No art form better imitates this feminine spirit than burlesque, one of the entertainment industry's most iconic offspring. Burlesque was introduced in 1868 by the infamous showman P.T. Barnum (of Barnum & Bailey Circus) as a deliciously naughty brand of vaudeville that blended sketch comedy, sultry jazz, cabaret-style song-and-dance numbers and the art of the tease. The playful romp became more of a straightforward strip show around the 1920s, but over the decades, it managed to keep an edgy sense of humor and trademark style that modern audiences are hungry for.
One of the pioneers of the recent "neo-burlesque" movement is Cecelia Bravo, a registered nurse from Canada whose love for vintage records was the key to her initial discovery. "I bought a compellation of '50s strip tease music and the cover art had these great old photos of Copa Cabana-style burlesque performers wearing sequins and fringe. I was fascinated," Bravo said. She'd always taken an interest in vintage clothing, particularly lingerie, and rarely had an occasion to display her collection. She jokes that her reason for founding the now international touring phenomenon-the Fluffgirl Burlesque Society-was an attempt to create an atmosphere appropriate for her antique unmentionables, but the truth is somewhere between an urge to wear tasseled pasties in public and a connection with her creative soul.
Buoyed by income from her day job, Bravo began putting together a burlesque show. She planned to stay behind the scenes, producing, designing costumes, auditioning performers, helping book shows and so on, but with only two dancers signed for the first show, she had to ante up.
"The only reason I got on stage the first time was lack of interest," she said. "It was like watching a B-movie-no one will ever see the tape." Despite the amateur flavor of Fluffgirl's premiere, Bravo remembers the moment she realized the power she had being on that stage. "I did some move and everybody started screaming. It was that initial thrill, the rush from all that attention that got me hooked. It continued from there, and in the past few years, I've dedicated my life to doing it," she said.
People who have never seen burlesque and assume it's just some tawdry peepshow would probably wonder why a successful, intelligent woman would risk everything to bring it back. Those who know the strip club culture a little too well would probably wonder why she's bothering in a market already saturated by girls willing to bare it all (and more) for much less money. The photos on the Fluffgirl Web site answer both sides boldly. The shots of Bravo (a.k.a. Russ D. Licious), Dita Von Teese, DeeDee Luxe and others are admittedly sexy, but the garter belts and pouty red lips are somehow tasteful, even elegant. Their smoldering eyes and mischievous smiles recall a time when women relied on their beauty, as well as revealing the real driving force behind burlesque-pure, unadulterated fun. "There is stripping involved, but in a tasteful, teasing way; there's an art to it," Bravo said.
For first-timers, she provided a list of elements that sum up a traditional burlesque performance. First and foremost is the tease.
"I don't like it when people come out with just a bra and panties on and then take them off. There's nothing to tease with if you're not wearing much in the first place," she said. Next comes comedy. Bravo said that audiences respond best to acts that incorporate humor and demonstrate that the performers can laugh at themselves. Costuming and makeup are crucial as they further distinguish burlesque from stripping as well as enhance the performance aspect of the show. Last but not least is music, which sets the mood and takes both dancer and viewer back to a certain time and a certain place.
Bravo weaves these four qualities into every show, though she said it is much harder to do so on the road with a small budget and few people willing to deal with the stress and small financial rewards of touring. "You have to tour for the right reasons; you have to love to perform, and a lot of people do it as a side thing or because they're interested in the money. It's extremely risky, but I'm investing in it. We have no sponsorship, and we're the only ones doing it this way-very grassroots. Other people have toured with companies like Camel Cigarettes, but it's not really burlesque; they're just placing a label on it and milking it," Bravo said.
"Real" burlesque requires practice and innovation. The routines are all about what looks and feels good for individual performers. "You don't have to be a triple threat from Juliard, just focus on connecting with the audience. Confidence is so important. The audience is like an animal; if they sense fear, they'll attack," Bravo said. When spectators heckle, it's the emcee's job to put him in his place and show the crowd that burlesque is not about perfect bodies; it's about real bodies and real women enjoying themselves and sharing the wealth. "Burlesque is about working with your body in all aspects. My costumes are made for me and flatter my shape, and I would never try to do something I wasn't capable of, like belly dancing," said Bravo.
While she wouldn't reveal much about the upcoming Boise show, Miss Licious hinted at a tiki theme and a special routine involving a flamingo striptease done on one leg.
"There are times we're really tired and we've had a bad day and we're not getting along and the clubs aren't that great, and one person comes up at the end of the show and says they really enjoyed it," Bravo said. "That makes it all worth it."
August 8, 10 p.m., Neurolux.