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A Va-Va-Voom Boom

Burlesque enjoys a revival in Washington with three new shows that range in style from vaudeville to cabaret to performance art.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Gird your loins, boys and girls. Burlesque is back, and it's officially made a home again in Washington.

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In the past five months, three burlesque shows have established residency at three D.C. venues -- from M Street and Shaw in Northwest to the H Street corridor in Northeast. Each show has a different style: One is straight out of vaudeville and sideshow traditions, one seeks to summon the classy cabaret atmosphere of the 1930s and '40s, and the other fits in with the District's gay performance-art world. The unifying theme: the art of the tease.

It's not stripping per se (even though it kind of is). It's strip teasing. It's artfully surrendering certain parts of one's assemblage while performing dance or comedy or some combination of the two, usually with a yukster emcee, sometimes with other singular acts (lounge lizards, sword swallowers, drag kings). And people -- even in this era of explicitness -- are coming to see the wit, the glamour and the flesh, all bejeweled and bowed up as a reclamation of femininity, a harking back to old times, the seductive broadcast of a political statement.

Washington got its first taste of burlesque's new era in 2002, when Baltimore's Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey performed in the vaudevillian Lobster Boy Revue, which played at the 9:30 club, Chief Ike's Mambo Room in Adams Morgan and the Birchmere. Now the city is seeing a blossoming of semi-professional burlesque acts inspired by that first wave of Trixie, the Hate Monkey and the World Famous Pontani Sisters from New York.

The fan base is swelling, but the audience in this century is different from the last, says D.C. writer Kelly DiNardo, who blogs about burlesque and wrote "Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique" (Back Stage Books, 2007), about the famous performer who toured through burlesque-friendly clubs on H Street during the '40s and '50s.

"Whereas then your audience was primarily made up of men, now you have a 50-50 audience," DiNardo says. "I think there is this desire to put the tease back into sex, to put the imagination back into sex, to take ownership of your body, of your sexuality. And I think women who perform in the neo-burlesque movement have taken that voice back to it."

The voice is louder and prouder, and it comes from real women (sometimes with stretch marks, sometimes with wrinkles) who have real day jobs (corporate trainer, barista, teacher's aide). Together, they exude a retro innocence guarded by precisely placed pasties but project something a little more complicated than bare skin.

Three nights, three venues, three very different burlesque shows. Read on to learn more.

The Reclamation of Womanhood at the Dutch Oven Burlesque

Stuffed in a 49-square-foot closet are four bouncing bosoms, a Boston terrier named Harry the Horrible and enough fringe and glitter to clothe a chorus line from Bethesda to Berlin. This is the cramped green room at the Palace of Wonders, the weirdo vaudevillian bar on H Street NE, a half-hour before showtime. The women are talking about the whys and hows of this burlesque revival.

"At the workplace, the more feminine you are, the more credibility you lose," says Shortstaxx, a.k.a. Kris Roth, 42, of Takoma Park. "This is a parody. It's really drag. It's almost playing a woman."

"It's reclaiming it," says Sable Sin Cyr, a.k.a. Katie Gray, 26, who also performs with the Gilded Lily Burlesque in Baltimore.

"It's exaggerated," says L'il Dutch, 34, a Falls Church resident who likes to keep her on- and off-stage identities separate. "Think Sophia Loren. Think fembot. Think Marilyn Monroe."


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