SF Burlesque

Take It Off!

Stripping is just part of the new burlesque, and this time sisters are doing it for themselves.
By Karen Solomon

Va Va Voom Room, Friday and Saturday nights through May 8 and beginning again in June, York Hotel, 940 Sutter St., S.F., (415) 885-2800.

It's Valentine's Day, and the studded red-leather booths at the Broadway Studios are packed. To our right sit Marina blondes with well-groomed men in department-store cologne, tourists from out of state, couples from the burbs. To the left are club kids in retro regalia: glamour-era evening gowns or 1940s suits and bowlers; sometimes, because attitudes are being revised here, the women are in the suits. In the crowd are arty hipsters looking for something new, even a few bored Goth kids. The lights are so low, it feels almost dingy, and the mood is sultry with anticipation as San Francisco's Famous Burlesque Orchestra takes the stage.

With their shaved heads, tattoos, and goatees, these eight handsome men could have been playing rockabilly last year, punk rock the year before–and they probably were. But now, in their thrift-store period suits, they're playing classic jazz, ragtime, and all manner of music for strutting and stripping. Yes, burlesque is back with a saucy, sexy vengeance. But this time, the women in the spotlight are powered by their sexual energy rather than caged or defined by it.

Just look at the Lollies (formerly the Cantankerous Lollies), a trio of hot chicks who dance like ballerinas on bathtub gin. Their synchronized moves, robust with undulations, hip swivels, and come-hither stares, have the Marina girls clutching their dates a little tighter. As the Lollies slowly discard fringed, sequined bloomers and fishnet stockings–never peeling their generous pasties and G-strings–you eventually notice that they're not just flamboyant and provocative; they are terrific dancers as well.

We had to walk past the tawdry likes of the Roaring 20's and the Garden of Eden strip clubs to get here, but now we're a million miles away. Forget lap dancing or bored nude women twirling around a pole for a buck. This is the new burlesque. It's slower than go-go, hotter than vaudeville or a variety show, less music-centric than cabaret. It features more costumes and coverage than exotic dance usually allows. It's a reaction to the innocence of the swing revival of the early 1990s–something more mature and naughty. Elements of all these genres are in this new incarnation, which focuses not just on the womanly form but on good times and a good show.

Here, there's little overlap with the crowd at the Hustler for guaranteed T & A: It's not the boobs but the sequined brassiere that people are here to see, and the woman who feels so comfortable wearing it. The audience isn't just waiting for her clothes to fall; it's watching for the talent she displays while removing them. Unlike stripping, burlesque is about the journey, not the destination. Here comes Hot Pink Feathers, a trio of excellent dancers with a samba flavor. As they strip from dresses to hot pants to thongs, it's clear that showing flesh inch by inch during the course of a performance packs far more punch than simply flashing skin.

In the new burlesque, the women are in on the fun. When the adorable singer and pianist Kitten on the Keys asks us if the piano makes her ass look big, it's funny, but we know if she were truly self-conscious, she wouldn't be onstage. When the members of theatrical dance troupe Kitty Kitty Bang Bang lift their huge skirts to reveal ruffled panties, it's with ear-to-ear grins.

Burlesque is an art form that came to the United States in the 1860s, although (according to the Exotic World Burlesque Museum, in Helendale, California) most of the legendary performers, such as Lili St. Cyr, Tempest Storm, and Gypsy Rose Lee, worked near the end of the era, from the 1930s into the 1950s. Some feel that when television began taking the place of nightclubs, burlesque started its slide from exotic dance to sleazy stripping, and lost the sassy entertainment value that neoburlesque performers embrace.

L.A.'s Velvet Hammer, a collective of burlesque talent, seems to have spearheaded the revival when it began performing in bars and clubs in 1995. Soon after, New York started hosting regular burlesque nights in half a dozen venues. San Francisco dived into the sequined fray and hosted the national burlesque convention, Tease-O-Rama, in 2002. The city put her thumbprint on the phenomenon, of course, by tossing its own brand of unconventional, wacky, or truly off-the-wall acts into the mix. And here we've expanded the notion of the burlesque body: See the sexy women
of Harlem Shake Burlesque, the all-African American dance troupe, and Big Burlesque, composed of women in the 300-pound range.

We're not limited to women here, naturally: Take Roky Roulette, who hops fiendishly on a fur-lined pogo stick while stripping, rather clumsily, to loud rock 'n' roll. Many local performers are more humorous than erotic. At a recent Cabaret Verdalet performance, Fudgie Frottage, one of San Francisco's famed drag kings, performed simulated sex acts to "Working in a Coal Mine" dressed in a Devo jumpsuit. And how could anyone overlook Gorilla X, the "premier simian entertainer," who lingers upstage in case a giant ape is needed for comic relief?

You, too, can be in on the joke if you know where to look. The Plush Room, at the York Hotel, has become the Va Va Voom Room on Fridays and Saturdays, the best regular burlesque in town, in an intimate speakeasy environment. The Mission's Odeon offers some sort of oddball burlesque entertainment during a couple of weekends a month, and each month the cozy Rite Spot Café showcases the piano stylings of Kitten on the Keys or other guests.

Burlesque events happen constantly but are more often organized by troupe than by venue. To keep up with what's coming off, you should check out the websites and get on some mailing lists. San Francisco's Famous Burlesque Revue (www.sfburlesque.com) has some of the highest-quality entertainers around. Cabaret Verdalet (www.verdalet.com) adds a Marilyn Manson-esque emcee and phony gestapo accents for a gothic edge. Dane's Dames (www.danesdames.com) appeals with a screwball, baggy-pants style; Rococo Risqué (www.rococorisque.com) offers an overlay of European commedia dell'arte.

In many ways, anything goes on the local burlesque stage, which makes the new burlesque more open and accepting than the punk scene, from which–as the tattoos and piercings and former band affiliations indicate–many of our performers come. That makes this retro throwback world, oddly enough, more liberating than punk, rock, or the wildest new thing in music.