During an early-afternoon photo shoot, Sandra Reamer, aka Sandi Ra-Ra, scrambles around backstage at Kings Barcade, looking for clothing to wear and doing last-minute makeup work in mirrors.
The co-founder and MC for the Raleigh-based Hellcat Vixens burlesque troupe puts on a pair of white, fringe-covered bloomers, snaps a black corset around her midriff and explains how the Vixens came to be.
"We noticed that there really wasn't much going on for burlesque in North Carolina, at least in the Raleigh area," says Reamer, a 28-year-old native of Palm Springs, Calif. She and co-founder Rachel Schaaf (aka Miss Rachel Riot) got together and snapped up several dancers from the now-defunct Demon Dolls troupe from Raleigh.
"We wanted it to be more than just, you know, girls doing the whole striptease thing," says Reamer. "We wanted people to be entertained. We wanted people to laugh and just generally have fun."
Burlesque, that early 20th-century mix of satirical and saucy live entertainment, has been making a resurgence internationally, nationally and locally. Probably most famously embodied by former ballet dancer (and ex-wife of rocker Marilyn Manson) Dita von Teese, what's called the neo-burlesque movement includes everything from classic striptease (where the focus is more on the "tease" than the "strip") to modern dance to comedic bits, and even sideshow acts. That barely clothed, all-girl pop group known as the Pussycat Dolls originally started as a neo-burlesque troupe. Burlesque festivals are held in the U.S. and Canada, as well as in Europe and Australia. And while the burlesque revues are usually confined to smaller venues, the trend will get wider exposure Wednesday with the opening of the movie "Burlesque," starring Cher, Kristen Bell, and Christina Aguilera as a small-town girl with a big voice who finds fame at a fading Los Angeles burlesque theater.
Tar Heel troupes abound
North Carolina has a slew of burlesque dancers and troupes. Head over to Charlotte, where the girls of Big Mammas Productions do their thing; in Asheville, several troupes perform, including Bootstrap Burlesque and Bombs Away Cabaret. Asheville is also home to the American Burlesque & Sideshow Festival, created by Asheville belly dancer Lauren "Onça" O'Leary. During the second weekend of June, the 4-year-old festival offers headlining dancers and entertainers from the United States and abroad. This year's brought in performers from places as far away as Japan and Scotland.
"We know that we're not going to be the next Dita von Teese or anything like that," Reamer says. "But we just wanted to give an outlet for people to see other performers out here in the Raleigh area."
Early in the 20th century, American burlesque was the most theatrical form of adult entertainment. With 19th-century roots in the music hall and variety shows in England, as well as the striptease shows of the Moulin Rouge in Paris, stateside burlesque was a blend of ribald, satirical comedy and titillating exotic dancing. It spawned famous dancers like Gypsy Rose Lee as well as legendary comedians like Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason and Bob Hope. Eventually, a social crackdown of burlesque shows in the 1930s led to its downfall.
But in the past decade, burlesque has made a comeback, sometimes in unexpected places. Roller derby teams, which had their own resurgence a few years ago, have used elements of burlesque in costuming and sensibility.
O'Leary says she started the Asheville festival mostly to educate the public that burlesque is more than half-naked girls. "In order to understand what burlesque, belly dance, the circus arts - what it is they have to offer, people needed to see just top-notch, national and international quality," says O'Leary. "That the public could understand just how far you can take these art forms, in terms of art and professional polish."
It's not just stripping
Members of the Vixens agree that they're bringing more to the stage than just stripping. A typical show also includes a tap dancer, a blues singer and a fire performer.
"Burlesque tends to include elements of irony and socio-cultural statements and political statements," says Cheryl Johnson, who performs as Tallulah Bordeaux. "It's kind of about making fun of the class difference and whatnot. We'll tend to bring these issues onto the stage and use them kind of in a sardonic, lighthearted, ironic kind of way."
For Frances Thrash, or Lolly Trollop, it's about breaking free of social conventions. "I was possessed of a very Victorian idea of women's virtue and ladylike behavior," Thrash says. "And that was getting pretty repressive as I moved into my 20s. And I found that burlesque is a really saucy and fun way to break out of that without compromising my ladylike ethos. Because you're still a lady when you're on that stage."
For the performers, the film "Burlesque" offers a mixed bag. The exposure to their art could be good, but Reamer, for one, doesn't believe it will depict the scene in a well-rounded manner. "To me, I think the way they're going to portray it is very cabaret style. I think it's going to be more focused on the costuming, more of the singing versus the actual striptease behind what a lot of women did in burlesque," she says. "I may Netflix it."
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