There’s something funny happening to the women of San Francisco. Professional women of all age, race and creed, and who have fought long and hard to achieve the success they have-as bankers, teachers, lawyers, engineers, business owners-are adopting raunchy stage names, donning sparkly little negligees and accessorizing with false eyelashes, rhinestones, sequins and feather boas. But more scandalous (and arguably more exciting) is what they do once they are in costume: a sexy pout, a teasing smile, a chest shimmy, a hip wriggle. The audience roars, and suddenly, each of these sexy, successful women is stripping; bit by bit, negligees, corsets, satin gloves, thigh highs, garter belts, fishnet stockings and bras fall to the ground. The screaming reaches a feverish pitch. Very soon, each of these women is naked on a very public stage, but for a tiny G-string and breasts covered by sequined pasties and twirling tassels.
Burlesque, which dates back to the 1800s, is enjoying a revival across the world and especially in the United States. The fabled and perhaps a little bit naughty fantasy of twirling pasties, sparkling dresses and fishnet stockings coupled with a sultry pout has made a triumphant return to San Francisco, but with a very different cast. In place of Gypsy Rose Lee and Tempest Storm you have Betty the Banker, Lily the Librarian, Molly the Manager and Elaine the Editor. These successful, professional women, who in every sense of the word have “made it,” choose to adopt irreverent stage names and perform for hundreds of people crammed into dark, sticky San Francisco dive bars. The types of performances have evolved too. While pin-up glamor continues to be popular, many women are performing to pop songs and poking fun at cultural phenomena. At one recent performance, I witnessed a performer wriggle and shimmy onstage to the unmistakable theme song of Jurassic Park, complete with dinosaur head gear-quite an evolution from the Big Band striptease tunes of old.
Normally empty weeknights at bars such as the Elbo Room in the Mission are now filled to the brim with people crammed in to see nearly nude women, many of whom are swapping successful day-time careers for five-minute night-time stripping acts. Drink orders inundate the trusty bartenders, and more than a few people find themselves covered in bits of glitter that seem to swirl and permeate the air.
On the surface, there seems to be an inexplicable contradiction. Why are intelligent, strong women stripping down to skivvies for an appreciative, but often drunk audience? Many women I have spoken to tell me they have never felt more empowered than when they are commanding a stage. The quietly subversive nature of keeping a secret “double life” is exciting and powerful. Others talk about how burlesque has allowed them to embrace their bodies in ways they never have before.
Red Velvet, one of the Bay Area’s most successful burlesque performers, is a banking professional by day. She shed some light into why she swaps her power suits for sexy skivvies:
“As an art form burlesque lets me be silly or serious, act or dance, or incorporate whatever in the way of a story line that I want to. It is my creation, and it lets me use different capabilities than I can use in my day job.”
A friend and performer Lezzie McFaggerson sums up her motivations quite differently, “I needed to do something that scared me a little. Dancing, make-up, glitter and most importantly, the radical acceptance of my own body-these are the scary things that draw me to burlesque. I still do it because part of me really loves having a secret double life.”
As with most things exciting, there is a catch. Dancing at these sparkly extravaganzas comes with a high price. Many bosses would balk at the thought of their high-powered executive shimmying and sashaying nearly nude in a dark bar. My friends know that if their night-time hobby is discovered, it could mean a pink slip and unemployment-definitely not a desirable outcome given the current state of the economy. And yet, the population of power-suited women moonlighting as burlesque dancers continues to grow every single day.
Perhaps the joy of performing and creating new ways to entertain simply overshadows the risk of discovery. Marla Spankx, who works in a male-dominated San Francisco start-up by day, lent her two (sparkly) cents, “I think [if] my coworkers [found] out I strip, it may make things very difficult for me. However I don’t plan on ever running for president, and I have to say that my current job is better [now that I] spend my afternoons dreaming up random burlesque acts involving taking my clothes off for one reason or another.”
Red Velvet had my personal favorite take on how she deals with the possibility of her two worlds colliding. “I try not to worry about the risks of discovery. It’s like worrying about an earthquake. Always a possibility, but why waste the time and effort worrying about that which I cannot control?”
Another motivation for taking such risks might be as simple as camaraderie. There’s a certain kind of woman who gravitates toward burlesque; she’s thrill-seeking, creative, fun and always a little bit naughty. There’s a sense of community in burlesque circles that is inspiring. Personally, I’ve never met a bunch of women who are more supportive of each other and more excited by each other’s performances. They help their fellow performers lace up corsets and then run out from backstage to holler and cheer for each other. Says Marla Spankx, “These are the kind of people that make you feel good to be around; people that light up the room when they enter; who are really living and enjoying their lives.”
All in all, it looks as though burlesque in its current form is here to stay. Bombshell Betty, a renown Bay Area–based burlesque teacher and performer estimates that she has taught nearly 2,500 women how to shimmy and sizzle since she started teaching in 2004, which is astounding. Burlesque as an art form, a medium of expression and a community continues to inspire women to strip, pout and entertain. Cheers to that!
So, if you want to check out a show, bring your hollerin’ voice and an appetite for sexy, empowered women, and you’re set to go. Feather boa highly encouraged.
Monthly Burlesque Performances:
- Second Tuesdays at the Elbo Room, San Francisco
- Third Mondays at the The Uptown, Oakland
- First Fridays at Milk Bar, San Francisco
For more information on shows, classes, workshops and all that fun stuff, visit Bombshell Betty’s website.
All photographs by Green La Fleur Photography.