“As I developed tits and ass,” Corvette LeFace told me, “it was obvious I was never going to be a ballerina.”
Every Dante needs a Virgil. New York burlesque star Corvette LeFace is mine. LeFace is not only a gorgeous woman and an arresting performer, she’s also a highly educated insider who thinks deeply about the genre. So having her as my guide for at least the first part of this journey was crucial.
My journey into burlesque began with the release of Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe, a new documentary. I thought I was pretty familiar with burlesque, both its origins and its current incarnation. But as I watched the documentary, as I began attending shows and talking to performers, I quickly came to two realizations. First, that the documentary and a single article wouldn’t be enough to capture the world of burlesque. Second, that this world was one that needed exploring. Thus began “My Year in Burlesque,” a series of investigations into the still-beating heart of America’s oldest and sexiest stage tradition.
All journeys begin with a single step. Mine began with a single question: How did you get into burlesque?
“I was a really naked kid,” LeFace tells me. “A total exhibitionist. And then, I guess as a way to focus my energy, I was a ballet dancer into my teenage years. But as I developed tits and ass it was obvious I was never going to be a ballerina. So I ended up switching gears and going to theater school. And I got out and was just spit out into the world in New York to, I guess, make it as an actor. But I had moved to New York because I wanted to be around weirdos. New York nightlife weirdos. I grew up watching a lot of old films and I was and am obsessed with drag queens and the vogueing scene. When I was trying to make it as an actor, I always felt really out of place. I always found other actors, particularly theater people, to be really irritating. I just didn’t feel like I had found my people.”
All that changed when she found her own Virgil, of sorts.
“I had met another actor friend who felt similarly and she started taking classes at New York School of Burlesque, just for fun,” she says. “She really fell in love with it. So I would go to her shows to support her. She was making money but she was also meeting all of these really interesting people, basically outcasts. You think in New York it’s really hard to find these hidden cultures but they’re out there. There’s just, you know, hidden. I just wasn’t really aware of the New York burlesque scene. But I was going to her shows and I just thought, ‘I can do this.’ I took a couple of classes and just started doing it.”
Zora Von Pavonine, one of the Portland, Oregon performers profiled in Glitter Tribe, stumbled into burlesque as well.
“When I started, my primary genre was hip hop,” she says. “The person who owned the studio where I taught said, ‘Let’s start a burlesque troupe.’ We all looked at each other and said, ‘We don’t know what the fuck that is. But sure.’ So in hindsight, when I started, I was awesomely, embarrassingly ignorant. I had no clue what burlesque was, no clue what a pastie was, no clue what a merkin was. It was like, ‘OK, now we’re taking our clothes off!’ And I said, ‘OK, great,’ but in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘Wait, WHAT?’ There’s a very deep history, nationally and even globally, but I just had no idea. There’s been a very vibrant burlesque community in this country since the Nineties. There were already tons of festivals, and the Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. But I was part of a group of people that were ourselves isolated, and we didn’t even know to look anyone else up. I think the rise of social media has allowed people to do that a lot more.”
Jon Matthews, the director of the documentary, had a similar experience of stumbling into the genre almost by chance.
“My wife was asked by some girlfriends who were dancers to go to a burlesque show,” he says. “She invited me to go along, and of course I said yes. I didn’t know exactly what it was. I figured it was some kind of stripping. But it blew me away. It was so much fun. The costumes were so extravagant. The girls seemed to be having so much fun. And there were also guys there. There were people in the audience who were family members–fathers and mothers and uncles and aunts and brothers and sisters. It was all very positive. And I had absolutely no idea that it was also about politics, especially in a time of women and LGBT people, especially, losing rights every day. And so since it wasn’t at all what I thought it was, I figured there were a lot of other people who didn’t really understand what it was.”
It’s a common refrain in the community: People think they know what burlesque is but discover just how little they truly understand. So let’s take a moment. The original concept of burlesque was a type of caricature. It could be a stage production, a song, even an essay or literary parody. That tradition, originally European, is over three hundred years old. The specifically American form of burlesque began in the 1860s as a sort of variety show. Later, it influenced and was influenced by the twin phenomena of minstrel shows and vaudeville.
I immediately realized that burlesque is this perfect cocktail of all my favorite things.
Today’s revival, sometimes called Neo-Burlesque, has incorporated pieces of many different eras of burlesque. The main elements are these: storytelling (a burlesque act generally has a beginning, middle, and end), music, dance, imaginative costuming, frequent breaking of the fourth wall to interact with the audience and a gradual disrobing with only a quick “reveal” at the very end of a performance, and even then usually with various parts strategically covered by pasties and a g-string or merkin. Some performances will deviate from those elements at times but doing so is a conscious choice. Other elements typical of many Neo-Burlesque performances include a bawdy sense of humor, a lack of pretension and a mocking of middle- and upper-class values, a strong aura of female empowerment, an acceptance of many different types of bodies, and strong social and political commentary. In other words, this ain’t your father’s strip show.
For its devoted performers and fans, the combination is intoxicating.
“I immediately realized that burlesque is this perfect cocktail of all my favorite things,” LeFace says. “It’s tease, dance, political and social commentary, comedy, nods to popular culture and vintage lifestyle. All of those things were happening at once. And I could be as weird as I wanted to be. I thought it was going to just be a phase to get me out of my boredom, but six years later, it’s become a huge part of my life.”
So huge, in fact, that her burlesque career in New York led to her being cast in one of her all-time favorite shows, Boardwalk Empire. The part? A burlesque dancer.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a huge obsession with the Mafia,” she says. “When Boardwalk Empire came out, it was my favorite show. I would have played a broom on Boardwalk Empire and been in heaven. But when I started doing burlesque and I was still auditioning as an actor, I thought that I had to keep the two separated. I thought that there was something shameful about it. I didn’t want casting directors to know that I took my clothes off onstage at night. When I ended up booking this part on Boardwalk, it was a really great revelation for me. I realized that the thing I thought I had to keep separate was actually something that made me unique as an actor. That’s what got me the job.”
[T]he magic and the marvel of burlesque is that it is personal and it is connective and it is vulnerable.
That acceptance is analogous to another of burlesque’s most notable qualities: acceptance and celebration of different body types.
“Neo-burlesque has really grown in its political nature, in performance art, in thinking about gender roles,” says Angelique DeVil, another performer profiled in the documentary. “It’s one of the few performance opportunities where you don’t have to fit into any category. You get to be yourself and tell your story. And people are there to support you and cheer you on. People are so used to being told what is quote unquote attractive. But in reality there is no boundary on that. Like our movie says, ‘Everybody is beautiful to somebody.’ You don’t have to agree with anybody about what you think is beautiful. You don’t have to abide by this cookie-cutter idea of beauty – you have a chance for your beauty to be spotlighted.”
Le Face notes that the performance earns the celebration.
“The thing I’ve found about burlesque goes back to that concept of being undeniable,” she says. “Some venues and some producers still book that performer with the perfect body and the classic costume, who’s covered with what I consider to be really bad tattoos. That’s a burlesque look, that pseudo-rockabilly, kind of vintage, has a lot of tattoos so they think she’s alternative but she’s really not. But I’ve noticed with burlesque, a girl can come onstage who looks like that and if she is dead in the eyes or if she has no opinion or she’s a bad mover, people will immediately lose attention. You will see this beautiful girl come onstage and she’ll just lose the audience. Because she doesn’t have that thing, you know? And then someone less conventionally attractive will come onstage and she’s a great comic or she has that fire in her eyes, or whatever, and she kills it. There’s always that element of surprise with burlesque. I mean, other than Dita von Teese, probably the most famous burlesque dance in the world is Dirty Martini and she’s a big girl.”
Being undeniable means bringing the audience into the performance, explains von Pavonine.
“I think that the magic and the marvel of burlesque is that it is personal and it is connective and it is vulnerable,” she says. “I don’t believe there are many other art or entertainment forms that offer that triad of things to the audience and back to the performer from the audience, in the same way. This is not live theater, where people sit quietly and observe and then muse about the art form later. This is truly interactive. Burlesque feeds on audience participation. Breaking down that fourth wall, you really get a whole different kind of entertainment. We expect our audience to participate. We expect our audience to hoot and holler. We expect our audience to shout clever or even sarcastic things at us while we’re performing, all done respectfully of course. That’s what grounds this art form. And I think that will be the thing that always gives it relevance, because it’s grounded in that kind of show that you can go to and as an audience member, you get fed by.
“And as a performer, if you enjoy what I’m doing and let me know, I enjoy it even more,” she continues. “And that makes me want to give that much more of myself. I want to be that much more over the top. I want to be that much more emphatic and enthusiastic. And because of that, I think there’s this awesomely cyclical nature of burlesque. The audience feeds the performer, and the performer feeds the audience. It’s such an exhilarating connection to have with people. Generally, I think that’s always part of the fuel for every burlesque performer, this intimately deep well of giving excitement and giving pleasure and giving joy to your audience, and that there’s an endless well of gratitude and excitement and ‘give me more’ coming back from them. These are the things that anchor and ground burlesque and give it its cachet.”
It’s that connection to the audience, indeed the sense that the audience are co-creators of the show, which makes burlesque the truly timeless phenomenon. A performer that comes up with her (or his) own narrative to present live to you, complete with costume, music, and sometimes props, effects, and other performers, is opening a part of her heart to you in a way our culture doesn’t often make room for. In that context, the reveal isn’t the point of the act; it’s a nice cherry on top. If anything, the vulnerability of physical nudity is a seal placed on the bond that’s already been created between the performer and the audience. The emotional and spiritual intimacy has been there the whole act; the physical intimacy is just an acknowledgment and embodiment of it. And when you can combine that intimacy with a potent mix of humor and politics, you have the potential to be extraordinary.
My first stop is Los Angeles, a beacon in the burlesque world. Lili VonSchtupp, “the godmother of LA burlesque,” runs Monday Night Tease, the longest continually running weekly burlesque show in Los Angeles.
There, I found ideal group of women to continue our exploration of the phenomenon of Neo-Burlesque in von Schtupp, Gwen Ruby, Caramel Knowledge, and the deliciously named Miss Spent Youth (the burlesque community is heaven for pun lovers and linguists).
Read more next month as my journey into burlesque continues.