So it's high noon, and I'm stuck in Southern California—literally, stuck—in a dune of sand.
I'm traveling solo; my only companions are a dead cell phone and a canteen of drinking water on the verge of boiling. I'm headed to the Miss Exotic World competition, which for some reason is being held on a goat farm in hell—Helendale, California, to be precise, which is halfway between L.A. and Las Vegas—along a road that someone forgot to finish. Lakes of sand flood up to wherever the proper road slacks off.
The Starbucks napkin I'm clutching—which is smeared with latte stains and my directions—says to plough on, straight through the desert, which I tried unsuccessfully to do in my sassy red Hyundai rental. Now I'm sunk. And since I'm a girl in the stereotypical sense, and don't know shit about cars except how to wax a hood in hot pants, I've been spinning out the front tires for about 40 minutes. The car continues to sink.
Then there are the vultures. They have caught the stink of my city-girl confusion and circle the car, calling dibs on my fleshy parts. Two options are left at this point: I can walk for miles back to the Victory Outreach Christian Recovery Home, my last sighting of civilization; or I can drink a beer. I pop the trunk, grab a Schmidt Ice, and step back to stare at my rental. The front tires have disappeared under the sand. This is not a problem I can fix by twirling my tits.
I decide that my best move is to sit tight, get drunk, and build sandcastles until someone saves me or I run out of beer. I squat down in the sand and take off my shirt—I might as well die with a tan. The vultures have landed, and appear to be avidly staring at my chest, which is appropriate: According to my napkin, I'm not that far from the Exotic World Burlesque Museum.
Exotic World has been camped in Helendale, California, for more than 50 years, although burlesque dancing has been around much longer.
Burlesque first emerged in the late 1800s as the racy kid sister of vaudeville variety acts. During interludes between comedians, sexy women in risqué outfits would prance onstage and perform short, gimmicky skits and clever dances. By the 1930s, burlesque had established itself as an independent art form, with solo dancers, such as the famous Gypsy Rose Lee, playing Broadway and signing film deals. At its zenith, burlesque reigned as the most indecent, titillating, fleshy form of entertainment available. Statuesque dancers performed for appreciative and primarily male audiences. As burlesquers strutted and teased their way across stage, many of the men in the audience put their coats on their laps and masturbated during the show.
When classical burlesque disrobed into the modern-day striptease, anti-obscenity campaigns sprung up. Burlesque was banned in New York City in 1942.
Those dancers who remained in the industry unionized under the leadership of the legendary stripper Jennie Lee, who established the Exotic Dancers League in 1954. Lee then bought an abandoned goat farm in the middle of nowhere on historic Route 66, and created the Exotic World Burlesque Museum. Lee was concerned about the fate of burlesque, and of her endangered stripper friends, who would become homeless and destitute once their breasts reached retirement length. Her plan was to create a Maybelline Oasis in the desert, and invite elderly dancers to live on her land and donate their G-strings and high heels to her burgeoning burlesque museum. They would wait out death together by reliving glory days and sharing bawdy stories with adventurous tourists.
Lee's plan didn't pan out. The Exotic Dancers League fizzled as burlesque continued to wither and die. While the museum filled with priceless burlesque antiques, not many people were willing to risk being eaten by vultures to see these treasures. When Jennie Lee died in 1990 from breast cancer, it looked like her dream would disintegrate into another goat farm turned failed stripper's paradise turned sand dune.
Fortunately, Miss Dixie Evans, the "Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque," stepped in after Lee's death and organized the first annual Miss Exotic World competition as a fundraiser to save Exotic World. Miss Dixie is no stranger to the museum; she has an entire goat stall devoted to her successful and scandalous career as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator. (In 1956, Monroe unsuccessfully sued Dixie.) Miss Dixie is now in her 70s, and hosts hundreds of performers and spectators at the kitschy revival show, which celebrated its 15th anniversary on June 4th of this year.
"Each year we get more people, and they keep returning for more," says Miss Dixie. "Burlesque is back!"
Burlesque is back with a vengeance in Seattle. There are weekly burlesque performances at venues such as Re-bar and the Mirabeau Room. Seattle is home to strutting troupes such as the Atomic Bombshells, Honey and Charlie, and the Von Foxies, and solo artists such as Miss Indigo Blue, Paula the Swedish Housewife, and Tamara the Trapeze Lady.
But do we need burlesque back? It's been more than 50 years since the golden age of burlesque, and in that time our country has come to reek of sex like a bathroom stall at Tiki Bob's. It's impossible to go out in public without dodging nipple. Cable television exposes more flesh than the raciest burlesque act ever did. Consumers are dry-humped by corporate advertisers, mass media, and trashy fashion trends. In today's desensitized culture, punctuated by the invention of pre-teen G-strings, what does this antiquated performance style have to offer the public?
"Modern burlesque has become a performance art form that embraces all body types and images without being exploitive," says Amelia Ross-Gilson, AKA Miss Indigo Blue, a pillar of Seattle's thriving burlesque scene. She is a petite and cute thirty-something woman whose signature blue costumes complement her pale skin and dark hair. While she promotes all body types in burlesque, her own figure is slim and perfect for the stage. Miss Indigo Blue has a background in dance, and began working in the sex industry in the early '90s at the Lusty Lady and the now-defunct Champ Arcade. After several years of stripping, she attended her first burlesque convention in New Orleans and had an epiphany.
"It was amazing. These women were doing the same stuff I was, or wanted to be doing, only they were calling it burlesque. It was sexy, classy, hilarious, and tragically obscure. I really embraced it."
After returning to Seattle, she connected with Tamara the Trapeze Lady to produce the Fallen Women Follies in 1995. It was the first presentation of women in the sex industry performing their art to an audience of their choosing. This May, the event celebrated its 10th anniversary. In 2003, Miss Indigo founded the Academy of Burlesque in Seattle. She offers adventurous women six-week spring and fall courses in which she teaches the history of burlesque as well as classic burlesque moves, lessons in pasty application, tassel twirling, flirtation, and the Art of the Tease. In Miss Indigo's class, women practice getting naked, feeling sexy, and exposing themselves to strangers.
To get a feel for what Miss Indigo does, I attended a recital given by students of her Academy, called Graduates Gone Wild!, at the Re-bar earlier this year. The place was packed—but primarily with women. Folding chairs overflowed with family members, friends, and high-fiving dykes. Cute girls in corsets and fishnets patrolled the audience, chatting and selling raffle tickets to raise money for Verbena, a grassroots project geared toward supporting lesbians with cancer. There wasn't a single man with his coat in his lap.
When the lights dim and the show begins, a curvy woman steps onstage—Elsa Von Schmaltz of the burlesque power-trio the Von Foxies. She's wearing a pink tutu and tank top, with matching cook's apron and chef's hat. There is a pig snout stuck on her face. As old-timey music croons in the background, she slowly strips off the apron and tutu, and turns to reveal a tightly curled pig's tail. Her ass twitches at the audience rhythmically as she peeks at them from behind her snout. The chef's hat flies off, revealing silky pink pig ears, and then she whips out a turkey baster and pantomimes basting herself in her own juices. Once she is wet enough, the pig chef turns her tail to the audience and slowly pulls her top up over her ears and off. Nothing is visible except for her bare back, long legs, and tail-topped ass. The crowd shouts encouragement on stage, urging her to turn around. Her hips start to sway from side to side, providing momentum to whip her semi-nude body around. Her pendulous breasts wave at the crowd, capped with silver, glittery pasties, and dripping tassels. Six pasties, actually, for six pendulous breasts that march down her stomach like teats on a sow. The audience hoots.
"Man, I'd still be eating meat if it shook its tits at me first," whispers a woman behind me. "That was so hot!"
The pig chef's rows of tits were far from perfect, or even symmetrical. Neither was her stomach or ass. In neo-burlesque dancing, there are stretch marks, stubble, lots of cellulite, and every other real or imagined body flaw, all exposed, undulating, and coated in glitter. Yet aside from one comment I overheard about the mechanics of fucking a fat chick, no one at Re-bar had any negative critiques of the performers, their bodies, or their acts. Audience members arrived to dish out some love, to affirm their friends' and girlfriends' personal triumphs. They cheered as the women onstage overcame insecurities about back hair, stretch marks, or varicose veins.
"Burlesque is liberating and body positive," burlesque veteran Paula the Swedish Housewife told me later. "Women should be proud of their bodies no matter what their shape, size, or age."
The experience was very body-positive, and liberating for the performers. Every act displayed humor and imagination, but none were an erotic thrill-ride for the audience. Paula and Miss Indigo are right: All women should be proud of their hairy, lumpy bodies. But obviously not all bodies are created equal—some lucky women like Tamara, Paula, and Miss Indigo have slightly more perfect ones, which gives them a leg up in the world of erotic dance. They are the professionals. They are also therapeutic burlesque counselors, training the rest of us to accept our droopy nipples and saddlebags with a smile and jazz hands. But should we all have the privilege or shaking our asses up onstage?
"Burlesque is confidence for the individual," Miss Indigo explained to me. "Women come into my classes with baggage related to their body, gender, size—they come with a history. I teach them that onstage, they don't have to deal with all that. They can emphasize parts of themselves that make them feel glamorous, or they can highlight their flaws, embrace them, and challenge the audience to do the same. Onstage, women are allowed to put on a new skin—it's therapeutic."
So what I saw at Graduates Gone Wild! wasn't burlesque in any sense that Gypsy Rose, Jennie Lee, Miss Dixie, or their horny audiences of yesteryear would understand. It wasn't about arousing anything other than—what? Empathy? I am not into group therapy—for others or myself. Embracing all body types is fantastic in principle, but should we have to pay 20 bucks to participate in some fat chick's public affirmation?
Allow me to describe my ass. It's small, relatively firm, and 21 years old. It sits comfortably in a size eight pair of jeans, and has two pairs of moles like fang marks on the left cheek. In general, I am okay with my ass. It is not bad. And as I was taught from early childhood on, absolutely no one sees it without buying me dinner first. Same goes for my tits.
There's more to my modesty than prudish dogma. Even though I am young, thin, and fit, my body is far from perfect. It is lumpy in some places, deflated in others. There are Hair Issues. I don't have a problem describing myself naked, or flashing some ass after a meal, but I'm sure as hell not going to shake it for a crowd. A move like that takes more guts and less ass than I've got.
Despite my reticence to get naked and shake it, I signed up for a few lessons with Miss Indigo. I hoped to experience what women found so empowering and therapeutic about burlesque. I wanted to find out what could be done about my ankles, which appear to be thickening with age, and maybe why my father abandoned my mother and me for his other loves—drinking and driving—when I was, like, 5.
Instead, I learned how to twirl a pair of tassels.
In Washington State, as in most states, it is illegal to show nipple in public, or in an establishment selling alcohol. Instead, women wear chest upholstery, AKA pasties—bits of fabric that are larger, gaudier, and more inflamingly erotic than nipples could ever manage to be on their own.
"Burlesque is all about the tease—what's held back," Miss Indigo Blue said, and the law requires us to hold back our nipples.
For the record, tassel twirling is violently unsexy until the skill is mastered. And women with chests like sunken treasure, like me, are further handicapped in making the action resemble anything erotic. Nevertheless, it is terribly addicting. Breasts are usually lashed down, like rabid dogs, in everyday life. There is something powerful about unleashing them, especially in a room full of other breasts, and letting them flop and pucker at will. By the time I finished Miss Indigo's class I could twirl tassels clockwise, counterclockwise, and in opposite directions.
After my graduation I called up an ex-boyfriend of mine.
"Hey Ben, why don't you come over and watch me strip?"
"Because I can do it real good."
"Would I have to buy you dinner first?"
"How about a drink afterward?"
So in front of an audience of one, I unleash my chest, wave my nipples around, take the fancy gloves on and off a couple of times with my teeth. It's very liberating and enjoyable, even if I am performing it for a man.
Ben bought me dinner.
At some point between its heyday and its near-death experience on that goat farm in the desert, burlesque shifted from an art form that was about entertaining an audience to one that was about satisfying the performer. At the same time it also drifted away from tantalizing men.
"We get more excited responses from women than from men," said Kitten LaRue, a cofounder of Seattle burlesque troupe the Atomic Bombshells. "Being onstage is very empowering; you have to be comfortable with yourself before you can step out and make an audience feel comfortable and entertained. Women understand this and respond strongly to it."
Miss Indigo Blue agrees: "For some, burlesque has become female-female drag. It is a chance for women to exaggerate and articulate their own femininity."
I was able to catch the Atomic Bombshells before they migrated to Province---town, MA to perform for the summer. These women easily live up to their titles as bombshells, a quality that seems to differentiate these traditional burlesquers from the therapeutic neo-burlesquers. The Bombshells make their money presenting traditionally beautiful female forms primped and glitzed for optimum arousal. If you're attracted to "traditional" good looks and shiny things (which admittedly, most people are), this is the burlesque show for you.
On the night I attended, I watched Lily Vanderloo step onstage wrapped in chains and the wispy scarves of a sexy harem girl. For three whole minutes, she elaborately struggled with her "Chains of Desire." The audience seemed to appreciate the allure of classic burlesque.
"Anyone can learn how to pole dance on a playground," said Mirabeau barfly Matt Vielbig. "It takes dancing like this to win my affections."
At the end of my lessons, Miss Indigo invited me to attend the Miss Exotic World competition in California, which is how I came to be stranded in the desert. Miss Indigo was going to be competing for the title of Miss Exotic World. The competition also doubles as an annual reunion for surviving burlesque stars from the '40s and '50s. These women attend the event to impart their wisdom, trade secrets, and demonstrate moves for the younger generation. It was an event I couldn't miss.
But two hot and tasty beers later, I am still building sandcastles and waiting to die when something glinty catches my eye. It's another vehicle, a big, maroon van, bravely skirting the same "Road Closed" sign I disregarded hours ago. I huck my beer can at the vultures, and then stand and do something resembling jumping jacks. The van stops.
My saviors turn out to be Seattle women I'm quite familiar with from my explorations of burlesque—the burlesque trio the Von Foxies, Chica Boom of BurlyQ Queer Cabaret, and John the Photographer, a friend, associate, and photographer of the Von Foxies. They are headed for the Miss Exotic World Competition too. With their help I finally unearth my front wheels. I maneuver my rental car back onto the pavement just as Paula the Swedish Housewife drives up. We get into our cars and I fall in line behind a caravan of strippers headed for Stripper Mecca.
At the entrance we're met by Miss Indigo Blue and her close friend the Sexy Librarian. Inside the compound, a pack of half-clad women are on a mission to paint acres of surface pink in preparation for the competition. While the paint dries and before the festivities begin, I slip into the infamous burlesque museum for a quick self-guided tour.
The building is small and airless, but each room contains beautiful memorabilia—jeweled G-strings, hand-stitched costumes, elaborate jewelry, beaded feather boas, alluring photos, and antique high heels. These items aren't trapped in glass cases, or even properly labeled. In the last room I explore, I spot the cremated remains of former burlesque star Sheri Champagne sitting on the floor. For a girl like me who finds taxidermied puppies as endearing as live ones, discovering a dead stripper in a jar in the middle of the desert is heavenly. And well worth the drive.
The party lasts for two days and the dancing hardly stops in that time. Miss Indigo's act is sexy, clever, and deserving of the title Miss Exotic World, however, the crown passes from reigning queen Dirty Martini to Michelle L'amour (and her ass that goes POW!). Competition is fierce; one stoic dancer receives blistering sores on her feet during her performance for Best Newcomer. Grandmothers rise and shimmy for an audience that hoots in pleasure and awe. Some reveal all, right down to their pink G-strings and old-lady cooches. These women aren't stripping because they need the affirmation; their moves are a tribute to the past, and to a profession that has liberated women in more ways than one. ■