A woman on stage in a corset, a pair of high heels and a smile is going to attract attention.
When she gives her shoulders an innocent shimmy or swings her hips to the thud-thud rhythm of the music, it’s safe to say that no one in the audience is musing about the weather or thinking now’s a good time to work on that grocery list.
And when her hips suddenly go left and her top comes off, the crowd shows its support with enthusiastic whistles, hollers and applause.
But we’re not talking about some don’t-tell-the-girlfriend boys’ night at the strip club here. Scan the room and you’ll see that much of this audience is female. Some of them are young and some are — ahem — mature. It’s an eclectic blend.
On stage, the performer has accidentally dropped her glove (or boa or riding crop), and she inadvertently flashes an undergarment as she bends down to pick it up — causing her to turn back to the audience in flirtatious surprise. But everyone in the room knows that the glove drop was no accident.
It’s the cheeky, comical, sexy art of burlesque. And it has our attention.
The performance form has been shimmying across American stages since the 1800s, though the striptease as we know it was popularized by the likes of Gypsy Rose Lee in the 1930s and Tempest Storm and Lili St. Cyr a few decades later.
And lately, it’s center stage all over again. Likely, you’ve noticed.
Burlesque has become a household word, said Angie Pontani, a member of the New York-based neo-burlesque group The Pontani Sisters, who are performing in Westbrook on Saturday.
“My mom’s friends know what I do. And they’re not really hip on the scene,” she said.
Even in our big-to-us little city of Portland, burlesque performers including ATOMIC TRASH!, Whistlebait Burlesque and The Dirty Dishes Burlesque Revue have become on-stage regulars.
Portland-based dance company Vivid Motion launched “Nutcracker Burlesque” in 2003, and the annual performances sell out. ATOMIC TRASH! introduced a regular burlesque night at Geno’s Rock Club in Portland, and Red Hot & Lady Like is teaching women how to do it themselves.
And last November, Tempest Storm herself came to Portland to host her Las Vegas Burlesque Revue. It was one of only two stops of the show nationwide.
Suffice to say, Portland’s burlesque scene is impressive, especially compared to larger cities to our south and west.
Maybe it’s the lure of stage lights and glamour or the fondness for performers of yesteryear that has instigated burlesque’s modern resurgence. Or maybe burlesque performers appreciate the chance to tempt and tease a willing audience with a simple wink and a smile and a swirl of the waist.
“There’s no serious ‘sexy face’ going on,” said Pontani. “They’re smiling and laughing. It’s not like anyone’s taking themselves too seriously. It’s more of a theatrical production.”
“I really do think most of the audience — and certainly many of the men — are in on the joke,” said Wendy Chapkis, director of women and gender studies and professor of sociology of the University of Southern Maine. “It’s always been irreverent comedy and suggestive performance. Local performances certainly have that element.”
“Guys love it because it’s sexy,” said Pontani. But it’s mostly women who approach her after a show to ask, “Where can I learn to do that?”
Why would they ask?
“The neo-burlesque performances I’ve seen feature women with a range of body types. Fat women and women who don’t match a stereotypical ‘stripper body,’ ” said Chapkis. “For women in the audience, you get the message that sexy does not belong to one person with surgically altered bodies that resemble Barbie dolls.”
Instead, with burlesque, women think, “Look at that woman strutting her stuff looking confident. She looks like me. Now I can imagine taking my clothes off and being applauded — not booed,” said Chapkis.
Pontani said when she and her sisters first started performing together well over a decade ago, women would approach them after the show.
“All the while, we’re 5-foot-2, 5-foot-3 and have giant tushes,” she said. “It’s all smoke and mirrors. Get a corset, and you too can look like Rita Hayward.”
“Burlesque challenges the stereotypes of what beautiful and sexy is,” said Jolene DiVine, a member of the Portland burlesque group Whistlebait Burlesque. “Burlesque is an outlet that gives women the confidence to embrace their bodies and command their sexuality.”
Of course, not all women see empowerment behind the performance art. Pontani recalled a performance early in her career at a large company’s holiday party. Some of the women there “freaked out, yelling about how we set back the feminist movement.”
But negative encounters like that are rare, she said. And to her, being a feminist is about doing what you want to do, achieving your goals and not hiding your sexuality under a turtleneck. “Why should I have to hide that part of myself?”
There’s a pervasive sentiment that women can either be taken seriously or be seen as sexual beings, said Chapkis. But not both.
“The erotic is part of who we are. It’s not all women can be,” she said. “One of the things happening in the local burlesque scene, it’s organized by women. They have more control over their performances, and the audience can feel that.”
Pontani and her sisters are business owners who manage every aspect of their work. And the performances themselves are a communal sharing experience.
“The environment in burlesque is warm and welcoming. It’s more of a theatrical production,” Potani said. “The performer is playing to the audience.”
It’s lighting, dance and music, she added. “It’s seeing a performer in costumes more than the final reveal. The performer is in pasties and a G-string for maybe 30 seconds.”
Still, that 30-seconds-of-something is a draw.
“If someone really wanted to see a woman take her clothes off, they’d go to a strip club,” said Ludella Hahn, a Portland burlesque dancer and pinup model. “(Burlesque) is more of a performance. There’s a storyline and additional talents it’s all about the interaction between the audience and the performer. There’s an exchange going on.”
“This is why we have strong, distinct burlesque audiences in Portland,” said Hahn. “They come for the show, for the story, for the boobs — yes, everyone comes for the boobs — but they also come for the art.
“And that’s what burlesque is really about.”
Staff Writer Shannon Bryan can be contacted at 791-6333 or at: