Saturday, February 12, 2000

Lenny Stoute
Special to The Globe and Mail

Welcome to the new bump-and-grind

The fan dance is back, a naughty-but-nice spectacle for a crowd that appreciates the revived 'art of enticement.'

So, another Valentine's Day looms, and you've done flowers and jewellery for so long you get thank-you cards from Ministry of Natural Resources. But you feel like the sweatier side of your romance isn't getting its due.

Then consider this scene: A sweltering nightclub, where most of the heat isn't coming from the vents but from the catwalk. A voluptuous woman in cowgirl drag is crawling like a panther, while at the other end, another cowgirl assesses her performance. The pit band is dropping rhythm-and-blues chords to vintage bump-and-grind beats. The crowd, looking more inquisitive than lecherous, applauds wildly after every skit.

A strip club, on Valentine's Day, you gasp? No, this is burlesque, circa 2000 — looking a lot like burlesque circa 1950, with a lounge-rock twist, and quite the opposite of the modern strip show. For one thing, the dancers never do peel down to the altogether. For another, it's a young, hip crowd, and easily a third female. It's as much theatre as it is sex and sensuality, and the performers are not buffed-and-siliconed porn-star wannabes, but naturally full-figured and curvaceous.

Impresario Lyn MacNeil, who presents the latest of his nouveau-burlesque events at Toronto rock bar Lee's Palace on Monday, and plans to export the show soon to Montreal and Vancouver, has a socially conscious approach to his fun.

"It's happening now because it needs to be done," he said in a pre-show interview. "The audience is largely underground: clubbers, arty types, gays, fans of camp stuff. But I would like to see more mainstream people at the shows, because I think they'd genuinely enjoy it, and that it isn't weird.

"This is seduction as a series of skits, not just coming out and getting down. The dancers are creating characters."

Neo-burlesque comes out of two tendencies: One is the American Gothic stream, the stomping ground of David Lynch movies, S-&-M punk band the Cramps or drag queen Divine; the other is pop culture's ongoing affair with nostalgia. With talking heads like Wendy Shalit promoting a return to fifties-style "sexual modesty," counterculturalists are harking back to the same period's model of the risqué.

"This is an art of enticement," said MacNeil, "and everybody likes enticement. We focus on the 'tease' in 'striptease.' … Playing dressup is appealing to all kinds of people, even if only secretly."

As well, for women raised in a feminist era, burlesque doesn't present a parade of surgically altered bodies in simulated sexual paroxysms. The dancers look like people you know, not victims or predators, and so does the audience. It adds up to a naughty-but-nice ambience that couldn't survive in the hard-core clubs.

According to Megan, a dancer in the Dangerettes at MacNeil's Burlesque Spectacular, "We're not performing to fulfill people's fantasies. With the skits, it's more like we're imposing ours. I never feel I'm not in charge. I guess I might feel different if I were taking everything off."

The Dangerettes top the bill in the Burlesque Spectacular, offering classic, tassle-twirlin' burlesque. Skin Tight Outa Sight puts a rubber-fetish spin on the form, while Rosita's Gypsy Slaves sound the most disciplined of all. The dancers make their own costumes, as was the custom in the classic period. Dangerettes are aware of their traditions, although theirs are more Betty Page than Lilli Saint-Cyr, but they do tip the fan to fan-dancing pioneer Sally Rand.

Jack the Ripper and the Major Players, the eight-piece pit band, anti-nattily attired in Goodwill tuxes and polyester shirts, is a collection of seasoned pros doing the gig for love alone. As band member Tony put it, "When the chance came to be in a burlesque pit band, I didn't even ask about money." He added, "Pit-band players have to be good to hold the crowd's attention when the girls are off stage. It's not only about the playing, you have to get into the act."

At the moment, much of MacNeil's evangelical zeal stems from being in negotiations with backers to take the show on the road this summer, hitting the major centres with a sort of Burlesquepalooza.

"We'll be looking for acts to join the show in other cities. It's almost certainly going to happen, starting with a couple of tours scaled to test the response. Just the way the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow brought old-style freak shows back to the mainstream, this show will lead a revival of interest in burlesque."

Pussy LeMieux, another Dangerette, speculated on how the audience might change as burlesque goes mainstream: "We've never had an untoward incident, because so far the audience has been undergrounders, and they get how it is." Have they been hit on? "At least a couple of people will fall in love with us during every show."

But that's par for the course, said Dangerette Megan. "See? It's because it's all very heartfelt."

And isn't that what Valentine's Day is really all about?

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Created: February 18, 2000
Last modified: January 19, 2001
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