just stopped listening to the music. Then I went back to an amateur contest two months later and I ended up winning.
How did you get involved with Sugar Shack Burlesque?
Runaround Sue [a founder and co-producer of Sugar Shack Burlesque] and I met at one of Jo Boobs' classes after I had moved back to New York. She invited me to one of their shows and although it took me a bit to make it down to one, I ended up going and having a blast. We became good friends and eventually we decided that I would replace Lady Satan (a founder and former co-producer of Sugar Shack) as co-producer because she was moving to the West Coast. She's now starting up Sugar Shack West.
What are you trying to give to the audience during a Sugar Shack performance?
I'd say the main thing I want to do is challenge the audience in a stimulating, not aggressive way—to take them out of their ordinary experience and generally wow them. While the strip tease is the center of a burlesque number, I usually work in a satirical or comedic vein. I find it much easier to be funny than sexy. To me that's much more classic burlesque. I think smart is a lot sexier than, "Oh, look at me, I'm beautiful," and "Oh, here are my boobs." I only perform numbers that I want to see myself.
Do you perform any straight strip tease acts?
I'm working on a few straight strip teases. They're hard for me. They require an enormous amount of focus—it's not something that comes very naturally to me but I'm getting more comfortable with it. Sue is a really gifted fan dancer. She does a lot more straight strip tease than I do, and it is just stunning.
Why do you think burlesque is making a comeback?
For a lot of different reasons, really. This grass roots movement started to happen in the mid '90s, sort of separately around the U.S.—New York, L.A., Seattle, Chicago. Then they banded together to create this neo-burlesque movement. It just keeps growing. There had always been Exotic World, literally a goat farm that had been turned into a burlesque farm. The Miss Exotic World Pageant was always held there until 2006, when it got so big it moved to Las Vegas. I went for the first time last year and it just knocked my socks off. It was unlike anything I've ever seen before—hundreds of people running around in G-strings, covered in glitter. They've just closed the application deadline for this year. Participation is at an all-time high.
How does being a burlesque dancer affect your sexuality?
Apart from being in a bathing suit on the beach, I'd never been naked in front of an audience. It's made me enormously comfortable with my body and comfortable in general. Being on stage in a G-string and pasties is a pretty good barometer of your comfort level. Some women go into it who have either been victims of sexual abuse, had eating disorders or body-centric issues. I think that's such a shame, because women are so gorgeous. This society—pop culture—keeps telling them they're not worth anything if they don't look a certain way. That's the most disempowering and evil thing I've ever heard in my entire life.
Are there many different types of burlesque dancers?
Everybody brings something wildly unique to the stage. A lot of burlesque dancers don't have conventional body types, like Dirty Martini, for example. She's incredibly voluptuous. She's got this amazing curvy body that's a proper hourglass shape. She just knocks everybody flat on their ass. It's not an aggressive thing. She's just celebrating her body and, in the process, opening doors for the audience and their perspective.
Women often come up to me and say, "Thank you very much for doing this." I'm rather slender, so I plug into the more mainstream appeal. But there are women who are a lot curvier and have beautiful round tummies and gorgeous rolling hips. They just knock men and women flat on their backs. Finally, women are empowered and owning every single inch of their curves, whether or not they have cellulite or freckles or whatever.
One of the amazing things about burlesque is that the body has ultimately no impact. It's the spirit and the strength of the spirit that comes across. The body is a beautiful vehicle for that. It flips a lot of preconceived notions on their ears.
Do you think the neo-burlesque movement is changing the way women view themselves?
The burlesque community, at least the one in New York, is nothing short of a modern-day Mount Olympus with gods and goddesses. There are female performers who, through their performances, take on a higher harmonic of feminism.
When you turn on the television, everything is so very homogenized and safe. It goes back to everything that made America and it's so fucking boring. It's all cookie cutters. Turning on MTV, I'd rather put my head through the window than constantly adhere to the norm. Growing up, it was terrifying to be an individual. It was so cliquish. Now to see women of all shapes and sizes just own it and celebrate it—not aggressively pushing it in your face, more like an offering—it's just stunning. It has helped me evolve as person.
What do you say to the feminists who see the neo-burlesque movement as detrimental to the feminist cause?
I would say we're helping the feminist movement. I think a lot of feminists who say that have never been to a burlesque show. They may have been to a strip club, but it's a totally different environment. I challenge the feminists out there to go to a burlesque show and then say what their opinions are. God bless every single feminist—the movement has brought fabulous things. But I have to say there are so many different performers with different backgrounds who are performing the art of neo-burlesque that for women to say it's cutting down feminism—well, I think they just have to go to a show and see.
The New York City burlesque scene is full of some of the most powerful feminists I've ever met. If anything, being a part of it has made me become a better feminist. The women up there on stage, they're the ones in control. There's nothing that happens on that stage that is against their will. Challenging yourself is the most empowering thing you can do as a woman.
Have you been influenced at all by some of the original burlesque stars like Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr?
If anything, they set the standard. That was the golden age of burlesque. Their performances are something I aspire to stylistically, meaning the execution of their acts. If you watch old videos of some of the stars' performances, it's just so beautiful. But our society is so oversexed that those performances would need to be tweaked a little bit. Today's audiences aren't so easily satisfied.
What is a typical Sugar Shack Burlesque show like?
We always bring on guest performers with different energies. That really brings such diversity to our shows. We have comedians, magicians, beautiful women, sword swallowers—lots of variety.
How does your family react to your profession?
I think it was pretty shocking to them, especially because I followed such an academic track—I have a master's in contemporary art from Sotheby's Institute of Art in England. My father wants absolutely nothing to do with [my career]. He's supportive of it but it makes him uncomfortable; he doesn't want to see it. My mom and my stepmom have seen my show. My mom didn't really know what to think, but she loved it. I don't think she's seen me naked since I was four.
Sugar Shack Burlesque, featuring co-producers Legs Malone and Runaround Sue, burlesque performer Ruby Valentine and comedian Seth Herzog, is performing on April 12 at 9 p.m. at Club Helsinki, located at 284 Main St. in Great Barrington. Tickets are $15; call (413) 528-3394. www.clubhelsinkiweb.com, www.myspace/sugarshackburlesque.com.