Bawdy Burlesque Is Back

Inside a dimly lit restaurant on the edge of New York's trendy East Village, all eyes are on the three young women, dressed in little more than sequined bikinis and high heels, bumping and grinding to the music.

They weave in and out between the tables, smiling as a spotlight shines on them and wide-eyed patrons take in the spectacle of them strutting their stuff.

At first glance, the show may seem a throwback to the excesses of the old New York, when Times Square hosted seedy theaters and X-rated shops rather than chain stores and coffee shops.

But look carefully at the naugahyde-and-chrome chairs and martini glasses around Marion's Continental, and you'll see it's a throwback to an even earlier era. The performers' smiles read more fun than sexy, and the audience is more vintage outfits and horn-rimmed glasses than lonely hearts or fat wallets.

And if that's not enough to tell you that something's different here, there are the Carmen Miranda-style fruit baskets on the dancers' heads.

And then there's the booming soundtrack they're dancing to. The dancers — known as the Pontani Sisters — jiggle to the rhythm of Rosemary Clooney belting out a brassy tune from the 1950s.

Hey Mambo! Mambo Italiano! Go, go, go, you mixed-up Siciliano. All you Calabrese Do the mambo like a-crazy.

On the Heels of ‘Little Egypt’ and Gypsy Rose

What's going on is something called the New Burlesque, or the Burlesque Revolution — a movement that involves plenty of live naked, or nearly naked — girls, but also a grass-roots effort to give new life to a long-dormant form of performance.

Burlesque is actually an adult counterpart to vaudeville, which is stage entertainment that incorporates a variety of short acts, like slapstick, song-and-dance routines, and juggling. Burlesque also includes ribald comedy, and most notoriously, striptease.

"I think it's definitely making a comeback," says Angie Pontani, the de-facto leader of the troupe. "Five years ago you'd say 'burlesque' and everyone would think 'stripper,' but now we've got fans in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and people say, 'Oh yeah, I've got a friend in a burlesque troupe.'

"It's picking up speed."

Burlesque was immensely popular from the 1900s to the 1950s, introducing performers like Little Egypt and Gypsy Rose Lee to the annals of Hollywood history.

Like many other forms of live performance, though, burlesque eventually lost its audience to mass media like cinema, radio, and then television. Burlesque, with its sexual undertones, was especially hard-hit by adult cinema and the sexual freedom of the '60s.

One of the most popular burlesque performers, Ann Corio, did little more than twirl a parasol on stage, according to Rose Wood, a modern-day burlesque performer. The climax of the performance came when Corio removed one of her gloves with a flick of her wrist.

But audiences weren't willing to settle for such subtleties when raunchier fare was available, Wood says.

"With people walking around without tops, without bras, you couldn't compete."

Even though the Pontani Sisters' act comes after the era of sexual liberation, it is still relatively demure compared to other adult entertainments available in the city. The bikinis will be about as far as they go tonight — and that, enthusiasts say, is the difference between burlesque and erotic dancing.

While some nudity is involved, there's no expectation that they'll completely disrobe, performers said.

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