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Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Art of the Tease in Burlesque Show

Burlesque TeeseCrimson Boudoir parts the curtain and steps onto the platform, dressed in a priggish polka-dot house dress, her trademark red curls pulled up in a ribbon.

A birthday card, box of matches and two iced cupcakes wait on a small table as a 1950s doo-wop ballad called Happy Happy Birthday Baby hums from a speaker above her.

Crimson glides across the stage in the billowing dress and preens for the audience. She fawns over the birthday card, lights candles on the cupcakes and tugs long sheets of tissue paper from her cleavage as the audience cackles with delight.

It isn't long before the dress slips down her slender frame and, with a quick kick, flutters off the stage.

Now wearing only sheer white stockings and vintage lingerie trimmed with lace, she reveals a sinister twist - a surgical mask and a syringe. As the song comes to an end, Crimson pumps the poison into her lover's cupcake with a sly smile.

And then ... silence.

She laughs, turns to the audience and yells "that was it," and they break into rousing applause.

Draped in silk and lace and floating through a fog of hair spray and perfume, Garrett McConnell, a.k.a. Crimson Boudoir, and her Boudoir Beauties are working to strip away burlesque's stigmas, one stocking at a time.

The Delray Beach troupe is one of the newest additions to the growing neo-burlesque movement, which began in cultural hot spots like New York City and Los Angeles in the 1990s and is only now percolating throughout the country.

The group performed Thursday as part of a new monthly show at Kevro's Art Bar in Delray Beach.

McConnell is quick to point out that the Beauties' shows are a far cry from what you'll find at the average strip club.

"It's more about the reveal," she said. "If you're taking off a glove or you're taking off a stocking, that's a huge deal. If I'm taking off a glove, there is a reason why I'm taking it off. I'm not an exhibitionist. I'm actually pretty shy about my getting-older body."

'People think ... strippers'

McConnell, who says burlesque performers, as a rule, never give their age, is a recent transplant from New York City. She owned a performance arts wine bar in Brooklyn called the Boudoir Bar that hosted a popular burlesque night.

When she moved to Florida, McConnell said, she soon realized that burlesque wasn't as readily accepted as it is in New York.

Most local studios wouldn't allow her to rent practice time and she has struggled to find performers. "When you say burlesque in South Florida, people think you want strippers," she said. "You see more on the Miami beach than you'd ever see on my stage."

The shows don't include nudity, but they come very close. McConnell coquettishly contends that the women aren't forced to strip down to pasties, but many did on Thursday.

Since its origins in the late 19th century, burlesque has always been more about the tease than the strip, said Laura Herbert, spokeswoman for the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.

Unlike the performances at modern adult clubs, burlesque traditionally relies on bawdy humor and challenging social norms about sex, class and gender roles.

"A lot of it really mirrored what was going on in the culture at the time," Herbert said. "Whatever was in need of satirization was being satirized in burlesque."

Interaction surprises

Wellington resident Kelly Thomas, who performed Thursday as blonde bombshell Francean Fanny, began performing burlesque in Memphis in the late 1990s.

She lived in a community, populated mostly by artists, that was open to the performances.

"It was sparkly and glittery and girlie," said Thomas, who is now married and works as a customer service representative for an Internet company. "I liked acting and I liked performing."

On Thursday, her roles included an Uzbek woman in a red camisole auditioning, quite poorly, for American Idol, and an infatuated stalker who uses voodoo to win over the target of her obsession.

The audience, many of whom had never seen a burlesque performance, were hooting and whistling by the show's end.

"The interaction between the performers and the audience ... it was exciting," said Tom Burns, 50, of Deerfield Beach. "I didn't expect there to be so much humor."

It's that humor and the characters and the elaborate costumes that make burlesque exciting and accessible to a wide audience, the performers say. At Thursday's show, the crowd varied from couples in their 20s to senior citizens and all seemed to be thrilled by the performance. When an 88-year-old woman won a black, silk nightgown during the event's raffle and toddled up to the stage, the room erupted with laughs and catcalls to "take it off!"

"It's just something that's fun. It's really fun," Thomas said. "People confuse the whole idea of burlesque with your traditional stripping, but it's totally different. It's hard to bring a date to a strip club, but you can bring them to a burlesque show."

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