At Burlesque Conference, Learn To Shimmy And How To Do Your Taxes
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. The crowd arriving last night for the opening performance of the “Great Burlesque Exposition” is dressed to the nines. The women’s gowns and the men’s vests and fedoras seem to have sprung from some 1940s hardboiled noir.
The lights go down in the blandly ornate President’s Ballroom of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Cambridge and out walks Scratch—just the one name he’d told me, “like Cher,” though the program also lists him as Ol’ Scratch, like the Devil. Sporting a beard and ponytail, he comes attired in a white coat with tails, a red vest and black fedora.
How many here are attending their first burlesque show, he asks. Not many hands go up. “So we’ve got a house full of experienced perverts,” he jokes, and gets a big cheer in response.
It’s the kickoff of the seventh annual Boston burlesque conference, running through Sunday, March 31. “The conference is a serious professional development conference,” Scratch had told me some days earlier. “It’s not just about learning to bump and grind, it’s about taxes.”
Daytime workshops this weekend address hand-sewing, “tantalizing shimmies,” contracts, “tassel twirling,” marketing, obscenity law, body image, and “dancing in shoes you shouldn’t be walking in.” Vendors sell corsets, lingerie, vintage clothing, leather, wigs and jewelry.
The evenings are devoted to burlesque shows, like the opening night’s “The Rhinestone Revue,” featuring a lineup of prominent dancers from across the country and winning performers from previous years’ Boston burlesque expos. The audience for the first night is more women than men. There’s a party atmosphere.
“This event for us is about both our history and our future,” says Scratch, founding chairman of the expo and producer, manager and master of ceremonies for the Boston Babydolls, a leading New England burlesque troupe. The annual expo is a sign of how established the burlesque revival has become.
“The modern burlesque revival is a collision of the nostalgia culture—the same culture that produced the swing dance revival and rockabilly, that looking backwards, and tiki culture,” Scratch says. “And fringe theater and feminism for a lot of people. And it’s got this DIY [Do It Yourself] quality to it. It’s the same wave that produced steampunk and maker culture.”
Scratch gives me a quick rundown of burlesque’s history. “From the literary sense, a burlesque is a parody,” he explains. “American burlesque was a parody of legitimate theater. When Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes first came to America in the late 1800s, it was called burlesque because they were parodying Shakespeare. It was like ‘Saturday Night Live.’”
“It was comedy, but it was comedy performed by women in skimpy clothing, or skimpy clothing for the time. That became burlesque,” Scratch says. “A classic burlesque was a variety show … And there was a striptease.”
“As burlesque evolved, more and more what people were interested in were women in skimpy clothing,” he says. “These days burlesque is a synonym for theatrical striptease, without the nudity, because nobody gets naked in burlesque.”
He’s using the word “naked” here rather narrowly—so as not to include most of “The Rhinestone Revue” performances, which end with most of the ladies, and the gentlemen, wearing only pasties and a G-string.
“I have always been kind of a musical theater nerd,” says Stella Diamond (her stage name, of course), a 26-year-old who began performing with the Boston Babydolls a year ago. “I was really looking for a supportive dance environment. And I saw an advertisement that Boston Babydolls were holding auditions.”
“It’s a great group of people. The burlesque community is really fun and really supportive,” Diamond says.
“It’s a lot of acting with your face and your body,” she says. And she gets to sing. But in addition to your typical musical theater skills, Diamond allows that burlesque includes “taking your clothes off and the art of striptease. I think it’s just a different venue to express yourself in, to express yourself as a dancer.”
“The Rhinestone Revue” features Scarlett Letter (“4 feet of hair and miles of bad intentions,” Scratch tells the crowd); Lucy Buttons (“the queen of rock and roll burlesque”); Jo Weldon of New York, a key pioneer of the burlesque revival and author of 2010’s “The Burlesque Handbook.”
Six women from the Boston Babydolls shimmy in darkness except for flashlights they each hold to spotlight each other in time to the beat of an Elvis tune. Willy Barrett gets laughs by stripping off his coat, and then stripping naked a chocolate bar. St. Stella and James and the Giant Pastie offer a show in which a very male sculpture comes to life, at first frightening a woman, but soon blossoming into romance. Paco Fish, a fellow who was named “most humorous” at last year’s expo, walks on in a glittering judge’s robe and wig and proceeds to do naughty things with a gavel and the scales of justice.
But most of numbers are pretty traditional—with the dancer performing solo, arriving on stage in a full gown and proceeding to slowly, seductively strip off nearly every glove, skirt, scarf and feather she’s wearing.
Burlesque, Scratch tells me, is “very accepting in a way that modern media culture isn’t. You don’t have to have a Playboy Playmate body to be on stage in burlesque. … Burlesque is also often really smart, because burlesque artists frequently tell stories. It might be about gender. It might be about politics. It might be a movie parody. Burlesque is clever.”
He adds, “Sometimes it’s really funny. Sometimes it’s vulnerable. Sometimes it’s ugly and horrifying. Sometimes the clothes come off to make a statement.”
“I think for people what would be surprising is the story element,” Babydolls dancer Stella Diamond says. “It’s not just about taking the clothes off. It’s about the journey not the destination is what we like to say.”
“With the Boston Babydolls it’s a shiny happy world,” she says. In their shows, “taking off clothes solves problems. It’s definitely escapism. It’s a happy place.”