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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Arizona's Burlesque Revival

burlesque arizonaChristy Zandlo spends her spare time rehearsing suggestive dance moves, assembling tassels and dreaming up new costume ideas for her fellow performers.

To her fans, she's known as Pyra Sutra, the Queen of the Blazing Bustier.

She's a dancer and one of two founding members of the burlesque act Scandalesque.

"It's a forgotten art form," Zandlo said of burlesque, which began in the mid- 1800s and featured comics, singers and scantily clad women. The shows, extremely popular at the turn of the 20th century, starred well-known comedians taking shots at the upper class. As burlesque evolved, the humor and dancing turned bawdy and suggestive. Stripping was introduced in the 1920s as burlesque's popularity waned and became tawdry in the ensuing decades.

The women of Scandalesque remind audiences of what burlesque was before it became a bump-and-grind show. Their goal is to bring artistry and fanfare to performances that incorporate dancing, singing, sexy costumes and a striptease or two.

And they're in demand, booking gigs locally and select engagements out of town. The women also offer classes for anyone interested in burlesque, focusing on dance technique and the art of the tease. Students are asked to bring gloves, easy-off attire and feather boas.

They're trying to bring back burlesque's good name with nostalgia and class.

"It's unfortunate how taboo it is," Zandlo, 30, said.

It's even a bit taboo among some of Zandlo's family members. The Chandler dance teacher was raised in the Mormon faith, as was the troupe's co-founder, Julianna Curtis, 27.

Garter belts and feather boas are a far cry from their Sunday best. It's no big deal for most of the family, although a few relatives raise an eyebrow from time to time.

"My grandparents are Mormon, and they come," Zandlo said. "My grandparents are so laid-back."

Mormon or not, it's hard to imagine dancing erotically in front of your grandparents, if only because of the perception of burlesque.

Scandalesque is what burlesque used to bebefore it turned seamy.

Learning from a legend

The women are dressed in lingerie, if not less, with thongs, stockings and T-strap heels or ballet shoes. They may wield feathers or fans as they dance provocatively.

But Scandalesque is far from raunchy.

"Burlesque is about the art of the tease," Curtis of Paradise Valley said.

The women learned the art from a burlesque legend. Angel Walker, 64, known as Satan's Angel when she danced in the early 1960s, taught the women how to integrate artistry and theme into their performances.

Zandlo and Curtis were dancing with a few other women in a Las Vegas-style casino show a little more than three years ago when they met Walker and became her students. Zandlo and Curtis said they had a "thing" for old-time shows that incorporated cabaret, burlesque and vaudeville.

They wanted to duplicate it.

Walker remembers all kinds of performances, including a woman who juggled Chihuahuas.

"Absolutely the funniest thing I ever saw in my life," Walker said from her home in Palm Springs, Calif.

In the same breath, Walker said she's saddened by the way burlesque is perceived today. Walker said some burlesque performers give the genre a bad name by presenting explicit shows laced with fetish themes and gratuitous nudity.

"It's nasty. It's pathetic," Walker said. "Scandalesque is as true to the old days as you can get without boring the living hell out of the audience."

One Scandalesque show, Spring Fever, has the women beginning as caterpillars and transforming into scantily clad butterflies. Curtis sings in her act, while another woman in the group, called Naughty Niki-ta, uses hoops and Cirque du Soleil-style aerial displays in her performance. Zandlo has mastered the art of firing flaming pyrotechnics from her pasties.

"It's very technical what we do," Zandlo said.

Scandalesque puts together choreographed performances, meeting on Sundays to practice. The women are dancers first. If there is nudity in a show, Zandlo said it is "artistically done."

Scandalesque wants to be a modern take on traditional burlesque. Its members want to uphold the essence of the genre, the anticipation of what comes next, but with an updated twist.

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