Burlesque: A Chicago Institution (Video | NSFW)

By Michael Bacos

Sultry. Seductive. Shimmy. Quiver. Bump. Grind.

These are some of the words in the vocabulary of a burlesque performer.

You may think the art of burlesque is dead, only to be remembered by watching old roaring 20s filmstrips in the vault of historical societies. Burlesque faced declining audiences starting in the 1930s.

But the art has seen a resurgence over the past few decades and here in Chicago, it’s thriving. Yes, the city is putting the art of the striptease back into mainstream entertainment.

Chicagoan Michelle L’amour, an inspiration for contemporary burlesque, earned the 2005 Miss Exotic World, the highest honor that a burlesque performer can receive. Her sultry routines made it to the semi-finals of the first season of America’s Got Talent.

L’amour noted that anyone can take off their clothes. But it takes real talent to do burlesque, where choreography, costumes and staging create signature performances associated with L’amour and other dancers.

“It’s easy to dismiss,” she said. “Sure, I take off my clothes. Anybody can do anything. Anybody can blow air into a trumpet, but who can do it well?”

NOTE: THE FOLLOWING VIDEO MAY HAVE CONTENT WHICH MAY BE UNSUITABLE FOR SOME PEOPLE OR IN THE WORKPLACE.

A seven-minute video recap on the history of Chicago burlesque and the current scene. (Video by Michael Bacos/Medill)

Chicago has a rich history with burlesque. It all started (officially) at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition when Little Egypt performed the hoochie coochie, entrancing and scandalizing the town. During the Jazz Age of the 1930s, Sally Rand seduced audiences with her fan dance.

Burlesque started off as a spoof that poked fun of the “high-art” theater shows of the day. The performances involved semi-nudity and sexuality to provide entertainment to mostly male admirers.

The tradition of the bawdy parody continues at places like Gorilla Tango Theater in Bucktown, where entertainers sultry spoofs of Star Wars and Game of Thrones.

“It’s an art form that appeals to the everyday person,” said Red Hot Annie, CEO of Vaudezilla, a studio and school in Avondale. “What makes burlesque special is that it appeals to a lot of different stylistic choices.”

Red Hot Annie is an internationally recognized burlesque performer and one of the premier burlesque instructors in Chicago. She formed Vaudezilla in 2008 with Keith Emroll and their 20+ years in theatrical productions have enriched the Chicago burlesque tradition.

“I hope I take my last breath on stage. I love being on stage,” Red Hot Annie said in a video on her website.

Burlesque performers are traditionally women, but the neo-burlesque revival welcomes male and transgender performers as well.

Vaudezilla promotes inclusive creativity in its studio and has helped male and transgender dancers shine in the spotlight.

Miss Mister Junior is the self-proclaimed “Queen of Boylesque.” She uses burlesque to address the fluidity of gender identity, not only through performances, but teaching as well.

“I’ve had several students in my class, after exploring sensuality, sexuality, their bodies and beauty itself, come out as transgender,” said Miss Mister Junior.

She has experienced her fair share of jeers and criticism from heterosexual men, but the burlesque community has always been there to support her.

“Burlesque is a woman’s art form,” she said. “But there’s the womanhood and sisterhood aspect of burlesque where we all gain confidence with one another. We create a world where we find refuge and celebrate one another.”

In a world that creates superficial standards of beauty, the burlesque world teaches people to love themselves no matter what. It’s not only “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but how beauty can be found everywhere.

Photo at top: Two Gorilla Tango Burlesque performers in “Game of Thongs,” a spoof of the popular HBO series “Game of Thrones.” (Michael Bacos/Medill)