by Leah Sottile
When you're in the business of dolling up your nipples, there's more to consider than just the color of your tassels. Granted, color and style matter -- but even more important is just how much you're gonna give 'em, how much you'll make 'em beg -- and whether or not you're going to bare it all. The same goes for just how high you edge that miniskirt, how long it takes you to kick off those stilettos, how long you like to hear 'em scream. When you're in the anything-and-everything world of burlesque, teasing is an art and laughter is a goal, but glamour is what makes it sparkle.
And the best thing about burlesque? It's OK to look.
You remember burlesque girls -- or has it been that long? They were the doe-eyed, pin-curled pin-up girls gracing the risqu & eacute;-but-not-too-risqu & eacute; calendar in your dad's garage. They were the ones you secretly lusted after, the ones you caught your mom pausing to admire and the reason your dad spent so much time playing with his toolbox. She was the innocent girl, the pussycat with the naughty side. She made you smile.
They were the high-kicking, cigarette-stained voices on the stage and screen, behind the red curtains, the fantasies of every straight-shooting male and the skirt-envy of every closeted transsexual boy. Quivering in feathers and satin, spilling out of their corsets and perched atop five-inch heels, the ladies of burlesque were confident, sexy, talented gems -- the ones that no one could take their eyes off. They never showed too much, always coyly smiling rows of sparkling pearls and batting carefully lacquered lashes. They left off just where your imagination picked up.
But when the tease became too much and when the belly laughs subsided, burlesque -- at its peak from the 1920s to the '50s -- faded like the memories of Betty Grable's pinup legs. The tassels came off, the skirts were kicked aside, the jokes were curbed and the music was cranked up. Tease turned into showing it all.
Then, just when baring it all was getting old, a young Cecilia Bravo found herself with a closet full of '50s dresses, a head of hair piled into a beehive and a fascination with the pinup girls and dancers of a long-gone era.
"I would go to punk rock shows with a beehive," she says. "I wouldn't want to take them down from the night before. I liked these vintage dresses, too, but there wasn't really anywhere to wear those."
But when she discovered burlesque -- the costumes, the glamour and glitz -- she realized she could keep her beehive. It was exactly the kind of entertainment she was looking for.
"One day, I actually came across a Las Vegas Grind compilation record, I picked it up and on the back there were these photos of burlesque performers in Vegas," Bravo says. "I thought, 'This would be great -- why don't people do this?' Personally, I'd love to go to a lounge, sit down, have a drink and watch these beautiful girls in great outfits and tassels."
Without a day of dance classes, voice lessons or costume design, she put her shyness aside and let the spirits of Tempest Storm and Gypsy Rose Lee lead her. She rallied support, sewed some costumes and wrote a show. After a year of planning, she hosted her first burlesque show in an old Vancouver, British Columbia, church hall. And the crowd went wild.
"People just went crazy for it," she recalls. "I originally didn't want to be in the show. I was extremely shy, so I thought 'I'll just wear wigs and try to disguise myself.' It was so exhilarating to have people screaming and cheering."
And once she felt the rush of being a real, live burlesque performer, she kept squishing herself into corsets, piling on the lipstick and writing cheeky, bawdy comedy bits. By 2001, Bravo and her fellow performers were known as the best show in town -- dubbed the Fluffgirl Burlesque Society and regularly selling out Vancouver's Commodore Ballroom. The girls were doing the real thing, not the wannabe burlesque of the Suicide Girls or the Pussycat Dolls. This was the burlesque of a long-gone era.
"It's a hot word," she says. "People call something burlesque and it isn't. I don't like that. There's a difference between performance art and burlesque."
Because by labeling something "burlesque," many performance troupes are attaching a style, a history and the names of some of the best performers in the history of the stage to their show - and that's a lot to live up to.
Burlesque is rooted in early Victorian days, when the cultural divide between the working class and the aristocracy was gaping. The style's aim was solely pointed at mocking the entertainment of the upper class: opera, Shakespearean drama and ballet. Performers would be intentionally inappropriate, joking and commenting bawdily on those things admired so dearly by aristocrats. Burlesque became a sort of Saturday Night Live for the working class -- laughing at the foibles of the rich and famous in a lowbrow sideshow of sketch comedy, song and dance. Nothing was sacred in burlesque.
And, according to Bravo, the same goes for the new wave of burlesque.
"I don't try to stray too far away from burlesque," she says. "What I try to do is add a little extra something to it that makes it unique."
For that something extra, the Fluffgirls add hilarious costumes, individual performance sketches, audience participation and a whole lotta tease to their show. And Bravo ensures that all of the Fluffgirls are no less glamorous than the '50s pinups and cabaret singers from whom they draw their inspiration. Cecilia Bravo, DeeDee Luxe, Flame Cynders, Diamond Ice and The Indra are living, breathing versions of that calendar girl in your dad's garage.
"For me, burlesque is about the style and the glamour and the costuming," says Bravo.
"I just see a lot of performers [in other shows] who they don't have makeup on, and their hair isn't done up," she scoffs. "I personally like my sequined gowns."
And along with the glitz and glamour comes a do-it-yourself attitude that has been with burlesque performers since the beginning. The girls generally sew their own costumes, plan their own bits, write their own jokes, run the lights, take tickets, pack up the van and drive to the next gig. They all want to be burlesque girls, and in their minds, each of them is. If you want to sing, you sing; if you want to dance, you dance. And if you don't think you can but you want to -- well, don't think.
"You don't really need a good voice -- you just have to want to do something, and you can do it in burlesque," Bravo says.
Because everyone is sexy if they want to be, she says, just as long as they are confident. A good burlesque show is just that: confident performers. And with that, you don't need scenery, props or contrived jokes. The girls are the show.
"We've picked really strong performers, and if you have a really good performers, then you won't need a whole lot of props," says Bravo. "It doesn't matter where [each Fluffgirl is], they have that natural charisma that they shine wherever they are."
And when you're that good, a burlesque show isn't just the same old French maids and lonely housewives singing and dancing. In the Fluffgirl revue, the girls are sexy cat burglars, hula dancers, mermaids and geishas -- with the occasional dominatrix, of course. They'll twirl their tassels, they'll tease you and make you laugh. If they're lacking in one department, they'll make up for it in another.
"I don't have huge boobs, so I'll stuff things in my corset," Bravo says, noting that she'll pack hers with roses, and lustily pull them out and give them to slack-jawed audience members.
"People are expecting a little bit extra," she laughs, "and we're going to give it to them."
Go ahead and look -- that's why the Fluffgirls are there. If you're worried, bring your wife -- she'd probably like to look, too.
Publication date: 03/31/05