The drum beats a soft but insistent rhythm as the dancer in a white satin jacket and shorts bends over and slowly slides her hands up her legs covered in pale fishnets. Suddenly, the scene shifts, and the famous burlesque dancer Zorita appears, a snake draped seductively over her shoulders. Then the woman in satin returns, this time revealing a bare shoulder and '50s-style bra, before Sally Rand takes center stage, using her famed feathered fans to reveal glimpses of her seemingly bare body.

The scene is part of "Pretty Things," and the woman slinking across stage in satin is the documentary's director, Liz Goldwyn, 27, who spent almost a decade exploring the bump-and-grind world of burlesque and eventually learned enough to capture her own first-person shimmy on screen.

Goldwyn was 18 when she came across two burlesque costumes at a flea market. She started to collect the clothes and photograph herself in them, cultivating an interest that eventually sparked an in-depth look into the last generation of burlesque queens. Goldwyn found that their lives were filled more often with harsh realities than with romantic allure.

"When I took pictures of myself in these costumes, I didn't feel as confident as these other women looked," Goldwyn said. "I saw a girl playing dress up. I wanted to figure out the sexual confidence these women seemed to exude."

Goldwyn started writing to former striptease dancers to learn more about their lives. When she met with the women or their friends or family, she documented the conversations on camera. But Goldwyn said making a film wasn't her original goal.

"I started out with the intention of writing a book and struggled against doing a movie because my family's in the movie business," said Goldwyn, who wanted to be a historian and academic, not a movie mogul like her grandfather Sam Goldwyn.

Burlesque and striptease were not well-documented parts of history until recently. In November, "Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show" by DePaul University drama professor Rachel Shteir hit bookstores.

Goldwyn's film further documents the ribald art with first-person accounts and stories from women such as Betty Rowland, who was known as the "Ball of Fire" and now runs a bar in Santa Monica, and Dixie Evans, who was called the "Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque" and now oversees Exotic World, a burlesque museum in California.

Goldwyn said these women's stories have been forgotten in American history. Men such as Bud Abbott, Lou Costello and Phil Silvers got started in burlesque and then easily moved to television, but there wasn't a place in the new medium for women.

Goldwyn points to Ricky and Lucy, the married couple who slept in separate beds on "I Love Lucy," as an example of how sexuality was repressed in that era.

"It was morally unacceptable," Goldwyn said. "So these women were lost. They didn't have a voice."

In trying to tell the stories of these women who "paved the way for our attitudes about sex today," Goldwyn said, she had to accept that the dancers' lives were not as glamorous as she had first thought. Goldwyn learned, for instance, that many women became stripteasers to escape abusive families and rural poverty.

"My idea of them didn't always meet with reality," Goldwyn said.

Take Sherry Britton, one of the most noted dancers of the 1930s and '40s.

"I had a dreadful, dreadful childhood," said Britton, now 86. "I was homeless when I was 14, and I started in burlesque when I was 15. What else could I do? It was the only thing I could do without using my body in a more intimate way. I displayed my body; I didn't use it."

Britton, who said she hated her time in burlesque, admitted the stripteasers were mostly viewed as objects.

"I was engaged 15 times to men who valued me as a trophy," she said. When she finally married at age 53, her husband "recognized me as a full human being, not just a sex object. He loved all of me so."

Goldwyn said she became "absorbed into wanting to relive their lives, a more positive version of their lives."

But realizing these women didn't live the lives she had envisioned doesn't mean Goldwyn felt sorry for them. In some cases, it only reinforced her admiration.

Zorita, the snake dancer who also was openly gay in the '50s, is one of the women Goldwyn grew to respect. The late performer coped with all sorts of hard knocks, yet she took what life dealt her and used it to become a stronger person.

Ultimately, Goldwyn discovered, being pretty and sexy is not always glamorous, but it's also not a weakness.

Britton agreed. "I hated it while I was doing it and appreciated it afterwards," she said. "It taught me to think on my feet. It contributed to my personal growth."

Goldwyn's own sexual coming of age is a cornerstone of the documentary. As she researched and learned more about burlesque -- including taking classes in ballet, jazz and flamenco dance -- she decided to weave her own growth into the film.

"I was raised by a feminist mother, and I was taught to subvert any sexuality to be taken seriously," Goldwyn said. "We've become afraid to embrace our sexuality. Looking back at these women in the wake of the feminist movement, it's not that we want to react against that, but we can be intelligent, kind and sexy."

PRETTY THINGS

Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. on HBO