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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Burlesque: Creating Sexy Empowered Women Since 1840

By Alexis B. Hodoyán-Gastélum.

It is a full house at Worthington’s Tavern in Riverside, CA tonight. Leather jacket wearing, tattooed guys talk to girls with pinup hairstyles and black dresses. Small crowds of friends and acquaintances gather around small wooden tables, chatting and drinking five dollar Blue Moon beers and Bacardi with Coke cocktails. In a second room just across the bar, past the pool table and the British phone booth, a stage with a pole stands. This room is not as packed.

Around nine o’clock, people from the bar start filling in the second room, the "Ghouls Gone Wild" burlesque show is about to start. With the holiday just around the corner, the performances are Halloween inspired. Krisanna Marie, a performer/teacher going by “Miss Hula-la”, takes the stage wearing a black cowgirl costume with a white faux flower on her short black hair. She’s not performing tonight though; she’s the mistress of ceremony, presenting the dancers and entertaining the audience.

The show kicks off with Cinnamon Britches, receiving loud cheers from men and women. She dances on the floor rather than on stage, captivating the audience more dynamically. Followed by Pepper La Rue, “The Queen of Red Hot Burlesque”, dancing to “I Put a Spell On You” in a witch’s costume.

“What street does a zombie end up on?” Krisanna asks, “A dead end.”A few perplexed glances from the audience and only a couple of chuckles later, “It’s terrible, I know” says Krisanna, mocking her own bad joke.

In comes a woman with long red curly hair on the left side of her head with a black faux flower pinned to it, the right side of her head is shaved. Little Miss Vicious wears a long red
velvet cape and long black opera gloves, holding a skull in her hand. Loud rock music comes out of the speakers while she dances around the stage, taking off the cape and revealig her black sequined bra and bottom. She uses the skull as a prop, tilting back to drip blood-looking -liquid from its mouth onto her chest.

Next up is Neko Love, the zombie bunny from the Playboy Mansion. Lastly, the “sultry vixen” Diana Cabanel delights the audience with her striptease and tricks on the pole, twirling and hanging upside down.

This marks the end of the burlesque show for tonight. Up next, the folk group “Los Duggans” take the stage while half of the room is emptied to the bar for more drinks and laughs.

The Sparkling and Glittering Old Days

Burlesque is “a comedic and risqué performance art with striptease dance and an emphasis on teasing”, as Krisanna explains in her handouts. The dance involves hip bumps, sways, swivels and grinds in a feminine, flirty and teasing manner. The dancers’ routines typically convey a specific story, theme or character. To make matters much more dramatic, a burlesque dancer usually wears opera-length gloves, sparkling pasties, high heels, corsets, stockings and garters, rhinestones and feathers; pretty much anything that makes a woman feel sexy and feminine.

Though highly publicized nowadays in the media, burlesque is anything but a novelty. The art of tease has been around since the mid 1800’s, when burlesque was a comedic play used by the middle classes of Great Britain and the United States to satire the upper classes’ social habits.

As time went by, Americans broke off and revolutionized burlesque in their own ways. Legend has it that dancer Little Egypt introduced the "hootchie-kooch" at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, being the first to “belly dance” on American soil.

Burlesque’s primary attraction was a subtle interpretation of sex, but strip tease wasn’t in the package from the start. The act of strip teasing was later introduced to offer something extra that Vaudeville couldn’t. Though Little Egypt never stripped, another legend says that dancer Hinda Wassa was the first ever to strip while performing. In 1928, “The Great Lady of the Grind” was a chorus girl doing a “pick-out number”. To save time, Hinda wore one outfit under the other. When it was time to run off stage to take off the costume, her zipper stuck. The stage manager started to yell at her, forcing her to go onstage with half her gown off. Incorporating it to her routine, she tried to quiver her way out of the gown. Shaking and twirling her bosom, the top costume slowly came off. The more Hinda worked for it, the more the jerks (the audience) cheered as the second costume slowly revealed itself.

After that, burlesque promoters such as the Minsky brothers put strip teasers on the main stage. But nudity in bars and cabarets was illegal in the golden days. Dancers ingeniously found their way around such regulations, using G-strings and pasties to cover their bottoms and nipples. Though far more vulgar than full on nudity, these were enough to keep the fuzz at bay. Comedy stopped being the attraction of burlesque, having men seeking the shows to see women strip. The legendary “Queen of Class”, Gypsy Rose Lee, brought a new graceful ladylike striptease act never seen in the world of Burly-Q before. The ever witty headliner for the Misnky’s once told officers on a police raid of the club: “I wasn't naked. I was completely covered by a blue spotlight."

Burlesque remained strong throughout the first half of the 20th century. It saw the birth of glamorous and sensual stars such as Bettie Page and Ann Corio. But by the 1960’s, the “sexual revolution” had arrived, bringing hardcore pornography alongside. Burlesque was now completely useless to men. They now had more graphic outlets to fulfill their fantasies.

“Always wondered… What it would be like to shimmy and strut like a sultry vixen or rhinestone covered showgirl?”

Between five dancing poles, in front of a wall with mirrors stands Yana Etemadi, a burlesque teacher at Stiletto Shimmy in Costa Mesa, CA. Wearing a black tank top and matching yoga pants, barefooted and her blonde hair in a high bun, she faces her eight students and turns her iPod on. The women start to warm up to belly dancing tunes, extending their arms and legs. Grinding their hips forward and back, they put their arms in the air and start circling them as well.

It’s 7:40 p.m. now, warm up is over. Time for this week’s routine: Chair.

The women go to the other side of the room, facing the hot and baby pink diamond wall, and grab six metal caramel colored chairs and three brown wooden ones. Each positioning theirs in front of them, spreading their legs and sitting with their chests facing the back of the chairs. Arms crossed, gaze down to the floor. "The Garden" is heard from the speakers, they’re ready to start the routine.

“Oh Oh, I really wanted that thing, I just want to sing…”
The women pop their heads up. Move their torsos to the right, then to the left, grab on to the back of the chair and do a slow circling movement with the torso.

“… I love you baby won’t you bring all the flowers you find out in the garden…”
They reach down to their left ankle, slowly caressing the leg up to their thighs. The same motion with the right leg followed. Then they go down to their ankles with both hands, each on their respective leg and do the same thing, opening up the chest as they reach the top of their thighs to create a sultry effect.

“… Don’t tell me the truth that your heart has hardened…”
They fiercely grab the back of the chair, moving the right leg backward and standing up on the left side of it, left leg straight and right leg slightly bent.

“… But you don’t want me anymore, how can it be? Look what you’ve done to me oh oh…”
Followed by a slow exaggerated strut forward, after six steps they stop at the seventh, opening up their legs. An “S” movement is done with both their hands in the air all the way to the floor, stomping them on the ground and twirling their hair around like rock stars; bending the left knee and extending the right leg sideways.

Yana goes over the routine by small chunks two or three times with her students. She hits play on her iPod and they go over what they’ve learned. She then proceeds to teaching the next chunk, take it from the top and dance the whole thing. She continues the same technique until the choreography is finished. Yana lets the women get comfortable with the moves by allowing them to practice a bit on their own. One woman appeares to be making the wrong moves, so Yana approaches her. She grabs hold of the woman’s arms and moves them around in the right direction, tapping her legs so she’ll move her legs correctly as well. “Are you good? Do you need any help?” she asks another lady.

The routine is finally finished; Yana breaks the ladies into groups of three. They will now perform what they’ve learned to their fellow classmates. Three of the women joined by Yana stand between the poles and grab their chair. The others sit on the wooden floor in front of the mirrors, yet they don’t block the women who’re performing from seeing their reflections.

“Oh Oh I really wanted that thing…” the girls start a bit lost, looking at Yana for direction, “… I love you baby won’t you…” simultaneously, they start gazing at their own reflections, concentrating on their moves and trying to make them sexier. “… Don’t tell me the truth…” Yana has already performed the same routine about six times, but the same mischievous look is in her eyes and her moves are done slowly and candidly as if she were doing them for the first time.
“… But you don’t want me…” the women on the floor cheer, clap and whistle at the performers, “shake it baby, shake it!”

“Teasing” not “stripping”

People generally have the preconception that “burlesque” means having a woman dancing on a pole stripping for one dollar bills, which is anything but the truth. “Burlesque is a lot more theatrical, it’s more entertainment”, Krisanna explains while sitting on the wooden floor next to a dance pole in the Spiritus Yoga and Spa studio in Riverside where she teaches burlesque as a fitness class, “there’s still stripping, but they’re teasing, so it’s a little different.”

Nowadays, burlesque is seen as strip tease’s classier and tamer older sister, focusing on the teasing rather than the stripping. “It’s less sexual even though it is sexual”, Krisanna comments. Audiences, including men and women, go see a burlesque show for the actual show, not to see a dancer strip down to her birthday suit. “We’re trying to be sexy and seductive without taking off clothes”, Yana comments in her Russian accent after her class, “and this is way harder.” Back in October at the “Ghouls Gone Wild” show, Marika “Neko Love” Salazar wearing her black and white stripped top and bottom with pink fluffy bunny ears and blood dripping from her mouth commented, “There are more ways to be creative when you’re covered up… It’s more fun.” “It’s a normal human reaction, you take off the bra, everybody’s drooling”, Yana adds while rolling her eyes, “try to make everyone excited without taking it off. I make men excited with just taking off one glove.”

The Bombshell Factory

In an oversexed modern society, Burlesque has stopped being about bearing flesh. It’s about the glamour, the glitz and the sass. Audiences are beginning to see burlesque as a celebration of women and their femininity. “It’s about women, it’s for women” Yana says with a coy smile, “it’s for their self esteem and for their happiness. It’s all about women.”

“I personally believe that if a woman chooses to find her sexuality dancing around on stage in pasties or naked it is not exploitive but celebratory, as we the audiences are lucky enough to share in what is considered intimate” Krisanna explains, “if a woman is in control of herself, her choices, career and her destination, I can think of very few more truly empowering things.”

Burlesque has started to be part of a new feminist movement. Women, by taking control of their bodies and sexuality, are empowering themselves. “[Women] are gaining confidence, they’re touching themselves, they’re patting themselves” says Yana as she lightly graces her chest, “they see themselves in the mirror and they see that they’re pretty, they dance pretty, they’re doing pretty things, and they can be sexy. And every woman who thinks that she’s sexy, she’s confident.” Krisanna believes that burlesque helps “the common woman to feel pretty and attractive because they are constantly beaten down about their image.” “[It] allows some women, the chance to play dress up and mess around with hair and make-up” she adds, “regular women … may like the chance to be looked at or paid attention too.”

Mary Waruingi is a 32-year-old vehicle integration engineer who has taken classes with Krisanna and Yana simultaneously. Taking both classes has helped her balance her personality, since she works with mostly men and she can’t dress as feminine as she would like. She sees burlesque as an outlet for herself. Mary has lost 50 pounds since she started dancing back in May. On what she likes about it, she says “aside from the era and the glamour and the sass and all that, [burlesque is] something you can develop on your own, practice on your own… You can also be creative and make up your own routine”, which she has been working on recently.

Burly-Q, another name for burlesque, also challenges society’s concept of what is beautiful and sexy. It caters to real women, to women of all shapes and sizes. As Yana explains, the dance teaches women to love and accept themselves as they are. She touches her hips and her stomach and says, “I’m not a size two and some people are crazy about size two’s only. What? I would just die because I don’t have a size two body? They’re a lot of people who are a size eight… And that’s what I always try to explain to women, that this is for you and for you only.” Krisanna explains how dance can help women with weight loss, sustain endurance, build muscle strength, improve coordination, fight depression and increase blood flow. Yana actually describes her class as an introduction to exercise. Being overweight and going to the gym can be intimidating, so she believes her burlesque class helps these women gain confidence so they can hit the gym and get into shape.

Adding onto the self esteem, women are creating bonds with other women through the classes, they’re developing friendships. “It’s a natural thing; it’s a girl’s world” Yana says with a “duh” attitude, “they’re all opening [up] together, they’re all dancing together, they’re performing to each other, they’re all showing off to each other, of course they’ll become friends.” Krisanna on the other hand describes her class as creating a sense of “community” for the women. Mary commented how she’s friends with some of the girls in class and that she actually became co-workers with fellow burlesque classmate, Ulrike “Ulli” Hoff. '

“Burlesque is not necessarily for every woman, every woman can do it, but I think women…are gonna find themselves in different things” Krisanna explains, “for some women it is burlesque and for some women it is pole dancing, or hoop dancing, for other women it’s going to be rock [climbing], or it’s gonna be going to the gym and doing weights, you know? I don’t like to profess that burlesque can save anybody or anything like that, but I think that for quite a few women it does.”

In Yana’s case, his son Andrew was diagnosed with high-functioning autism when he was three years old. She has been going to therapy and different support groups for three years now. “I need some time when I’m not talking about the problem [Andrew] has and I’m not seeing him losing it [or] having some kind of tantrum”, Yana expresses as if she were tired, “I need the time when I’m just driving in the quiet car, nobody is screaming and fighting in the back seat, and come [to class] and nobody [is] talking kids stuff. It’s a woman’s world, it’s a sexy world and I’m a woman there. I’m the teacher and I’m an attractive sexy woman. I need this, it’s my getaway.”

“…It’s not what good girls do, not how they should behave…”

It’s week five of Yana’s burlesque class at Stiletto Shimmy. Yana comes in with her usual hair wrapped in a bun, a spaghetti strap red tank top and black capri leggings. Today is the last class of the course. They will be reviewing everything learned up until that point: chair, gloves, cane and a second chair routine.

After the warm up, the six women go to the back of the room to fetch the chairs. A skinny girl with pixie hair and rectangular glasses playfully struts her way to her place, carrying the wooden chair. Yana turns on her iPod and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” starts playing.

The routine starts with them sitting on the chair with their backs to the audience. They pop the right arm sideways and twist it around, pop the left one and twist it too. Then they pop the right arm vertically into the air, same with the left followed by the left caressing down the right arm and going to the back of the neck. The routine continues. The girl with the pixie hair goes off of the routine, touching herself and adding her own moves. She realizes she’s not in sync with the rest of the women but ignores it; she’s just doing her thing.

Yana struggles to remember the next move. Ulli, a former student who is anxiously sitting on the sofa, reminds her of the dance move: sitting in the chair, holding together both hands and raise them to your forehead as if praying, spreading the legs apart from each other and extending them on the floor.

“You can have the class free!” exclaims Yana. She saved $30. Ulli immediately gets up, wearing a big smile on her face and gives a little skip as she rushes for a chair to join the rest of the group. She was wearing jeans and a black blouse, but this didn't matter; she got to participate in the fun.

Then, it was time for gloves. Only one woman seemed to have brought some, so they had to pretend they had them on. But a burlesque dancer doesn’t just take the glove off, there’s far more to the art of removing a glove than just taking it off. You first separate the glove from your fingers with your mouth, pulling on each finger individually. Then there’s a million different ways how you take it off. A playful one is placing the hand with the glove you’re taking off above your head, so the audience can see, and with the other one, slowly pull on one finger until the glove is completely off.

“Somebody brought a cane? Girls!” says Yana as only one woman, the same as the gloves, brought a cane for the next routine. Yana opens a closet and hands out three brooms and one plastic tube. The remainder used imaginary brooms. The song is “Bad Romance”, the same routine for their "Creepy Cabaret" Halloween party/performance. Since not all of the women participated in that show, they’re reviewing the moves more thoroughly. “Ulli, Ulli! I am teaching!” yells Yana as Ulli is showing another lady what the next move is. They go over the routine without music a few times before hitting play on the iPod. Some of the ladies lock their gazes at Yana for direction; some of the more confident ones stare at their own reflections on the mirrors in front of them. These are the women who are concentrating on their moves and trying to make them provocative.

After they finish off the Gaga song, Ulli approaches Yana and apologizes. Yana tells her it’s no big deal and that it’s “awesome” that she remembers the routine.

“Oh oh I really wanted that thing…” sounds through the speakers and Ulli’s mouth; time for the second chair routine. Though she’s no longer part of the class, Ulli sits on the red sofa in the back of the room dancing and singing along. “Head head, shoulder shoulder” says Yana as she does the dance moves.

When the routine is over, she has the class vote on which songs they want to perform. Three women choose the “I Kissed a Girl” chair routine and the remaining three choose the second chair, “The Garden”.

First up are the “I Kissed a Girl” ladies, the rest sat facing them by the mirrors cheering, whistling and clapping along, Ulli included. The women chose the routine because it was the one they liked best and felt most comfortable with as well. No one was staring at Yana while they danced. Everyone was looking at their own bodies or at their reflections. They all bore flirty and naughty looks. Yana closes her eyes as she sensually touches her chest and arms.

They switch places and now the “The Garden” girls grab their chairs and get in place. The girls on the floor clapped along while Ulli singed. This group of ladies was a bit lost and looked at Yana rather than themselves. Yana is completely in her own world, she dances as if she were performing before an actual audience. The song is slower and even has a melancholic feel to it, the women bore girly and playful looks which they incorporated them to their moves. They were rocking a “good girl” attitude.

When they finish they all clap and Yana says, “This was so much fun!” This course has been the last Yana will teach entirely. She’s leaving on a medical leave on December and she will be enrolling at Orange Coast College in January, where she will work towards transferring to Cal State Long Beach. She’s pursuing the nutrition major. Shayla, a belly dance instructor, will be taking over her class. “I’m giving her my baby! This is something I did myself, I raised it, I made it. She’ll be teaching my routines to my students under my name, the name of my company”, Yana later explained.

Now that the class is over, the women circle around Yana and start chatting. They talk about the upcoming Christina Aguilera and Cher movie, “Burlesque”. “Don’t miss it please… [It’s] the same dancing as we do!” explains Yana.

“This was fun girls!” said Yana as they all clap once again. Some of the women go to the back of the room to get their stilettos and put them on for the next class, Pole 1. Slowly, the rest of the women, one by one start to leave. Class is dismissed.


End Notes:
One observation of the "Ghouls Gone Wild" show at Worthington's Tavern.
Handouts written by Krisanna Marie.
Kenrick, John. A History of the Musical Burlesque. <https://webmail.uci.edu/uci/src/webmail.php>
Dancers Wall of Fame.<http://www.eebell.net/burlesque/dancers.htm>
Watson, Sonny. Gypsy Rose Lee.<http://www.streetswing.com/histmai2/d2gypsy1.htm>
Two observations of Krisanna’s classes.
Four observations of Yana’s classes.
Two interviews with Yana Etemadi.
Three interviews with Krisanna Marie.
One observation of the “Creepy Cabaret” at Stiletto Shimmy.
Dinardo, Kelly. Burlesque Comeback Tries to Dance with Feminism.<http://www.womensenew s.org/story/commentary/041207/burlesque-comeback-tries-dance-feminism>
One interview with Mary Waruingi.
Picture of Yana from Stiletto Shimmy Facebook page.
Pictures of Neko Love and Little Miss Vicious from Hula-la Facebook page.
Picture of Krisanna from <http://misshula-la.com/home.html>

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