The 'Tease That Binds
The Texas Burlesque Festival builds community among those who are hip to the strip
Just as every gambler has a tell, every burlesque performer has a hook – that little something unique that snags the audience. It can be a shake or a shimmy or the way they let their hair fall. With Coco Lectric, it's the smile. The co-founder of Austin's Jigglewatts Burlesque has been known to silence a room or bring the crowd to its feet with just a coquettish flash. As both performer at and co-organizer of the 2011 Texas Burlesque Festival, it's not just about shoulder rolls and corsetry for Lectric: She is part of a growing national movement to resurrect a suppressed American art form and provide a sultry stage for the 99% of women who do not fit the airbrushed standards of beauty. In modern burlesque, she says, "We can be any shape or have tattoos or have blue hair and not get arrested."
There are, according to Lectric's fellow Jigglewatts founder Ruby Joule, "101 ways to take a glove off," and every one of them will be displayed over three nights of bump and grind, pasties and boas, veterans and ingenues. There is vaudeville burlesque, traditional burlesque, neo-burlesque, and boy-lesque, and while it's not suitable for kids, the growing and diverse audiences might agree it is for everyone else. "Burlesque is everything Ginger Rogers did, but with an element of magic and comedy," Joule says.
So how did a pair of nice young ladies end up disrobing for a live audience? "Like a lot of suburban little girls, I took ballet class at the age of 3," said Lectric, but her trademark curves made it a short-lived relationship. "I think many of the attributes that our lovely burlesque audience enjoys about me are the reasons why I am not exactly built for ballet." Attending college to study dance, she was quickly attracted to forms such as hula, bellydancing, and Afro-Caribbean. "I am all about the hips and the legs and being able to feel good in my body," she says. "Any style that really embraces the female form and female power and fertility, I just jumped right into it, because it was delicious."
For Joule, it was about scratching an old itch. As a young girl, she says, "I knew there was this thing that women did involving boas and fans and glamour and beautiful dressing rooms and being admired and giving something to the audience where they would just go crazy." Like Lectric, she started in ballet, attending the Ballet Austin Academy, and while a shattered heel bone may have taken her off that stage, it could not quell her desire to perform. Again like Lectric, she picked up as many dance styles as possible, as well as an ongoing stage and screen-acting career. "Burlesque seems like the perfect marriage of all of these things I have always been interested in."
In 2006, the pair produced a one-off show for a friend's birthday. Five years later, the Jigglewatts are mainstays of the Austin burlesque scene. They readily pay homage to those that helped set the stage, allowing them to follow the trail of feathers and discarded stockings left by groundbreaking local troupes such as Kitty Kitty Bang Bang and Red Light Burlesque, spotlight performers such as Cardinal Cyn, and producers such as Audrey Maker, co-founder of the first Texas Burlesque Festival and Austin's other tentpole event, the annual Burlesque for Peace.
That local flowering sees Austin enter what Joule called the "Burlesque-with-a-capital-'B' community." Last September, Lectric was voted Queen of Burlesque at the New Orleans Burlesque Festival, part of a growing circuit of festivals at which performers can swap experiences and build a bigger community. While the Texas festival spotlights performers from across the Lone Star State, it has also attracted talent from big burlesque cities like Denver, Chicago, and Las Vegas. Take Sassy DeLure: She may be listed as an Austinite in Saturday's closing night competitions, but this graduate of Seattle's prestigious Cornish College of the Arts is best known as a star of the Pacific Northwest's experimental neo-burlesque scene. Prior to relocating to Austin two months ago, she says, "I had no idea there was a scene down here, and it was kind of scary because researching it online, it was very vague what was going on." What she found was an audience with a taste for tradition mixed with a rockabilly pin-up sensibility, but one that will still wolf-whistle and stomp for more adventurous fare such as DeLure's spoof on silent movies. Playing both mustache-twirling villain and chaste maiden to the hurdy-gurdy grind of Tom Waits' "God's Away on Business," she and her signature act have quickly become local favorites. "There's something about the people here that they are really open and really friendly," she says. With local interest swelling and out-of-town talent eager to bring new styles to Austin, she says, "People get influenced or they see new creative ideas, and they start to expand a bit in their expressions."
Yet there are still some powerful local traditions that define Austin burlesque. While the Dallas scene has filled such classic old venues as the Lakewood Theater, Austin's has remained more intimate, finding venues that combine the crushed-velvet-and-martinis feel of the old-school days with the punk DIY ethos that powers the movement. After shimmying between Antone's and Emo's for its first two years, the festival returns to the ND at 501 Studios for its second successive bite at the cherry. Selected because it combines both the grand theatrical and intimate speakeasy traditions of burlesque, the ND has an immediacy that appeals to DeLure. In more formal dance settings, she says, "you're in such a big spectrum and scope that you're looking out beyond the audience." In burlesque, "the audience is right there, a foot from your face. And because of that, you can't disappear behind yourself. You have to be really present and interact with the audience. It's really intimate, and everything is really exposed, from the audience and from the performers."
With modern burlesque still evolving, it may be hard to see the connecting ribbon that wraps everything together in one show. If you are thinking sleaze, think again. According to Texas Burlesque Festival producer Lynn Raridon, "It's less about the strip and more about the tease." Take the humor: Comedy is not just a part of burlesque – that is where its roots lie. The original burlesques were Elizabethan spoofs on popular dramas, ripe with bawdiness. Yet it was not until the birth of American burlesque in the 1860s that the hints of sensuality became increasingly important to the art. The undoubted golden era was during the 1920s and 1930s. Gypsy Rose Lee became a national star, comedians like W.C. Fields kept the stage warm while the Ziegfeld Follies changed costumes, and Josephine Baker became the toast of Paris while breaking social, racial, and sexual taboos. Prohibition put a damper on the party, and then, Raridon says, "It got swept under the rug in the Sixties and Seventies. In the Eighties, it was all but extinct."
Even before the modern resurgence, there was still an underground with its own stars. Many veteran performers are still working and eager to spread their experiences to the new burlesque movement. As part of Friday's Old School Rules night, 1970s Las Vegas legend Tiffany Carter returns to the festival for a second year, while Shannon Doah returns from retirement to shake what made her a star of the original Crazy Horse Saloon Paris show. Raridon also attracted her old friend, sex-positive advocate and former burlesque performer Annie Sprinkle, whom she described as "a woman that has been in the adult alternative performance spotlight for over 30 years." In addition to emceeing the veterans' night, Sprinkle will be sharing some daring details with a public retrospective of her career, "with a little more emphasis on the heady days of burlesque in New York at some of the more notorious clubs, Minsky's and places like that," says Raridon.
Part of the reason for welcoming the veterans is so they can teach the young talents a tassel-twist or two. That's why the festival opens on Thursday with Nouveau Nuit, "our night of newness, where people who have been performing for two and a half years or less can say, 'I've performed at a festival,'" says Raridon. That will be where one of Austin's newest troupes, the Bat City Bombshells, will make its festival debut, and, she adds, "I've also got a couple of veterans, Elisa Davis and Ginger Valentine from the Dallas burlesque scene, debuting new pieces."
For Raridon, shows like this are essential to build a local and national sense of community, because "we're all in this together. There's still a stigma that surrounds this art form, and we need to provide a united front." While it is not like the bad old days when performers would get busted for even hinting at a pastie, there are still troubling times. The Jigglewatts got a feel for what their predecessors went through in 2010 when their adults-only tribute to Bettie Page got kicked out of a Houston mall for being "lewd, indecent, and highly inappropriate," says Joule. Considering that even at her most charmingly lascivious, the iconic Page generally showed far less skin than is displayed in the average Katy Perry video, the humor of the situation did not escape her modern heirs. Joule says, rolling her eyes, "We were more scandalous than the Victoria's Secret models on posters blown up 9 feet tall. Their crotches are at eye level for 9-year-olds, but that's fine."
While it's not for the whole family, the nod-and-a-wink sexuality of burlesque was not always so taboo. Unfortunately, in these conservative times, the hoots and hollers are not always from an appreciative audience. "You're dealing with an issue that wars get started over," Lectric says, "But I think when you add that element of 'I'm a human being; this is fun; this is silly; this is funny; this is real,' it really defuses it." When you do a straight-up striptease, you can see the girlfriends getting nervous and looking over at their man. When there's humor, it's fun."
So the festival has a stage and performers, and while they may not always stay on, it also has costumes. Almost perversely, those may be the most elaborate part of the show. "If it was just about getting naked," Joule says, "We'd just be shopping at Frederick's and calling it a day." To create a burlesque costume takes "a degree in professional costuming and magic training," she adds, but any aspiring costumers should add a minor in engineering. Each new performance piece requires a new costume, every one handmade and every component designed to stay in place until the exact second it needs to come off – or, in the case of a reverse strip, goes on. Take her Merry Widow of N'Awlins character: Between the hat, gloves, gauntlets under the gloves, a gown in two parts, underskirt, corset, boa, handkerchief for dabbing her tears, and everything else that she must remove in the right order and in the length of a single song, it's a whole wardrobe in one outfit. The effort pays off: At last year's festival, Joule's Screen Siren outfit was voted best in show by a panel of industry veterans. If the pieces all come together – or come off – right, the end result appears effortless. Joule says, "It's voodoo."
Lectric giggles. "Magic jiggle voodoo."
The Texas Burlesque Festival runs Thursday-Saturday, April 14-16, at ND at 501 Studios, 501 N. I-35. Tickets are $15-25 each night. A Q&A with Annie Sprinkle will be held Saturday, April 16, 1:30pm, and tickets are $20. For more information, visit www.texasburlesquefest.com.