Bawdy Burlesque Is Back

People are also tired of entertainment produced for a mass audience, said Tara Vaughan Tremmel, a doctoral student who has studied burlesque. In burlesque, the audience feels much closer to the entertainers.

A performer, she says, might "make eye contact, touch them with a boa, smile at them or pull them on stage — none of which comes through a television or movie screen."

Burlesque's escape from corporate entertainment also resounds with a feminist ethos, supporters say. While the performances do involve an audience gawking at a scantily dressed woman, they say, the shows are usually run by women, and more importantly, try to present a female body in a way that's more natural than Hollywood does.

The burlesque scene is at heart "very strict, nothing fake," says Heather Clisby, who performs with a San Francisco burlesque troupe, the Devil-Ettes.

"It's made up of women entertaining and proud of their bodies and who do not have this lifted and that added and so forth," Clisby says. "There's a great desire of women to see other women with their own bodies up there."

There's a bit of a snowball effect going on in the burlesque world. Audience members who see the performers breaking molds are often inspired to get onstage themselves, says Tara Pontani, the second-oldest of the Pontani Sisters.

During the last Tease-O-Rama, some of the dancers from burlesque's heyday, now in their 70s and 80s, appeared on stage. Clisby's mother attended with her. She says her mother said, "It's all exactly the same, except for the tattoos" sported by the younger performers.

Will Pasties Ever Be a Blue-Light Special?

Fans of burlesque are proud of the inclusiveness of their world. They welcome outsiders even as they fear more mainstream interest might dilute it.

Dirty Martini cringes when she thinks how burlesque, if it becomes too popular, could become "some insipid thing — family-oriented, less edgy and less beautiful."

Sexuality is an inherent element of burlesque, says Clisby. The thought of seeing it in a shopping mall along with an Applebees, she says, "makes me want to vomit."

But burlesque performers and aficionados are confident that won't happen anytime soon. Another charming element of burlesque, performers say, is its grass-roots nature. In other words, there's no money in it.

Performers practice their own routines, make their own costumes, attach their own sequins — and almost everybody holds jobs on the side.

The appeal of scantily dressed ladies might be the same as a strip club, but fans are quick to point out the differences.

"A fast way to lose money in strip clubs is to do burlesque," Herbert says.

Comedy and irony are essential parts of the performance, and "it's very hard to be sexy and funny [at the same time]," adds Clisby.

Fans talk about pinup-girl-style clothing showing up in trend-setting stores like Hot Topic, and seeing the burlesque aesthetic in the popularity of boy-cut panties at some mass retailers.

But Dirty Martini doesn't believe burlesque has made it that far yet.

"I'll believe it when they start selling pasties at Target," she jokes.

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