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Burlesque makes a comeback

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 6, 2009 - Undulating onstage in fishnet hose, rhinestone-studded high heels, a sparkling black lace top and bikini bottom, petite, blonde Lola van Ella demonstrated exactly why "Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets."

All eyes -- men's and women's -- were on van Ella, during the March 28 Bacchanal Carnavale at the Koken Art Factory in St. Louis. In a carefully choreographed routine informed by a 20-year dance background, the 27-year-old shed her top to reveal a pearlescent green bra. But the biggest gasps came not when she "took it all off," but later, when she literally took off -- up into the air.

Suspended from the ceiling, her feet wrapped in long pieces of flowing fabric, Lola completed a 15-foot climb, performed an aerial split and then hung upside down. Whistling, clapping and shouts of "woo-hoo" emanated from at least 100 audience members.

"Performing is truly like a drug," said van Ella, who preferred to use only her stage name. "I love it."

Van Ella, Sturdy Gurlesque and Tomahawk Tassels -- all trained in St. Louis -- are three of only eight U.S. burlesque entertainers who were invited to perform at the London Burlesque Festival April 4. Tomahawk recently took her tassels to Minneapolis but approximately two dozen other local women are riding the wave of a burlesque renaissance in St. Louis. Many perform at least once a week at venues including Rue 13 sushi bar and nightclub, The Wedge pizza bar and Atomic Cowboy Tex-Mex restaurant and lounge.

"People are coming back to the idea of good old fashioned, saucy, sexy routine," said four-year burlesque veteran van Ella, who bills herself as the "derriere beyond compare."

Fiery Brand Of Entertainment

While the term "burlesque" dates back to 19th century England, it enjoyed its American heyday in the early 1930s, after U.S. performers added strip tease to what was formerly a theatrical parody. Today in St. Louis, where the entertainers remain covered by pasties and thongs, it's more "tease than strip," according to van Ella, who said it's all about the attitude. But local burlesque performers have taken the genre up several notches.

"I've been to the World Burlesque Festival in Las Vegas as well as burlesque shows in New Orleans, Chicago and New York," said Bacchanal Carnavale audience member Gail Griffin. "The caliber of talent in St. Louis is world-class."

That's because local entertainers offer something extra, said St. Louis performer Sturdy Gurlesque. "Every girl in St. Louis has some sort of other talent besides burlesque, like a gimmick -- whether it be singing, pole dancing, comedy or like me -- with fire," explained Gurlesque, who asked to keep her real name and age confidential.

After some friends taught Gurlesque how to play with fire, she paired her red-hot talent with burlesque two years ago. Gurlesque's sizzling act has her not only fanning the flames, but also swallowing them.

"If you do it right it doesn't feel like much of anything -- it's just warm," Gurlesque said. "If you do it wrong, it feels like you've burned your tongue with hot coffee."

But she admits the hazards of the trade sometimes include scorched lips and other body parts.

"Once, I made the bad mistake of wearing a costume that had fringe, and the fringe caught on fire," Gurlesque remembered. "My left boob was on fire. I had to smash it out with my hand and act like nothing happened."

Empowering Women

As a full-figure woman, Gurlesque appreciates the gratitude of women who thank her for demonstrating you don't have to be a size four to be sexy.

"They're happy to see what they feel is a real woman on stage, who isn't your magazine representation of what a woman is, or needs to be," Gurlesque said.

What these entertainers keep on is as important as what they take off. And making sure those tassels stay in place isn't always easy. Some burlesque performers use duct tape, but van Ella prefers spirit gum. And what about those times when the flesh is willing but the spirit is weak? Almost every dancer has had a wardrobe malfunction.

"You just kind of go, 'Oops,' and the audience laughs with you, and you kind of of cover with a boa and go on," van Ella explained.

Even with all the props and accompanying talent, burlesque does, by today's definition, involve baring some skin. But that in no way makes it demeaning to women, both entertainers said.

"I'm completely in control of what I'm doing. You can't be demeaned if you're proud and working it and loving what you're doing," said van Ella, who also teaches classes in the art of burlesque.

"I'm doing this because I want to do it, and it makes me feel so empowered and womanly," Gurlesque added.

Even experts disagree over the issue, and opinions are plentiful.

"People feel very strongly about this issue -- it even divides feminists," said St. Louis relationship counselor and sex therapist Linda Weiner. "Some feminists feel it's a product of male domination over women and women's bodies, and others would say, 'If they've got the body, why not do it?' "

"Go for it" seemed to be the consensus of St. Louisans who turned out for the Koken Art Factory event.

"I think it gives St. Louis a slightly cosmopolitan edge," said show-goer Chris Thach.

Deanne Ayers, Koken co-owner agreed: "There are more people out there than you'd think who like this kind of thing."

Nancy Larson is a freelance writer.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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