Sydni Deveraux is 6 foot 1 in stocking feet, a full-hipped, self-anointed “Golden Glamazon”— every inch of her exuding sexy.
On a recent Saturday night, voluptuously cinched into a stunning white bustier and moving with a kind of amazing grace the composer of that hymn surely did not envision, Deveraux plays both kitten and minx.
She struts across the stage with the sway of Toontown’s Jessica Rabbit, bumping her hips, removing white satin gloves one at a titillating-and-oh-so-deliberate time, and snapping open each of four garter belt clasps with a flurry and a seductive smile. With each move, the audience melts further, like butter in her hand, whooping and cheering her on.
She could stop right there. The audience would be satisfied with the mere peeling of her gloves and a shake of her famous behind (on her website, Deveraux likens her derrière to a metronome). But, Deveraux is a master of her art. She has hooked her audience into a sensuous game of cat and mouse, using her strategic placement of lush, feathery fans and the fluidity of her sultry moves to taunt her prey.
Eventually, Deveraux stands at the top of the stage at the Burlesque Behind the Pink Door show at Seattle’s Pink Door Restaurant in nothing but nipple-shielding pasties and a thong. Yet, it is clear that this final flash is not the climax of her five-minute set. It is simply the end of it. The climax of burlesque, after all, is the quality of the toying before the big “reveal.”
Burlesque, explains Trixie Lane, is not about what part of the performer’s body you saw on stage.
“It’s about ‘Did you really see it?’” says Lane,
co-owner of Kindergarten of Burlesque in Seattle.
EYES ON SEATTLE
Apparently Seattleites like to be teased.
Over the last decade, the city has become a hotbed of burlesque entertainment — home to an increasingly respected community of performers, producers and willing venues. Unlike many other cities, Seattle is a place where burlesque artists are financially and creatively rewarded and audiences are both ample and ardent.
“We are one of the few cities where someone can somewhat make a living doing burlesque,” says Polly Wood, who quit her day job to do all things burlesque. “There is also a strong sense of interconnectedness within the broader art community here that even performers from other cities notice.”
If you like the glamorous showgirl Gypsy Rose Lee-style of classic burlesque (classic defined as sticking to the glitter, glitz and camp of the classic Vaudeville / burlesque era that was all the rage in the U.S. between the 1930s and 1960s), you’ll find it at popular venues like The Triple Door and The Pink Door restaurant downtown.
If your tastes in adult play run more along the sometimes raunchy, sometimes political, but almost always comic style of neo-burlesque, an era that began pushing back against the strip club industry in the 1990s, the Noc Noc in Belltown is a great place to go. On any given Thursday night, the members of Sinner/Saint Burlesque stand ready to poke fun at sexual stereotypes, popular culture and politics as costumes, props and lingerie are flung naughtily to the floor. No gender is left out of the fun.
Sinner/Saint has the distinction of being the longest running weekly burlesque revue in the city. The troupe was recently invited to take its unique flavor of burlesque on the road in March for a two-week engagement at the Brick House, London’s famous cabaret club. In conjunction with that show, images of local burlesque performers by Seattle photographer Greg Holloway will be showcased at the nearby Vibe Gallery.
London’s burlesque, says Holloway, tends more toward the classic. Which is why he says he can’t wait to see Londoners’ reactions to what nationally known burlesque queen Jo Weldon calls Seattle’s “powerful independent” streak. In fact, Weldon mentions the Emerald City multiple times in her new book The Burlesque Handbook (HarperCollins, 2010), a cover-to-cover history and how-to on classic burlesque seduction and tease. If you’ve never understood the purpose or sex appeal of a feather boa, get the book.
“Part of what’s unique to Seattle is that there really is something for everyone here,” says Indigo Blue, performer and headmistress of Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque — which was featured in the 2008 documentary film A Wink and a Smile by local director Deirdre Allen Timmons. The film won high praise from Variety, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and other publications.
Blue’s academy is the oldest school of burlesque in the country, preceding its New York sister (New York School of Burlesque), which is owned by Weldon. The local school also shares sister school relationships with the London School of Striptease and Burlesque and Studio L’Amour in Chicago.
“This city is really the perfect storm of a community
supportive of performance arts, entrepreneurialism and artistic kismet,” says
Blue, who opened her academy in 2003.
Others are more practical in their assessment of Seattle’s burlesque success.
“We have a wealth of wet weather and dark skies,” says Trixie Lane, who, in addition to her beginners’ burlesque school, is co-owner of the intimate portraiture business OldSchoolPinUps with her husband Lance Wagner. “People want a little sunshine in their lives, they want to have fun and laugh and feel sexy. Burlesque makes everyone feel sexy — no matter what body you have.”
That’s true. While many burlesque performers are sensitive to reviewers focusing on their body size over their technique, one of the beauties of the art is that it finds beauty, humor and sexiness in the feminine form. Period. Unlike, say ballet, there is no one body type that represents the ultimate burlesque performer. Seattle performers come in every size, shape, color and gender. From voluptuous to stick thin, from 5 feet in heels to the statuesque Glamazon.
“I used to be a ballet dancer and I had all the body hang-ups that come with that. Today I am just embracing my lusciousness,” says Lily Verlaine, who produced her first burlesque show in Seattle in 2006 and is the force behind the Land of the Sweets Burlesque Nutcracker, which celebrated its fifth anniversary season in December. “I receive a lot of feedback from people in the audience, and what they see is women who are sensual and beautiful and sexy and amazing. The body type is just kind of incidental.”
For Sarah, a 23-year-old University of Washington student who recently saw her first burlesque act at the graduation of the fall class of the Miss Indigo Blue Academy of Burlesque, this is the clincher.
“This was the first time I have ever seen dancers on a stage who look just like me,” she says. “I have hips, I have thighs, I have boobs and I’ve never felt sexy. They were so beautiful. I’m signing up!”
Seattle’s burlesque dancers are a generous bunch — all quick to give credit where credit is due. They acknowledge that their own success in the local scene ties back in some way to a handful of pioneer performers, among them Indigo Blue, Paula the Swedish Housewife and Tamara the Trapeze Lady.
Such women were and continue to be, in the words of one student at Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque, “the divas of artistic gumption and entrepreneurialism.”
Tamara produced her first Seattle show, The Fallen Women Follies, in 1995. It was an anything-goes experimental stage for the stripper and sex worker community and ran for 10 years, becoming a launchpad for the burlesque revival in the city.
From there she went on to perform weekly at The Pink Door from 2001 to 2005 before creating Burlesque Behind the Pink Door, which plays to a full house most Saturday nights, each week featuring different performers and variete or burlesque styles. Indigo launched the school, and producers and performers like Paula the Swedish Housewife gained national reputations in the subculture of exotic dance.
In 2006, Tamara staged the first Columbia City Cabaret at the then newly renovated Columbia City Theater.
“You can’t really talk about burlesque in Seattle without recognizing Tamara — she was the first one to really use the name burlesque,” says Trixie Lane.
In Tamara the Trapeze Lady, the Swedish Housewife, Kitten La Rue of the Atomic Bombshells and Lily Verlaine and others, “we have some amazing, inspired producers in Seattle,” says Blue. Rather than engage in cutthroat competition, producers and performers in the region are committed to collaboration.
“These are things that set us apart,” she says.
So does the Seattle pay grade: “Indigo and Tamara championed a pay scale for performers and really demanded respect that brought burlesque into the more mainstream of entertainment,” stresses Lane.
STRIPTEASE VS. STRIPPING
A history lesson. Yes, today’s strip clubs and the new burlesque movement share a common ancestry — the classic burlesque era. No one disputes that many of burlesque performers in the classic period of this entertainment form — the 1930s to 1960s — probably exchanged a few “services for favors” with customers who frequented shows back then.
“Burlesque started off as sexy Vaudeville sketches and grew into provocative entertainment, primarily for men. It was the commercial stripping of its era,” says Sinner/Saint Burlesque troupe member Evilyn Sin Claire about the evolution of burlesque performance since the 1930s. Indigo Blue is more direct: “Some burlesque performers were the sex workers of their day,” she says.
By contrast, in today's burlesque, Sin Claire says, “women (and some men) use [an] aesthetic or classic burlesque format to create self-expressive performance art. It can be political, whimsical, exotic, avant-garde, funny, narrative or just a wild pageant of glitter and hair pieces...whatever the particular artist is interested in exploring through striptease.” Rather than getting their start as strippers, many of Seattle’s burlesque performers got their training in theater, dance and music.
Indigo Blue furthers this distinction: “Burlesque is a theatrical event where there is interaction with the audience
but there is also an expected boundary,” she says.
That boundary is clear. While call-and-response between performer and audience is common in burlesque revues, touching is not. And, while most burlesque dancers eventually strip down to pasties and G-strings, total nudity is not part of the act.
Of even more significant difference, Blue adds, is that in strip clubs there is a monetary exchange between the customer (usually a man) and the strip club dancer that is personal. That puts the power in the hands of the customer or club owner, not the performer.
Burlesque shows, on the other hand, are most widely produced by and for women. Shows are generally produced in independent theatrical or music venues that leave the producer and performers in control of performance content. The dancer herself has complete control over what she does and does not reveal. Customers pay a cover charge for a full variety show. They do not exchange money with performers directly. Burlesque performers play to the audience as a whole; strippers — many of whom argue that they too are in charge of their acts — may cater to what a single customer requests.
“I’d also point out most burlesque performers are self-managed — making oppression unlikely,” says performer Evilyn Sin Claire. I’m sure there are shows or producers out there that mismanage, but I think this is largely a pretty DIY-oriented community.”
Beyond that, there is a legal line that keeps burlesque performers — while certainly bawdy and irreverent — covered, technically speaking. Strategic crotch coverings and pasties twirling expertly on a burlesque stage are important legal buffers that allow venues staging shows to serve alcohol. Most burlesque shows take place in lounges, bars, private spaces and other establishments that serve alcohol to create a relaxed, playful, party atmosphere. They are in full knowledge of state liquor laws. In Washington, alcohol is prohibited in clubs where dancers bare it all.
“Some people are really sensitive to the comparisons,” says Blue, who is frank about her own history as a strip club dancer. “In burlesque we are entertainers and this makes us more like actors in the theater.”
The City of Seattle views burlesque as an art form rather than the nuisance it generally considers strip clubs to be. In fact, the City of Seattle Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs has awarded grants each of the past few years to the annual Moisture Festival, a comedy, variete and burlesque festival that takes place all around the city in the spring.
Seattle is also home to the annual BurlyCon burlesque convention that takes place in October. Founded by Indigo Blue and launched in 2008, BurlyCon is a community-oriented educational convention for Burlesque performers, fans and aficionados. Unlike the New York Burlesque Festival, Tease-O-Rama, the Great Boston Burlesque Expo and other large burlesque-focused events, there are no performances at BurlyCon and no contests. It is focused entirely on community building, raising awareness about the art, and presenting workshops and social events for performers.
Conversely, over the last few years the City Council has engaged in numerous discussions, debates and votes regarding regulation of private clubs where performers are at least partially nude by the legal definition. As far as anyone in the Arts & Culture Office knows, a business based on nude dancing women has never received a city arts grant.
“The truth is, if someone wants to see a naked woman or a naked body, they don’t go to burlesque,” says Polly Wood. “You go to burlesque to be entertained in an intelligent way. You just don’t see a bunch of sleazy guys hanging around at a burlesque show.”
POLITICS, SATIRE AND PC-NESS
In her intro to Jo Weldon’s handbook on the art, comedian Margaret Cho describes burlesque as “a liberating, dizzying explosion of feathers, glitter, rhinestones and feminism.”
Can stripping away layers of clothing be a form of feminism? It depends on which performer you ask.
Doing burlesque isn’t necessarily a form of empowerment
in and of itself, says Evilyn Sin Claire.
For Sydni Deveraux, who is also a trained jazz performer, the question of whether burlesque is or is not a feminist statement doesn’t really enter in.
“I like making beautiful costumes, dancing, and I like the process of taking off my clothes, the different ways I can do it, and all the little bits and pieces that are the finishing touches, like garter belts, pasties and stockings. I perform because I’ve always been a performer. Some women might find it empowering, yes, and that’s wonderful. I simply have fun.”
Evilyn Sin Claire brings the discussion of striptease as a vehicle of empowerment versus oppression down to one critical concept: whether or not women have control over the objectification of their bodies.
“That’s a sticky piece of the puzzle for the un-indoctrinated,” she says. “Yes, standing on a stage, taking off your clothes, not speaking, with all the eyes on you and all the emphasis on your body parts, rather than your brain or your sparkling personality or what-have-you...that is objectification. Plain and simple. [Burlesque performers] choose to use that. The best burlesque performers use objectification in writing their acts the same way they use color in costuming, or specific props, or dance styles. It’s a tool in your bag of tricks. If you are smart about what it means, what it can do, you can use it to craft your act, to mold your audience to receive your desired effect.”
In other words, “With burlesque, misogyny has left the building,” says Trixie Lane. “Burlesque has replaced quilting and crafting for a lot of women. You have to have a job to support your habit of burlesque! All the feathers, fringe, rhinestones, dresses, fabrics and props that go into your act cost you, the performer, thousands of dollars!”
“No one goes into a ‘Champagne Room’ to do nasty things,” Lane adds in reference to a room for “private dance” sessions common in strip clubs. “We all hoot and holler and have a great time together now. Men come to see their wives, coworkers, friends, aunts, sisters and even daughters!”
Back at The Pink Door, a sizzling Fuschia FoXX joins Sydni Deveraux on stage. Where Deveraux is Greta Garbo sultry, FoXX is Elvis — gyrating scandalously in one set and performing with cotton candy sexy sweetness in the other. She is a chameleon in burlesque clothing. This is a woman who, like Deveraux and just about every professional performer on the Seattle burlesque scene, owns her sensuality and defines her own ideal of sexiness. With a catwalk that tells the audience, “I don’t really care what you like, I like this!” there is a freedom and sass in her dance that sets the long table of women celebrating a friend’s impending wedding on their feet cheering.
“Bring it baby!” says one of the women, sporting a tee that says Bachelorette Party in Progress.
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