From behind the curtain, a stockinged leg suggestively appears, the audience stirs. Then a gloved arm, a single finger beckoning to the audience. The music, upbeat, playful, cues the performer to appear, fully clothed, her costume leaving so, so much to the imagination.
The performer shimmies, bumps, grinds, all the while, ever-so-slowly removing one piece of costume at a time. Grabbing the fingertip of a long glove by her teeth, she pulls it off, garnering hoots from her audience.
This is burlesque.
If you want to look at breasts, have them pushed within millimeters of your face (or smashed against you, depending on how hard the dancer is working), then head to one of the many strip clubs in Las Vegas. There, the clothes drop freely, all in the name of the almighty dollar.
But burlesque is different. Its long history reaches back centuries as a form of caricature and parody, but in America, it evolved into bawdy comedy and striptease. Today, what you generally find in Las Vegas these days is more accurately known as neo-burlesque, focused on the art of tease.
Vegas.com spoke with four neo-burlesque dancers who grace the Las Vegas stage: Buttercup Delight of 1923 BourbonBurlesque, Melody Sweets of “Absinthe,” Leah Shelton of “Vegas Nocturne” at Rose. Rabbit. Lie. and Claire Sinclair of “Pin Up.”
What do you love most about burlesque?
Buttercup: I actually really love the experience for the audience members. It’s really fun to just sit back and watch beautiful girls or guys and hoot and holler. You find yourself screaming at the stage for no reason. It’s a fun ruckus time.
Claire: It’s an experience. It’s just so fun. Every night is a little bit different, because there’s different people in the audience and the way they respond. (Burlesque) is themed and the costumes are crazy and the makeup is so cute and vintage. There’s so many aspects that are so great about it. … It’s also iconic and it’s been going on for forever, since the early 1900s in vaudeville (theater).
Leah: The ability to be theatrical and take on a character or a miniature story is what’s really exciting for me. Whether it be an accountant that transforms herself into something else or the potential for that kind of theatricality and characters to draw people in and then be a little bit political or a little bit subversive or a little bit feminist. For me, I think that’s what I find is exciting about burlesque. That it can be seen as something and people can see it as just a striptease, but it can also be something else as well. Leave people questioning or seeing the female body in a different way or the male body in a different way. I think that’s what’s cool about it. The original meaning of burlesque, when the word was first coined, was much more about the political acts or satirical or a parody, rather than titillation. That’s what I think is still cool today, the potential for it to be all of those things.
What is burlesque to you?
Melody: To me, real burlesque is performers who are doing it for a living. Performers who have honed their craft over the years. Performers who create their own acts, who invest their own time and their own money and own brain power into creating this act that they’re putting on for you on stage from the ground up. The costumes, the songs, the concept – all of this, because that’s what gives it its flavor. It’s the variety of shows, instead of just, let’s put this beautiful model dancer on the stage in a burlesque-styled outfit, and we’ll call it burlesque.
How would you describe your act?
Leah: It’s definitely representative of a new wave of burlesque, that kind of subverting the idea of a striptease that’s titillating and entertaining just for the audience. It’s almost turning that on its head. I’m performing for you, but I’m also playing with who’s watching whom, who’s in control, that kind of idea, which is what I think is really cool about that particular act, the “Hanky Panky” act (originated by Ursula Martinez). That’s what makes it fun for me. They’re drawn into the game and they’re also shocked by the punchline at the very end. I feel like you can see what’s coming, but then it’s like, what?! She just do that? That’s what’s fun about it every night. It’s a bit different from the very traditional burlesque stripteases coming from the 1950s pinup world. It references that. It draws on the history and the formula that everyone knows, but then it subverts that formula and turns it upside down.
Claire: My moves aren’t difficult, they’re not dancer moves. It’s about more personality and trying to convey whatever you’re trying to get across to the audience, more so than really difficult dance moves. It’s about enjoying yourself and having an experience on stage. That’s what burlesque is really about. I’m still by no means a dancer, even after a year-and-a-half of doing the show … but I do consider myself a burlesque performer.
Buttercup: It’s a traditional bump-and-grind and I also twirl tassels in it, and I twirl assels. Bump-and-grind came about in the ’50s and it’s a style of dance that a lot of burlesque performers used to utilize. It involves a lot of hip motion. I dance to “Minnie the Moocher.” I start the act by taking a shot with the audience, toasting with the audience, and I’m loosey-goosey and I eventually, by the end of the act, I remove all my clothes and I show them what’s making me happy and I’m twirling.
What do you think is the draw to burlesque, where sexuality and nudity seems to be everywhere?
Claire: Maybe that’s it, because it is everywhere. You can get a card on the street that says “nude girls” and there’s a naked girl on it. It’s like over-stimulation of sex in Vegas. I suppose burlesque is a little bit mysterious. You don’t just get to walk in and see a naked girl. You have to wait for it a little bit. You have to wait for the whole performance. It’s more about the music and the ambiance and the clothing. You’re almost more excited to see the girl’s clothes – what is she going to wear next? That’s the fun of it, more so than when is she going to get naked, even though that’s equally as fun. … It’s the build-up that makes it so much more fun to attend a burlesque show, as opposed to going to a strip club and seeing a girl just strip. It’s the slowness and the music – the process.
Melody: People want to be entertained, as opposed to just, let’s get our tits out. People enjoy the tease, people enjoy the fact that it’s not all given away. This is how I find it anyway. Nudity can scare off a lot of people and burlesque is, for the most part, is inviting and allows for both men and women to enjoy it comfortably, as opposed to a strip club – not that women don’t enjoy strip clubs. But, there’s something a little bit more tangible. People can go and enjoy each other, as well as the show they’re seeing.
Leah:What you have with burlesque that you don’t have with say, just the seeing half naked women everywhere, which you do in Vegas, is the entertainment factor and the interplay between the theatricality that comes along with it. So, for me, it’s kind of the comedy and the entertainment value, and the fact that it sometimes feels less sleazy than going to a strip club. And for me, that it’s kind of subversive. Rather than the female body just being seen as an object, something just to be looked at, I think there’s more of an empowered representation of the female when it’s burlesque. Where the performer has the control in a way, and plays with and for the audience, rather than just being there to be ogled and stared at.
Buttercup: There’s an element of theater. People like the idea of going to sit down to see a show. I also think a lot of people appreciate the creativity in burlesque numbers. It’s not always about nudity. It’s more about the journey. It’s how you get there, because anyone can get up on stage and just take their clothes off and be naked. But in burlesque, generally, there is a story and there’s movement before you get to that final reveal.
It seems, too, that burlesque is open to a lot of different people, you don’t have to be a certain body type or a certain age or even a certain gender – there’s something even called boylesque.
Leah: Yeah, definitely. I totally agree with you, and when I first considered taking my clothes off in public, it’s kind of a confronting thing. Part of my reasoning was, well, every body type has a right to be represented, so why not my body type be among those. That is what is great. Whether it’s females or whether it’s queer performances, boylesque, yeah I think that’s what’s really cool. To challenge the imagery we see in magazines and everywhere, which is always a very similar body type. That’s a really important part of what burlesque does and where it’s headed.
Where do you see, or what would you like to see, happen with burlesque in Las Vegas?
Claire:I’d just like to see more people become aware of it and more girls becoming burlesque performers. The beauty of burlesque (is) literally any woman who wants to go out and have fun can become a burlesque performer. … You can do a burlesque act to a modern song that’s on the radio right now and lingerie pieces that you find sexy and do a burlesque act to that. It doesn’t have to be vintage whatsoever.
Leah: As with burlesque, as with performance in general, I think just to see the kind of energy and excitement from the audience and the support for the work to continue, and the support for the new performers to create work. I think that’s where it looks like a kind of exciting direction for things to develop.
Melody: More real burlesque. Not these burlesque shows that call themselves burlesque, but there’s actually not an ounce of burlesque in the shows. It’s just glorified dancers, which is fine. It’s great entertainment, and some beautiful dancers are doing it, but I would really like to see real burlesque in Las Vegas. It’s a little less corporate. It’s a little more organic and people with all kinds of bodies and shapes and sizes and ages. There is a place for it all.
Something I’ve heard a lot is, that burlesque can be empowering for the performers.
Melody: I find being on a stage in general to be very empowering. I guess the harder you push yourself, and the farther you push yourself, then yes it can be empowering. It’s interesting to me because there are so many people that are like empowering my ass, you know? They’re so anti-(burlesque). It’s not empowering, it’s degrading, but I disagree strongly. It wasn’t until burlesque – it wasn’t until I put myself out there and exposed myself that I started to really appreciate my body and love myself exactly the way I am. And that, to me, is empowering.
Without a doubt, burlesque performers, including those who spoke with Vegas.com, will be flocking to the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend on June 5 – 8 at The Orleans. The annual event raises money for the Burlesque Hall of Fame, which bills itself as the only museum of its kind to feature the history and artists of burlesque. The museum is in the Emergency Arts building, 520 E. Fremont St., downtown Las Vegas.
Claire Sinclair is noted for being Playboy’s 2011 Playmate of the Year. She stars in Pin Up. Performances at 10:30 p.m. Thursday – Monday at the Stratosphere.
Leah Shelton performs as avant garde filmmaker Sophie Eisenstein. Her burlesque act appears in the 9:30 p.m. showing of Vegas Nocturne at Rose. Rabbit. Lie. Performances at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Wednesday – Saturday at the Cosmopolitan.
Singer Melody Sweets performs as the sultry Green Fairy in Absinthe. Performances at 8 and 10 p.m. Wednesday – Sunday at Caesars Palace.
Buttercup Delight twirls her tassels and assels Friday and Saturday nights at 1923 Bourbon and Burlesque by Holly Madison at Mandalay Bay.
Watch Buttercup Delight perform in 1923: