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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.

A sea of twirling tassels and G-strings at a burlesque show.

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.

Off with the power suits and corporate heels-rhinestoned dancing shoes and feather boas are mainstay features of a burlesque performance.

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.

Burlesque performer Dangerous Delilah strikes a pose.

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.” 

Red Velvet swapping the boardroom for the bar stage.

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.” 

Lezzie McFaggerson finds new ways to use a hula hoop.

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.”

Mistress Marla Spankx inspires wowed gasps with a sea of feathers.

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!

Clowning around-humor is a big part of burlesque shows.

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.

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31 Comments

  1. jetnjme says:

    fantastic, really enjoyed.

  2. Holly Highbeams says:

    Great article. Great photos! Fun, fun, fun!!!

  3. Larrrkin KL says:

    Great article… articulate, informative with a sense of humour. The Bay area seems to have it all.

  4. Ms. Vanessa,

    I just wanted to post that I enjoyed reading your article and all that it entailed. I can’t wait to read more of your work.

    • vanessa chan says:

      Lizzy, I appreciate the endorsement. I feel very strongly about this and am glad that it touches a chord with others too!

  5. […] some performers can’t for fear of losing their jobs. Vanessa Chan wrote a great article about this! You can see the whole project here! I think Lauren Crow did a great job. I love all the photos! I […]

  6. Cindy Casey says:

    Great article. Here is to empowered women!

  7. Erzulie Rose says:

    Shhhh…its just our little secret, but at least one or two of these sequin wielding, feather bouncing, tassel twirling lovelies are working on a PhD. Quite a way to infuse some life into higher education, no?

  8. Vaishnavi says:

    What a fantastic article, Van! My one time at the Elbo Room was amazing and the performers were fantastic; can’t wait to see all you guys at a show again sometime when I’m up in the Bay!

  9. Tasty Temptress says:

    Great article! We are all multi faceted and what a great way to feel sexy and express ourselves! Though it is unfortunate that some have to worry about how their employers may feel about what they do if discovered, I find it awesome that we are able to escape and be someone totally different, embracing this other side of ourselves!

  10. Sara Mamman says:

    I enjoyed the read! I still have yet to check out the SF burlesque scene, but its high on my list of things to do!

  11. Sindee Rose says:

    Love this article! You did a fabulous job! Go Burlesqueteers!!!

  12. Feral Fox says:

    Great article! I agree about the element of support and feeling of community amongst the burlesque ladies! I’ve heard it refered to as “our protective bubble”! I appreciate that immensely as a new burlesque dancer & hope I find it everywhere I travel to dance BURLESQUE!

  13. a williams says:

    Great article! The burlesque scene in SF is definitely fascinating…

  14. claire doran says:

    Excellent – although this phenomenon seems to be spreading everywhere. It was extremely popular in both Sydney and Melbourne when I was visiting this past year, almost like a companion fad to the burgeoning return of the rockabilly aesthetic.

    I have to say though, SF burlesque definitely holds a spot in my heart precisely because of that undercurrent of empowerment that performs hold – with a beautiful variety of acts, bodies, styles.

    If you have any ideas for Los Angeles-area connections, please let me know! This is a great article – can’t wait to read more.

  15. ann lam says:

    Great article, Vanessa!

  16. Marla says:

    Great work Vanessa! Love it!!

  17. ANON says:

    Thanks for this! I dance in the city too and also worry about my worlds overlapping at some point, but I love having a secret double life too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts ladies.

    Great article!

  18. Rusty says:

    Perhaps those qualities of show[wo]manship, thrill-seeking, adventure-taking, risky behaviour which attract women to burlesque are the same traits which have made them professionally successful as well.

    What a great, lively writeup and such energizing pictures as well!

    • lezzie mcfaggerson says:

      I think you’re totally right, Rusty, about the qualities that make you a good performer being beneficial in the work-world as well. I’d definitely add creativity to the list, as well as the ability to get things done on a deadline, with multiple projects vying for your attention… Speaking of which…

    • vanessa chan says:

      i think you might be on to something here Rusty!

  19. vanessa chan says:

    Valerie – I’ve definitely seen some amazing burlesque in NY – Duane Park does these great dinners and shows that are FAB! I know Jo Boobs teaches burlesque classes at the Slipper Room (though i know they are renovating right now so not sure where she has relocated to temporarily) but it’s true that I’ve not really heard of non-professional dancers doing the supergirl day-to-night transformation thing.

    Definitely come visit us in the Bay Area! :)

  20. Red Velvet says:

    Amazing article! Greate prose, great pictures! I am honored to be mentioned!

  21. Valerie NYC says:

    Great stuff… Love it. New York is too uptight for that. Thatà‚ ´s so Bay Area-like. You have to give them credit for it. We canà‚ ´t let our hair hang lose that way in public much less do a burlesque act. What? Be judged by others? My hair, my body, my co-worker, pictures, FB, tweets? Last thing theyà‚ ´re thinking is about having a good time. However, Ià‚ ´m sure it would do a lot of good to most of our ladies (and I mean of all ages)! Generally speaking, NY is straight, narrow minded and too well behaved in comparison to the Bay Area. Am I wrong? Guess ità‚ ´s time for that trip to San Fran!

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