The stairs descending to the Under St. Marks Theater lend a sense of entering a clandestine world. This may be because the worn black box is situated in a basement, and its shabbiness feels like an emblem of underground, East Village cool. But more likely it’s because I’m about to see nudity. I have come to watch the monthly burlesque show “Revealed,” which features six performers doing something they usually do—taking off their clothes—to an extent that they don’t usually do it—fully. Going beyond G-string and pasties, the bread and butter of burlesque, these dancers are going to get naked.
The 45 or so seats around me fill up with a diverse and well-heeled crowd, quickly disproving my theory of illicit activity. I am not even the only woman here, although I am the only one by myself. The man next to me strikes up a conversation. He, too, is alone, and has a balding head, an unplaceable accent, and wet lips. He seems a bit shifty. As we begin to chat, he introduces himself as Michael but quickly adds a caveat: “You can’t use my last name, because my girlfriend doesn’t know I’m here.” Despite this, Michael, an unemployed hedge fund manager, claims to be a burlesque regular. “This is probably the best show in town,” he advises sagely.
Though this is no small claim, it sounds possible to me. I have come to see Amber Ray, an internationally known burlesque dancer who’s been performing for 10 years. At lunch the week before, Amber—a brash and earnest 32-year-old—had explained to me her art: “I’m here to show women that they can express themselves and get in touch with their sexuality. I consider myself 10,000 years old, you know, dancing in the temples of Mesopotamia. That sacred dance—the ornamentation, expression of life, evolution, love of detail—all of that goes into the spirituality of what I’m trying to do. And that is to get women to embrace their mystique, to take power over their lives.” If the show includes her, I figure it must be good.
Soon a tall man with a chubby, boyish face and thick glasses takes the stage. This is our host, Bastard Keith, who hams it up in his opening song—an old-fashioned show tune—then launches into a boisterous routine. Keith picks out the newbies from the regulars in the crowd and makes sure everyone understands “burletiquette”: “externalize your vulgar impulses,” he tells us, meaning we should make noise and cheer on the performers.
At one point not too far into his monologue he turns to an olive-skinned man on his left. “You look Israeli,” he says. “Are you from Israel?”
The man’s face contorts uncomfortably, and after a pause he replies, “I’m Palestinian.”
The audience erupts in laughter. Keith laughs, too, high pitched and full bodied, and comes back with, “Oh, okay…We’re going to have to take your seat.”
Five performers grace the stage before Amber, each with a bit by Keith in between. All of them have different acts and different styles—goth, nerdy, elegant, mystical, and campy—and by the end I am nearly hoarse from hollering. But when Amber finally sets a high-heeled foot on stage, nearly an hour and 45 minutes later, it is clear why she’s the finale. Her confidence and sex appeal are palpable, like moisture in the air before a storm. Dressed in an extravagantly beaded and fringed purple evening gown that hugs her busty figure, she also wears a pair of elbow-high gloves and a large, fluffy boa, both in matching purple. Her face is mesmerizing: her mouth forms a lusty smile, and her eyes look joyously concentrated, as if she were in a trance.
As the blaring trumpet and heavy drums of Barry Adamson’s “The Man with a Golden Arm” fill the space, she vamps across the stage, giving the audience knowing, suggestive looks. Soon her teeth clench the fingers of her gloves to loosen them; she pulls one off, and at her urging, a viewer in the front row removes the other. Then she begins to bump and grind and peel off layers, each revealing another elaborately beaded one underneath: corset, bra, panties, G-string, pasties. She returns to the boa, throwing it up in the air and catching it on her shoulders. She twirls her nipple tassels with an aerobic burst of small jumps and shimmies. The audience is worked up by now—semi-drunk and enthralled—and she rewards us with the final reveal, as pasties and the G-string go the way of the floor. All that’s left is naked Amber, who picks up her boa once more, teases us, and strikes a pose.
When it first appeared in America, in 1868, burlesque was an anarchic form of theater: satirical and bawdy variety shows starring women. By the 1920s, the term and the art had evolved to represent the glamour of striptease stars like Gypsy Rose Lee and Ann Corio. Today the word means something different still—a blend of striptease and subversion that is theatrical, self-aware, and spirited. For many people contemporary burlesque (often called neo-burlesque) is a kind of post-feminist movement whose advocates and activists are women of all shapes, sizes, and colors. They pour their money and time into designing elaborate costumes and then remove them with equal care. They perform not just for men but to inspire other women and to express themselves.
In New York, the revival, which began in the early 1990s, had its roots in the theater, performance art, drag, and circus scenes of the time. Acts began appearing in the “Sideshows by the Seashore” at Coney Island, and in the underground cabaret “Dutch Weisman’s Follies,” which featured stripteasers and showgirls. In the wake of these early experiments, a host of new shows devoted to burlesque sprang up—“The Blue Angel,” “The Red Vixen,” and “The VaVaVoom Room”—and in 1999, the now legendary Slipper Room opened its doors.
Amidst all this, the stars of the New York scene emerged: Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz, World Famous * BOB *, Miss Saturn, MsTickle, Jo Boobs, and others. The boom extended beyond New York as well: Los Angeles in particular became home to a glitzier style of burlesque, featuring such stars as Catherine D’Lish and Dita Von Teese. The Miss Exotic World pageant and accompanying museum—now the Burlesque Hall of Fame—opened in Helendale, California, in 1990 (both have since moved to Las Vegas), while in the aughts festivals sprang up like Tease-O-Rama in New Orleans and the New York Burlesque Festival.
Amber arrived in New York in 2001, days after September 11 and just as the scene was welcoming a second wave of dancers. Three years later she left for a brief stint in L.A., and by the time she returned, in 2005, the scene had exploded. “There was a third generation of burlesque dancers that had just popped up while I was gone, in eight months,” she said. One of those was the gregarious Gigi La Femme, the producer of “Revealed.” Another was Bastard Keith (though not a dancer, he is married to one, Madame Rosebud), who made the pilgrimage here in 2005.
By now the burlesque revival has expanded worldwide, and in New York at least one show can be found every night of the week; from Thursdays through the weekend, there are often two or three per night. The venues range from small bars ill-equipped (but determined) to handle live entertainment, to supper clubs and actual performance spaces. The types of shows vary as well, from Beatles- or David Lynch-themed burlesque to traditional girlie lineups, to shows that focus on more experimental, often transgender or drag, acts.
Yet for all its proliferation, burlesque still seems to linger on the outskirts of American culture. For everyone who has attended a show, countless others can barely guess what one would encompass. Stereotypes run like currents through popular perception: only women who can’t do anything else perform burlesque; it’s degrading, since it involves stripping and all stripping is denigrating; it’s just fat girls dancing around in their underwear. American culture remains uncertain about an art that unabashedly celebrates and yet exploits the female form at the same time. We even have jokes to capture the confusion. One asks, “What’s the difference between a burlesque performer and a stripper?” The answer: 20 pounds.
If Amber is second-generation New York burlesque and Gigi La Femme third, then Calamity Chang, the “Asian Sexsation,” must be fourth. Calamity began performing just two years ago, after working in advertising in the city for nearly a decade. She had fallen in love with burlesque long before she first performed, when she saw a show at the bar Rififi. “But it took me a long time afterwards to feel brave enough to do it,” she tells me over brunch at a café on the Lower East Side.
Once she finally took the stage, things happened quickly. A friend offered her a chance to produce her own show, Dim Sum Burlesque, at Chow Bar. Although the restaurant closed several months later, it didn’t matter: Calamity had established her name. She now produces two weekly and two monthly shows, as well as performing and continuing to work in advertising full time, all of which makes her something of a superwoman.
As Calamity and I discuss the ins and outs of performing—costumes, dance, music, show production—we slowly approach the issue that’s been on my mind for weeks: female empowerment. Everything I’ve heard about burlesque embraces this phrase like a creed, and Amber confirmed it with her goddess self-image. Still, I am curious to hear another dancer’s take on the gender dynamics of contemporary striptease.
“We love performing,” she says. “We believe in the self-expression that comes through burlesque.” She goes on to echo Amber, saying that she performs for women—to inspire them—rather than for men. She compares herself to someone who dresses in outfits she knows other women appreciate versus one whose appearance is intended to impress men.
Indeed, burlesque shows today are hardly testosterone-heavy affairs like fraternity parties or strip clubs. Most audiences have a fairly even split of men and women, many of them on dates, and of course there’s no certainty about anyone’s sexual orientation anyway. But as Calamity proceeds to tell me a story about a drunken man who slapped her butt during a recent show, the rosy picture blurs a little. I wonder aloud if intoxicated, obnoxious guys are an occupational hazard.
“I think it’s a really good question,” she responds. “For me, it is empowering, but you’d be an idiot to say that’s all it is. Because we are selling sex, and anyone who says they don’t think about that when they’re rehearsing an act or planning a costume or their moves is lying. You’re thinking about how to look sexy, and then you have to ask, to whose idea of sexiness are you choreographing this? Who is your audience?”
The audience at Nurse Bettie on a recent Thursday night is young and attractive—small clusters of male and female 20- and 30-somethings dressed in varying styles of New York hip. They are also loud and rowdy and ready to be entertained: they are here to see Calamity’s weekly burlesque show, “Spanking the Lower East Side.”
The show also happens on Wednesday nights, hosted by performer Honi Harlow, but the other five nights a week, Nurse Bettie is your average Lower East Side bar—impeccably designed, with a perfect mix of contemporary and retro chic furnishings. What gives away the bar’s true identity is the décor: large paintings of 1950s pinup girls framed in ornate gold rectangles. The paintings, several feet high, are painstakingly realistic, as if Norman Rockwell had cheerfully set his sights on sex appeal. A few black-and-white photos also dot the walls at staggered heights, at least one of Bettie Page, the bar’s black-haired bombshell namesake.
Like so much of New York, the place is small, with a midsize seating area in front giving way to the bar and a narrow passage beside it, which dead ends at a six-foot-square platform stage at the back. During the show the aisle is clogged impassably with viewers extending to their tiptoes to catch a glimpse of glittering pasties. The “dressing room” consists of a tiny area behind the bar cordoned off by two red curtains. It fits, at maximum, four people standing up—a problem given that each performance features six dancers who must get ready there.
Tonight I stand behind those curtains watching the women casually don lacy or leopard-print bras, sprinkle glitter on their busts, and catch up on gossip while I try to make myself as small as possible. A few patrons on their way to the bathroom draw back the curtain to glimpse the performers; this seems like an invasion of privacy, even for women who expose their bodies in the name of art. The overall atmosphere here is more raucous than at previous shows I’ve attended. It borders on rude.
Calamity had warned me about this. “On Thursdays, most of my work is crowd management,” she said, and after the first act, she gets down to it, berating a man who yelled “take it off” at dancer Sapphire Jones (although Jones’s fiery strip to Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You,” sung by fellow performer Broadway Brassy, made for a fitting response). Calamity, who is dressed in a tight black leather ensemble including an assless mini-skirt, told the audience at the outset to “channel your inner construction worker.” (Translation: whistling and wordless catcalling are encouraged; yelling tasteless phrases is not.) Now she reiterates: “Construction workers don’t say that. You may say, ‘please disrobe.’”
“Please disrobe!” the man yells back, in a voice no less enthusiastic than his initial cry.
The show continues smoothly, though only the front rows seem engaged; the rest of the bar can’t see and grows increasingly noisy. At one point Calamity introduces Grace Gotham, but she stumbles over Grace’s tagline, “Humor’s only temptress.” In an act of hosting improv, she covers with a joke: “It’s too many words,” she says, giggling. “I never took my SATs.”
“Wow, that’s really sad,” a woman behind me whispers to her friends. “That’s, like, really saying something.” I fight the urge to defend Calamity, to turn and say that, actually, the sexy woman on stage holds an MFA from Columbia University.
In fact, a burlesque dancer with an Ivy League education often confounds people. What could a woman with an advanced degree possibly gain from taking off her clothes in public? “Sometimes I have these random fans on Facebook ask me, ‘Why do you strip? You went to such good schools,’” Calamity said. “And I’m like, ‘Why, because only stupid girls take their clothes off?’ I get really upset, ’cause that’s the mainstream mindset. Stripping is just something you do because you have no other options. Well, you know what? The fact that I have options and I want to do it is my fucking decision. I’m not doing it for you. It’s a choice.”
Amber, on the other hand, faced fewer options when she began stripping. Her story follows the stereotype: her parents divorced when she was young, leaving Amber, an only child, with her overworked and abusive mother most of the time. At 16 she dropped out of high school and moved out of the house (she later went back and got her high school equivalency diploma). Soon she began stripping as a way to support herself.
“When I became a stripper I had all these ideas that it was going to be like the Hollywood movies,” she said. “I thought it was going to be rhinestones and gowns and champagne. I started working at this dive and it totally was not like that.” Eventually she found her way to burlesque which, with its costumes, theatricality, and emphasis on the “tease” more than the “strip,” offered something closer to the glamorous life she envisioned.
Unlike stripping, however, burlesque barely pays the bills. For the pioneers who made striptease into an art form in the 1920s and ’30s as well as those who revitalized it in the 1950s and ’60s—including Tempest Storm, Lili St. Cyr, and Blaze Starr—burlesque was a career choice, and a lucrative one. In the following decades, however, strip clubs and pornography took off. Together they eclipsed burlesque, forming a new industry that diverted most of the money to be had from showing off naked girls.
These days a New York burlesque performer’s base pay averages $50 per show, a total often supplemented by extra money from go-go dancing or tips. A night’s intake may climb as high as $100, but even performing several nights a week, that isn’t much with which to pay the rent—as well as buy all the costumes and accessories necessary to be a burlesque dancer. In Calamity’s words, “This is still very much a downtown performance-art income level.”
For that reason, many performers have other jobs: Calamity designs websites, Facebook apps, and Flash animation for advertising agencies; Grace Gotham writes for magazines; Sapphire Jones had plans to manage the antique Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park this past summer; and Broadway Brassy works at a law firm. Amber runs an accessory business, creating rhinestone-studded flowers, feather headdresses, and sequined pasties to sell to other performers. She also still strips sometimes at a topless bar in Brooklyn.
In short, it’s a hustle—a term that several dancers used to describe their situations and a word that gives one pause: if a woman is constantly scraping to get by, or exhausted from working two jobs, when does she have time be empowered? The answer might be “on stage,” but if empowerment only goes as far as the edge of the raised platform, how real is it?
Or perhaps money isn’t an issue because she’s not the one footing the bill. Can she really then claim self-actualization? When I first met Amber, she was falling for a boyfriend who was paying for her voice lessons. “I’ve always been looking for a man who would take the reins,” she said, a comment that struck me as at odds with her liberated persona. The last time I saw her, a month and a half later, they had broken up. She looked weary and said that money was tight.
The irony, of course, is that burlesque women are more autonomous now than they’ve ever been. Whereas in the 20th century, men owned the theaters, produced the shows, and handled many performers’ careers, today women pick their own names, plan their own acts, and book their own gigs. Most of New York’s best-known shows—among them “Revealed,” “Spanking the Lower East Side,” “Le Scandal,” and “Kitty Nights”—are produced or hosted by women. Only the independence seems to have come at a price: two steps forward, one step back.
At Nurse Bettie, Broadway Brassy has just finished belting out a raunchy song in neo-soul style. She was the second-to-last performer, and now she takes over hosting duties to introduce the final act, Calamity.
What emerges from behind the curtain after the announcement is not a sexy woman but an over-sized version of Hello Kitty: Calamity wearing a loose pink and white satin dress down to her knees, pink shoe coverings, and a giant head modeled after the ubiquitous cartoon character, complete with a shiny bow over the left ear. A moment after she takes the stage, tinny, tinkling notes fill the bar. They quickly turn into heavy guitar riffs and then the sound of a man’s shrill voice: “I’m in Tokyo, looking for a ho,” it begins—“Asian Hooker” by hair-metal band Steel Panther.
As the song blares out, Hello Kitty performs the usual striptease moves and tricks with a hint of exaggeration and silliness. She rotates her hips in a circle and pulls off her small white gloves. She lifts up her dress to reveal another layer of her costume: bloomers with the word “sashimi” printed across the front. She turns around to show the back—“wasabi.”
When the pink shoe covers come off, they reveal black-leather-studded heels, our first taste of the kink underneath the kawaii. Hello Kitty unzips her dress, slowly, and in time removes her bloomers. She now stands in a black pleather mini-corset and thong. Tattoos of feathers are visible on her forearms and torso. She touches her thighs and grinds, her head still a cartoon character. I’m not sure the normally loud, drunken men in the crowd know what to think.
She unzips her corset to expose her breasts. Little sequined Hello Kitty faces cover her nipples, a tassel attached to each one, and she shimmies and shakes them vigorously. Finally the Hello Kitty head comes off, and Calamity shakes out her mane of black hair. Holding up the plush toy head in one hand, she reaches for a pair of glittery red lips pasted to the front of her thong. She removes them, shows them to the audience, and looks from the lips to the Hello Kitty head and back. Then, Calamity takes the lips and smacks them onto Hello Kitty’s face—right where her mouth would be, if her creators had given her one.
The Ninth Annual New York Burlesque Festival runs from Sept. 30-Oct. 2.