Holding what appears to be spider web over her green-streaked bouffant, Jackie Silva gazes around the room of women in various states of undress. "These belong to anyone?" she says loudly. "Mine!" calls Eva Hintermyer, stepping daintily in her 4-inch heels over piles of photographic cables and sequined brassieres. Right now, the small photo studio feels more like the backstage of a nightclub. Silva waves her mystery garment over towering hairdos, rhinestoned hair clips and the somewhat frantic lone male photographer who is do-si-do-ing round the varnished redwood floor. Sequins and satin glisten in the foggy afternoon light drifting in through the window; seagulls chatter outside, echoing the giggles and hoots of the women inside. Hintermyer, a blonde who dances under the name Nina Bettina and looks like she'd be right at home in a dirndl selling beer steins, meets Silva half-way. Apparently, the material in question is a pair of tights. It's hard to tell what's what in the midst of a burlesque troupe dressing for a photo shoot in the Jacoby Storehouse.
Women with stage names like Nina Bettina and Jamie Bondage are tossing corsets and comparing fishnets. They are primarily youngish, in their 20s and 30s, and although no one's model-thin, everyone has a conventionally shaped figure, aided by mechanics and material. Even the women who have had children look cinched and trim once they've strapped on their corsets and tied on their heels. Sophie Salizzoni, better known as "Props McGee," runs around adjusting zippers and crackin' wise with one dancer's 9-year-old daughter. The girl seems unawed by the bevies of breasts and mascara being wielded like magic wands. Breaths are sharply withdrawn as corset strings are tightened to seemingly unbearable points.
Burlesque is such an evocative term. Tassels, rouged cheeks, rhinestones; pin curls, black eyeliner, winking and high-heels. Breasts and thighs. Thick, seductive, drum-heavy tunes with barely double-entendre names: "Honey Dripper," "Big Ten-Inch Record," "I Want My Fanny Brown" (excuse me?). Mainstream classics like "Suzy Q" and "Fever." Men in fedoras, cheap whiskey, an era when a good show could be found for 15 cents.
Beyond this threadbare and romantic image from the distant past, burlesque means, to a lot of people, a sort of confusedly classy stripping. For some, it evokes a sticky glass booth overlooking a stage with completely nude women. Most recently though, a sort of burlesque/Burning Man/bellydancing/fire-twirling craze seems to have spread across the nation in a surprising amalgam of freak shows, third-wave-feminism and slightly dubious eroticism. This craze from the first decade of the century took a bit longer to spread behind the Redwood Curtain. Now, though, "Burlesque!!!" is appearing magically where before there was naught. It's on flyers at places as diverse as Nocturnum, the Arcata Playhouse and the casinos.
Three active burlesque troupes bump and grind upon Humboldt stages. The Blue Angels sprang up first, in March of 2009, with a traditional pin-up-style gang. Founded in fall of 2009 by Jessa Lee, who formed a troupe out of the Humboldt State Circus, the Angels laid the groundwork for the Beat Vixens, founded by Susie Kidd at the end of 2009. The Vixens, about half the size of the other two troupes with just four dancers, evolved out of a hip-hop group. Va Va Voom, the latest and biggest addition to the scene, formed in the beginning of 2011. The troupes perform around once a month, and their shows are usually packed with rowdy, cocktail-wielding fans. Along with these specialists, other dancers, including Megz Madrone, incorporate burlesque into their acts.
Watching burlesque performances is kind of a tongue-in-cheek experience. Are we, as politically correct people, mildly offended? Are we titillated? Are we annoyed at watching a bunch of show-offs? No matter. The dancers universally love it. It's a party onstage that the audience is free to join via catcalls and whoops. The dancers find it empowering, liberating and -- most of all -- fun. The key observable difference between stripping and burlesque is theater. The dancers shimmy on stage not just in costume, but in character, complete with different names, different hair and different attitudes. They are showing off, just as any actor onstage gets to show off, and the fact that nudity is involved makes it all the more engaging, if they're confident, or awkward, if they're not. The dancers, just like a lot of artists, must be either brave or stupid. Err on the side of brave.
Alyssa Carolla is one of the founding members of Va Va Voom, and she is definitely brave. At 32, she could still pass for 24. Known on stage as "Kitty Cox," she's almost sweetly innocent-looking: brows arched Betty Boop-style, narrow brown eyes set off with thick black cat-eye liner. Her gleaming red hair is done in classic '40s era cinnamon rolls, and her red dress is polka-dotted. She clatters through Humbrews in shiny black round-toe heels. She could almost be an actress in a wholesome 1950s film, except for the amount of fulsome decolletage the dress reveals. Biting into a burger, she reveals that despite her svelte figure and unlined face, she's the mother of four -- three living children aged 2 to 14 and a son who died at 2. Carolla got into dancing -- at a strip club in Reno, Nev. -- because she had a family to feed. At the beginning, she wasn't the best of strippers -- "I got given all the day shifts" she laughs ruefully -- but Carolla was used to doing what needed to be done. Growing up in Quincy, Calif., raised primarily by her father, Carolla left home early and stepped into the role of parent by 18. She didn't have the luxury of taking her time, goofing off and figuring out life.
Stripping is better money than most professions for a young woman without a degree, and besides, Carolla had the looks and confidence for the job. At 5-foot-8, with full hips and bust, she's no shrinking violet. In Reno, she made real money as a stripper, but eventually she left the job to get out of an abusive relationship. In June of 2000, she met and soon married Timber Carolla, and in 2005 the couple moved up to Eureka, grew their family, and started a successful business, Cha Cha's Fashion on Myrtle Avenue.
Later, at the photo shoot, Carolla settles into a squeaking black leather couch and pushes aside a floodlight. She looks magazine-fresh, more L.A. than Humboldt, despite the fact she's been here six years. She talks about one of her most-requested acts, then jumps up to demonstrate her signature strip to the tune of "Boobs" by Ruth Wallace. She creates a character who bears little resemblance to the down-to-earth mom she is in real life. As the brass section of "Boobs" starts to blare, Carolla, dressed in a black-and-pink feather bustle, a pink-and-black rhinestone bra, a shiny black corset and gloves, materializes on stage in a shower of sparkles and skin. "Boobs" is a saucy and hilarious tune, with lots of double-entendres. Lip-syncing and gesturing, Carolla takes us through lyrics like "You've gotta have boobies, If you want men to offer diamonds and rubies. Why, even a tennis player would knock his balls out (over the net) for a chick who fills each cup until she falls out." She shimmies her shoulders, turns, twitches a hip, and winks at us over a shoulder. A glove drops. "BOOBS!" bellows Ruth Wallace, and Carolla flings out her arms on beat and gives us all a wide smile, one eyebrow cocked. We know what's coming. With a flip of her wrist and a sashay around the chair that's her only prop, Carolla drops her bustle to the stage floor as the bass drum hits. She reveals a G-string and ruffle. She looks delighted with herself and with us. The audience cheers as much for her attitude -- strong and sexy and coyly knowing -- as her nudity. We're all rooting for her.
Carolla and Jackie Silva met in auspicious circumstances for starting a burlesque troupe. Both were in the 2010 Pin-Up Girl competition at the Tattoo Expo in Eureka. Carolla won that round, but the title was reversed next year. Carolla was handing off her trophy at Arts Alive! in January 2011 to her successor, Silva, when a mutual friend suggested the two would be doing the world a favor by pairing up in a burlesque number.
The two pin-up queens agreed and created the Cox Sisters persona, Carolla as Kitty Cox and Silva as Ophelia Cox. By March 2011, the Va Va Voom troupe was performing. Carolla recalls their first-ever show. The Cox Sisters staged a catfight, which culminated inevitably in clothes being removed and a faux-tussle ensuing ... until the girls "realize" the audience is there. They retire, pretending nothing has happened, amid many air-kisses. That's classic burlesque -- low-brow humor, some physical theater, high jinx and near-nudity. "It's seduction, classy-style, not just boobs. It's the wink of an eye, the 'hey sailor' glance," says Carolla after the shoot, struggling out of her rhinestoned corset, glistening in the lights like a disco ball. "I think you have to take some clothes off. Otherwise, it's just modern dance." Provocative words; in burlesque, this isn't necessarily true. Nowadays fire-twirlers and belly dancers incorporate some sexy moves into a routine, and call it burlesque. In its post-modern incarnation, burlesque is pretty flexible. Even so, at a show at Nocturnum in December, the dancer who stripped down to pasties got the biggest cheers. America loves to ogle!
Dancing naked ain't nothin' new. Burlesque has been around since the 1840s, and in its earliest days, it was a spectacle: a ribald comedy show, complete with acrobats, comedians, straight men and dance numbers. It may or may not have included music. Intended for a middle- to lower-class audience, it sometimes ridiculed or mocked its viewers' "betters," according to John Kenrick's A History of the Musical Burlesque. The first big Broadway burlesque show, Lydia Thompson's Ixion, offered comedy, ladies in flesh-color tights (my goodness!) and women dressed as men. A woman director and sexually bossy females made headlines, and the play was a smash. Apparently it changed musical numbers weekly, so it was very loosely scripted, and to judge by ticket sales, hysterical.
A typical skit:
Minister: Do you believe in the hereafter?
Young Lady: Certainly I do!
Minister (leering): Then you know what I'm here after!
With knee-slappers like that, burlesque naturally took off. Spoofs of contemporary mainstream productions were common, Kenrick noted, such as the 1900 stage production of Ben Hur redone as Bend Her (we await the revival with bated breath!). For a nickel in 1890, a viewer could get a spoofing musical number, a comedy act, a magician, and a chorus number. The final act would be either a wrestling match or a risqué female dance. It seems the female dance sold more seats than the wrestling, because by the 1900s, the final act was a female moniker that got top billing.
And this game was big money. In the Minsky Brothers' show in the Great Depression, strippers like Georgia Southern, Sherry Britton and the famed Gypsy Lee Rose could make up to $2,000 a WEEK. In the Depression. But the good times couldn't last. By 1939, Mayor LaGuardia (in a spooky foreshadowing of that other killjoy mayor, Giuliani), had made "decency" such a priority it pretty much put the kibosh on the glorious days of New York burlesque. Burlesque by the 1950s went more underground, but never away. One of the eternal truths of life seems to be that no matter what, somewhere, a man will pay to watch a woman take some clothes off. Shows in Vegas got glitzier and raunchier. With voluptuous stars like Ayn St. Cyr, the "Anatomic Bomb," who took her sweet time getting into a bubble bath onstage, to Tempest Storm, she of the million-dollar-insured breasts, the comedy took a backstage to the va-va-voom. Betty Page and Blaze Star stripped away the gimmicks and made the striptease an art.
Watch the videos of their dances in the 1950s.The difference in attitudes between this kind of dancing and what goes on in strip clubs today is striking. True, all parties take their clothes off, more or less; but with burlesque strippers (who are not particularly good dancers), the seduction is so much more, well, seductive. These women maintain eye contact with the watcher, with wide smiles that stop just short of welcome. "Come hither ... but not too hither ... only a little hither," they say. Even though these women are performing for money, that fact is kept tucked away. There are no scattered bills for the girls to pick up with their buttocks. It is, according to Silva, "the lure of the unobtainable."
Burlesque today is a hugely varied genre, performed in an era when women face a radically open world of self-definition. No one is excluded because of gender, age or size. All that's required is a love of performance, and the reasons for strutting onstage are as varied as the performers. It can be one more way for women to define themselves. After all, we're a long way past one-income families and Mother's Little Helper (for better or worse ... where do you buy that stuff?), and we're even past bra burning and that line about fish and bicycles. Women today have a wide open field of possible self-definitions. They can be as sexy or as puritan as they fancy. Some can even judge others for going too far.
And burlesque itself has become less straitjacketed -- in Neo-burlesque, dancers can incorporate other dance styles. A large cadre of women make no money from their performances, which, at least for some, changes the power balance and makes the whole thing feel less exploitive. Modern burlesque dancers range the spectrum from androgynous looks to lush sexuality. Is a butch-looking woman allowed to prance around in a negligee? Of course. In Neo-Burlesque, the traditional women-only striptease stereotype has been broadened to include women and men of all shapes and sizes. One Va Va Voom dancer begins her act in bulky men's clothing before ultimately revealing a stunning womanly figure. By incorporating modern dance styles, Neo-Burlesque, in true post-modern fashion, is a sort of free-for-all. The Beat Vixens, another venerable Humboldt act at the ripe old age of 3, began as a hip-hop troupe. A real hip-hop troupe, with local professional dancers and gigs opening for the bigger hip-hop acts that rolled through town. Madam Vixen is the stage name of Susie Kidd, the group's founder and director. Kidd has a professional dancer's body, strong and lithe, and a wide smile. Why does she think Neo-Burlesque has been popping up all over Humboldt? "It's the cycle of old and new," she said after a few minutes' thought. "Organic stuff is back around. ... What's more organic than a performance with live music, live audiences, live dancers who interact with each other and the viewer?" Burlesque differs from stripping, she said, in not only its focus on the art of seduction but in the actual work that goes into the production. "The shows have extensive costuming, art, props. ... There may be satire, whimsical humor ... We do shows with men getting stripped by 'old' women. It's not about the nudity." Or, at least, not entirely. Some boobies rarely go amiss. But point taken.
"I'm not afraid to reveal myself to the world," is how Jessa Lee of the Blue Angels describes it. Lee, who performs as Liberty d'Vine, is an alert, intelligent woman in her 30s with coppery hair. "It's not at all about money. In fact, the opposite." The troupes rarely if ever make any personal profit on a performance, because they're pouring their earnings back into costumes and travel expenses. They practice regularly and think of themselves as a uniform show; no one dancer's performance is given more validity than any other. For these women, the physical act of stripping while in character is liberating. And the troupes have serious rules about not breaking character, on or off stage. Try getting a dancer's number and chances are you'll get a coy brush-off, flirty but firm. The characters they inhabit onstage are simply that -- characters. It's important both during and after the performance that the illusion is upheld.
Megan Clarke, stage name Megz Madrone, is a local bellydancer and member of the Deadly Dollies and Nightshade Serenande. She considers burlesque part of her repertoire, and is eager to point out that originally burlesque meant a spoof or send-up. "There are broad definitions. That's how I think of it personally. It's not about getting naked -- I'll leave that to the college girls." Clarke is a voluptuous, doe-eyed woman in her 30s. As she talks, her lipstick leaves a curving red smile on the edge of her Ramone's mug. She clearly wants to be supportive of all dancers, but seems conflicted about women who get down to their bedazzled skivvies on stage.
Clarke has pondered the possible pitfalls, like unwanted male attention. She urges younger dancers to be aware of what image of burlesque they might be presenting. Clarke is a modern woman, open about her sexuality and her "dark side," but she is troubled by what she sees as a sort of Lindsey-Lohan-celebrity-obsession thing, where getting attention by any means necessary is condoned, no matter what the price, be it getting torn down, envied or mocked. Clarke is quick to emphasize the positives too; belly dancing, as well as burlesque, has been immensely helpful for her body image. "No one in my troupe is a skinny minnie," she says happily, "and I think we all find it empowering." So, what's up with all this Neo-Burlesque everywhere? Clarke suggests it might be that during a recession, we all spend a lot more time on "'indoor activities," so sex is more in the public mind. Sex is free, and conversely, it sells reliably. "I have seen some acts around here that are so focused on the sexuality aspect. They'd be at home in a strip club versus a nightclub. The bottom line is, if there are some people who love to dance around and show their naughty bits, they'll probably get a good turnout. Will it turn around and bite them? It might."
It seems contrary to traditional feminist values, never mind traditional values, that taking off clothes would be empowering, but all these dancers swear it's true. The local troupes may have different backgrounds and methodologies, but they all love gettin' down under the hot lights of the stage. Despite, or maybe because of, burlesque's risque style, the dancers feel a real connection with their audience. The crowd gives as much as the dancers. Carolla says that in her stripping days, the all-male crowd would watch her, silently. It was a dull-eyed, lusty look. Then, she said, she felt objectified. Under the bright lights of the burlesque stage, glittering with rhinestones, she looks at the mixed gender audience, hears the humorous catcalls and applause, and doesn't miss the dollar bills at all.
Correction, Feb. 2, 2012: There are at least four active burlesque troupes in Humboldt County, including the Ooh La La Girls. Last week's article, "Burlesque," gave an incorrect number and inadvertently omitted the troupe. The Journal regrets the error.