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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Burlesque is back in Tuscan

The red curtain parts and out steps Inga Kaboom. The look on her face is no-nonsense. She beckons, but beware: She might just devour her mate. Kaboom, whose real name is Kate Miners, slowly walks to center stage, tantalizing the audience at Surly Wench Pub with the occasional shimmy or shake.

Miners is the founding member of Black Cherry Burlesque, a group that does artful striptease. It's just one of the half-dozen or more erotic performance troupes in Tucson. The various groups will perform at least five different shows over the next two months.

The number of burlesque/adult cabaret troupes has grown from two to more than six in just a few years (and we're not even counting the entertainment at the city's many strip clubs). Why are there so many risqué stage shows in Tucson?

"Maybe it's just a really slutty town?" Ivy Knipe, a member of Switchblade Parade, asks rhetorically.

Switchblade Parade evolved from a local ensemble called Drag Star, whose members performed striptease, sang and juggled fire. The troupe performed regularly at Ain't Nobody's Business, a lesbian bar that everybody calls The Biz.

"I call it the cabaret scene. I think it's fantastic," said Cirque du Sin founder Drea Colores (that's Colores in the picture). "There's room in Tucson for lots of different acts, and I think it's great that there are opportunities to be entertained and do more than just go out for a beer."
Some groups show more skin than others. You'll see plenty of flesh at a performance by Black Cherry Burlesque, for example.

Colores says her group's performances usually include fire, singing and dancing in addition to a striptease.

Cabaret Boheme often involves striptease in its act, but an upcoming Fox Tucson Theatre show, "Le Petit Carnaval," will be PG-13 rated. (Translation: Can-can? Yes. Ta-tas? No.)
"The worst we would ever do would be pasties and panties," says Cabaret Boheme founder Cindy Blue. "But I think even the burlesque we've done is still fairly covered. It's more about the art of the tease."

At the other end of the nudity spectrum is Whiskey Breath Burlesque, which often performs in private galleries and will sometimes show the full monty.

At Surly Wench, Inga Kaboom struts across the stage in a pink satin dress with black lace and a black hat with two giant feathers. Running the length of her forearms are long black satin gloves, and in her hands is a black lace parasol that she spins hypnotically. It's an ensemble fit for the heroine in a 1950s Western. But this is a long way from "Gunsmoke."

Her colorful tattoos are visible on her shoulders, and she moves to the theme from "Grindhouse," a gory 2007 double-bill from directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez that celebrates the exploitation flicks that were popular in the 1960s. Using her teeth, Kaboom slowly removes her left glove and twirls it around before tossing it aside. She does the same with the right glove, then turns her back to the audience and shakes her posterior.
Wham! She tears off the top half or her dress.
Snap! She rips off the bottom skirt.

Classic burlesque, with its strip acts and comic skits, reached its height during the Depression. But as America's fortunes improved, society soured on burlesque.

Gypsy Rose Lee, the most famous burlesque performer (whose memoir was the basis for the Broadway musical "Gypsy") performed regularly at Minskys in Times Square until 1942, when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia closed down the famous grind house, along with two other burlesque houses.

While rejected by polite society, burlesque eventually became too tame for the seedy set. Its popularity waned in favor of strip clubs where the slow tease was replaced by the lap dance.
Today's neo-burlesque movement is a rejection of the wham-bam, impersonal nature of strip clubs and seeks to put the tease back in striptease. Performers tend to be women, and they come in all shapes and sizes. There is no airbrushing, but there are bruises, blemishes and (gasp!) the occasional bit of cellulite.

It's no coincidence that many of the people who have helped spur burlesque's renaissance also embrace other retro trends, like tattoos. Dale Rio owns Black Graves Media, based in Seattle, which produces Shimmy Magazine about burlesque, and Blood and Thunder magazine about roller derby.

"There are a lot of similarities between the two, empowerment-wise," she says.
"The roller derby leagues are skater-owned and operated, so each league determines its own fate. Burlesque is like that, too, because a lot of the girls do their own costuming and act as promoters for themselves. That DIY ethic is very popular right now."

Whiskey Breath Burlesque is a stage show that relies more on improvisation and shock value. Members have been pierced in front of the audience, and performances have culminated in a giant cake fight.

Tucson isn't the only city getting in on the racy act. In New York, there are enough burlesque performers to warrant the New York Burlesque Festival, which hands out awards called the Golden Pasties in categories such as "biggest cougar" and "biggest media whore."
San Francisco has its Tease O-Rama Burlesque Convention. Maybe the largest of the conventions, the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival, lasted 10 days in 2008 and culminated in a stage show where arriving guests walked a red carpet.
Miners didn't know what burlesque was until six years ago.

"A couple of times I brought a traveling troupe to the bar and saw the reaction from customers and I got really excited about it," she says.

Before long, Miners was placing an ad on MySpace looking for women to form her own group.
"The response was overwhelming," she says.

Miners says she welcomes the more progressive acts. Just don't call them burlesque.
"The word 'burlesque' being used loosely is what drives me nuts," she says. "Some of the women who performed burlesque in its heyday are still around, and I feel a responsibility to stay true to their vision."

Miners, back onstage as Inga Kaboom, has her back to the audience. She unclasps her pink bra and drapes her right arm across her bare breasts. Then she turns to face the crowd, her spinning parasol blocking her breasts from view. She struts stage left, then stage right — and then disappears behind the curtain to howling applause.
By Coley Ward

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