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.

"It's about the tease, not the reveal," says Laura Herbert, who runs the Web site for the The Exotic World Burlesque Museum & Striptease Hall of Fame in Helendale, Calif.

Wood says that when compared to burlesque, the erotic dancing at topless joints is about as sexy as a doctor's exam. "Thirty seconds and everything's off," she says."Sometimes, the tease is better than the real thing."

And that may be why burlesque is experiencing a revival, flowing from America's cultural centers, across the heartland, and slowly, around the world.

Baywatch in the Burlesque

As the Pontani Sisters move into their next act, dressed in little straw sombreros and macramé bikinis, set against a cha-cha-cha beat, a table full of young women lets out a series of whoops and hollers worthy of any bachelor party.

"It's fun to hear people scream," says Dirty Martini, one of modern burlesque's most famous performers.

A buxom blonde with the raspy voice of an unrepentant club-crawler, she claims the honor of having done the first fan dance in postwar Sarajevo.

Just last month, she was among 2500 people who attended the second annual Tease-O-Rama in San Francisco — "three nights and two days of wild and wicked burlesque mania and go-go action."

Featured entertainment included performances by Kitten de Ville and Torchy Taboo. There were also classes on "Pasty-Making" and "Tassel Twirling."

Attendees said they saw some familiar faces from Hollywood there, taking notes — even a year after the Oscar-nominated Moulin Rouge, which enthusiasts say had some elements of burlesque in it.

One prominent attendee was rock star Marilyn Manson, who is romantically linked with one of the grande dames of modern burlesque, Dita Von Teese. Von Teese has come across a degree of mainstream popularity herself, having signed on with Playboy as a model.

And in Los Angeles, considered the ground zero of the New Burlesque movement, even the glamour queens and beach bunnies of Hollywood are getting into the act.

Former Baywatch stars Pamela Anderson and Carmen Electra, actress Christina Applegate and pop stars Christina Aguilera and Gwen Stefani have all recently performed as part of the Pussycat Dolls, a burlesque-style cabaret group that has run the circuit of hot Hollywood clubs.

Appealing to Your Inner Dork

Virginia Malik, 50, who had heard of Marion's Continental from a friend, was in the audience to see if she'd be comfortable hosting a party here.

"It's different. It's kind of campy," she said with a smile. "I'm used to that stuff — Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Carmen Miranda."

And while the act may bring back memories for her, younger enthusiasts point out that their passion is also, in a way, a reaction against modern times. Many likened their interest to the retro trend for swing dancing that seized the nation in the late 1990s, and suggested the interest in burlesque may have grown from that.

"It really appealed to my inner dork," jokes Herbert, who has been involved in the burlesque world for years. She said she enjoyed researching and learning about the dancing, the outfits, and performers.

Herbert's fiancé, Luke Littell, said he had been to strip clubs before, but had come to enjoy burlesque more because of the degree of audience interaction and the confidence exhibited by the performers.

"They're sexy for enjoying what they do, they exude sexuality through their performances," he said. "It's fun. It's always a good time."

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.