The first time I visited The Slipper Room, a burlesque club on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I watched a very voluptuous dancer shimmy onstage in a scant-but-extravagant lime-green butterfly costume. Her breasts and her belly fought valiantly for the audience’s attention, and the wings of flesh dangling from her arms flapped in sync with the nylon wings on her back. A Minnie Mouse giggle escaped from her lips as she commenced her reveal, removing what little fabric had been concealing her majestic knockers.
Alas! Two sequined butterfly pasties remained; there was nothing left to do but shake her chest with gusto until the tassels attached to her pasties spun like airplane propellers.
She beamed as the entire room erupted in applause, whistles, and hollers, crushing those poor souls who were leaning against the walls. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting—perhaps something more traditional?—but I stood on top of my chair, clapping manically, for this full-figured goddess and whatever it was that I happened to be watching.
On the subway back home, I began to envision myself up on the stage, the crowd worshipping my secretary hips, my muffin top spilling over my G-string, the insides of my long thighs that would rub together as I’d slink seductively offstage.
Finally, last Thursday, I stripped out of my inhibitions and signed up for a $15 beginner class with the New York School of Burlesque. I started to feel apprehensive as I walked up to the studio building on Lafayette, right off Astor Place. Looking down at my puritan wool coat and dorky sneakers I thought, “There’s no way they’ll be able to make me sexy.”
Before we began, our instructor, Jezebel Express, had us sit in a circle and divulge our reasons for taking the class.
“I was a ballet dancer for years before I moved to New York,” said a thin blond girl in black leggings. “It’s not something I’m ever going to do professionally, but I still want to dance.” She shrugged. “So I thought I’d try something new.”
One red-lipped, tattooed attendee was a go-go dancer who was sick of having men try to grab her during performances. “Yeah, you don’t have to worry about that in burlesque,” Jezebel assured her.
Two women were there together because one was moving back to Israel and they had always wanted to take a burlesque class. Another pair, two slender, timid, bespectacled Asian women, signed up because one was getting married in mid-November, and her friend insisted they try it.
Most of the women were dressed in yoga pants and sneakers, though some wore jeans or khakis. Two of the more daring students wore heels. I had been imagining a scene from an intense dance movie, like Step Up, or something; except instead of dancers in ponytails and tank tops, I would find a troupe of severe-looking Bettie Page clones, bumping and grinding with smiles on their faces too eerie to be coquettish. But much to my relief, no one else had any experience with burlesque, and everyone seemed as wide-eyed and nervous as I was.
We eventually stood up and stared at our limp, soon-to-be-sexy bodies in the mirror, while Jezebel slipped on a pair of sturdy ruby peep toe heels and shimmied over to her stereo to pop in a jazz CD.
First, she taught us how to stand. “Everyone looks hot when they stand like this,” she said, sliding her sizable right leg, knee bent and toe pointed, over to her left. “Now stick out your chest like you’re in seventh grade, and put your hands on your hips.” We scrutinized her perfect form and tried to mold our stubborn I-shaped bodies into S’s.
She was right; such simple maneuvers gave us instant sex appeal. It was like magic—or those Victoria’s Secret cyborg bras that make your breasts three sizes bigger. “Yes! Hot!” she assured us, glancing over her shoulder. Smiles flickered in the mirror.
These days, burlesque is more than just tits, tassels, fishnets, and feathers. Most of these things can now be replaced with any number of costumes and routines, although tassels remain a staple (nevertheless, “assels,” butt tassels, have been rising in popularity). Jo Weldon, the headmistress of the illustrious New York School of Burlesque, published The Burlesque Handbook this year, which in its introduction elucidates the more modern advances in burlesque.
Now, performances often include “a circus skill, a humorous skit, an extremely elaborate costume, or a political message.” Jezebel’s own favorite skit is one in which she is dressed up as a lightning bug and must strip her way out of a jar.
Almost anything goes in neo-burlesque—the term coined for this revived version of the art form, which emerged with a vengeance in all its bawdiness and gaudiness in the early 1990’s. After burlesque had been kicked out of New York by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1942. Whether they are eating fire, shedding a Godzilla costume, or just taking off one glove extremely slowly and seductively, as long as the dancer is enjoying her or himself (yes, there are “boylesque” dancers), the audience almost always will too.
I got a chance to chat with Jezebel over beers after class. We speculated about how “Burlesque,” the soon-to-be-released movie starring Cher and Christina Aguilera, would portray the world of burlesque—and how this mainstream depiction would inevitably ripple into the real life version. “It’s gonna be a hot train wreck and I’m gonna go see it,” Jezebel snickered. “Then people are going to be coming to class like, ‘Make me a star!’ and then I’ll tell them to take off their tops.”
We talked about the first impressions of burlesque for those unacquainted with the subculture (i.e. her parents, and soon, everyone else in America), the ways in which it is different from stripping (though not necessarily holier-than; Jezebel stressed that she doesn’t believe in the such class divisions), the perhaps antiquated argument about whether or not you can be a feminist and still take off all your clothes on a stage, and the issues that arise when all body types—tall, short, big, small, male, female, transsexual—are displayed in all their nude glory.
Jezebel herself is a big, curvy woman. She described a time when a guy came over to her teary-eyed after a performance, and said, “You have to tell me when you’re dancing again because you look so much like my wife and she won’t let me see her naked anymore because she hates her body, and I need to bring her back here to show her that she’s beautiful.” But Jezebel admitted that she’s used to this; she knows that by stripping in front of strangers, she’s asking people to reevaluate their commercially influenced conception of beauty. And with that come extreme reactions that can’t always be pigeonholed into “good and bad.” Burlesque, I learned, is often about that gray area in between.
“I love defying people’s expectations,” she said. “With burlesque, you’re just asking people to deal with the fact that you have personality and sexuality,” she said, leaning forward. “Prancing around in your underwear with personality is subversive.”
During class, this was perhaps emphasized above all. At one point, we got into a circle and practiced posing to the music one at a time. Most of us ran out of ideas and ending up doing unimaginative variations of pause, scramble, arms up, smile for the last minute.
When the song ended, she said, “Now, think of someone you find really sexy. And base your poses on things they might do. Even if it’s an “awkward-I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing-pose” make it a “Mae West-awkward-I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing-pose!”
Jezebel Express described the character she channels as part-Mae West, part-puppet, part-pin-up. I personally decided on Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, widening my eyes and fluffing up my thin lips and imagining myself looking sultry even while my legs were tangled up in an unsexy confusion. Still, it was considerably more fun and less anxiety inducing than the first time. We were encouraged to copy poses that we liked; and when I pursed my lips, put my hands together to form a gun, and pointed it at someone across the circle (revisiting the scene where Maria Elena walks in on Juan Antonio and Vicky and begins shooting wildly), at least three girls imitated my pose.
By the time class ended, I learned how to bump ‘n grind, do a kind of coy thrust without looking too vulgar, and saunter across a stage like a real burlesque dancer. That’s not to say I looked even remotely like the amazing Jezebel Express when I busted my moves, but I felt good doing it. In her words: “Burlesque is about what you give away and what you keep for yourself.” Later that night I was waiting on the subway platform, all bundled up again in my long wool coat. I leaned against a pillar and subtly slid my right knee over my left, toe pointed, feeling vaguely sanguine, until my train arrived.