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What is burlesque? Lap dances and stripper poles? Not quite. A Cinderella story with Christina Aguilera belting ballads and writhing in lingerie? Cute, but too Hollywood. Maybe the dusty image of Gypsy Rose Lee performing revolutionary striptease in the 1930s and '40s? Almost there. Perhaps Dita Von Teese in a martini glass? Getting closer.
Burlesque may be difficult to pinpoint, especially with today's variety, but there's no mistaking it once you've seen a show. And luckily, Arkansans are finally experiencing the art form in the flesh. A modern reincarnation of burlesque has enjoyed explosive popularity in big cities like L.A. and New York since the mid-'90s, and the movement has now found its stiletto-clad footing in central Arkansas. In the past year, two troupes — Little Rock's Diamond Dames and Hot Springs' Foul Play Cabaret — have formed. An upscale club, Rumorz Has It Burlesque, is scheduled to open in Hot Springs in December. Owner Brooke Schuck plans to establish an in-house troupe for weekly shows, as well as organize showcases that feature traveling acts.
The burgeoning scene was spearheaded last year by the Arkansas Pin Up & Burlesque Society, which is trying to bring more acts into the state. Founder and Executive Director Bre Schrader says the group's big break came last October when a group of five burlesque superstars, including Anita Cookie, Gigi La Femme and Clams Casino, sashayed into Little Rock for a gig. The only catch — they needed an opening act. The Diamond Dames pulled themselves together in a month to fill the need and Schrader, who performs in the Dames as Bre Von Buxxxom, says the momentum hasn't slowed since.
"The gigs just fall into our laps, because people in Arkansas are getting tired of seeing the same old band or the same old thing," says Schrader. "People are so excited for something different and new."
Hot Springs wasn't far behind, with the Foul Play Cabaret debuting in February 2011. Sarah Curtis, the victory curl-sporting Ruby Lead, organized the Spa City Sweethearts Burlesque Revue to benefit Hot Springs' Low Key Arts. Brittany Thompson, AKA Violet D'vine, says that after the first performance, "We all got the bug! We thought 'This isn't just an annual thing.' We want to make pretty costumes and make lots of tassels and wear our hair nice and very retro and we want an ungodly amount of glitter!"
Since then, Foul Play Cabaret has performed around the Spa City at venues like Maxine's, where Curtis is a bartender, and the Malco Theatre after a screening of "Exotic World and the Burlesque Revival" at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.
Both troupes have found their places in Arkansas's cultural landscape — and the fans to boot — but still struggle to define burlesque to those who've never seen it. Inevitably, the discussion turns to the difference between burlesque and stripping or pole dancing.
"People get hung up on the clothing removal," says a dancer who goes by the name of Heaven Lee (she wouldn't give her real name) during a Diamond Dames meeting in the downtown Little Rock home of Scott Waller, the Dames' "butler" and "boylesque" performer, Puss Powerbottom. "We have to explain to people that we don't do lap dances. Don't stick money in our g-strings."
In addition to focusing on the slow tease of stripping and stylish, old-school moves, burlesque dancers set themselves apart with elaborate (and usually home-made) costumes, vaudevillian slapstick humor and creative original numbers. The format mirrors a variety show, with an emcee introducing short vignettes. Brett Russell, better known as Vincent Vagabond, is Foul Play's regular emcee. The Dames will bring in local comedian Amy Parnell for their November show. Acts range from classy to raunchy, saucy to silly, vintage to modern, and include solos and group numbers, but one thing remains constant: the performers constantly churn out new material. Fannie Flamingo (Miranda Price in real life) of Foul Play wears sock garters and tighty whities while doing the sprinkler in her "Hard to Handle" routine; In Bre Von Buxxxom's skit to Lady Gaga's "Teeth," she wears a "meat" costume made from dog toys; Ruby Lead smolders with old-school sex appeal as she peels away a skin-tight gown; Violet D'vine mesmerizes as she twirls in a Gypsy-themed homage to her mother's roaming lifestyle; Puss Powerbottom cracks dirty jokes about oral sex onstage, but is also inspired by Warner Bros. cartoons and talking "like it's 1930s Chicago."
The creative nature of the shows keeps the audience entertained, and the performers inspired. Schrader jokes that "burlesque is a part-time job that pays like minimum wage in the '90s," so they do it for the love of art. Their day jobs range from a tattoo artist to government worker to manager to a preschool lunch lady — women who abandon their day-to-day and become badasses at night. Says Heaven Lee, "If you saw me at work, you would never guess that I do burlesque! I look like a total dork, having to wear the uniform T-shirt and the shoes that don't quite match the pants, and my hair pulled back, no makeup."
Some of their biggest fans, in fact, are most thrilled by the idea of average women with imperfect bodies strutting their stuff on stage. Tonya Estell, the associate director of burlesque for the Arkansas Pin Up & Burlesque Society and the saucy redhead Ro Manic of the Diamond Dames, learned quickly that body acceptance is quintessential to the movement. Estell says, "At first I said, 'Oh I've gotta wait until I get my body a little more fit. I need to exercise more.' And then I realized that I didn't have to because I really want to dance!"
Ruby Lead sings a similar tune: "The women who performed in the Spa City Sweethearts show were all different body types, all different types of women with different careers and prerogatives and ideas. And the next day everybody felt fabulous about themselves."
Catch both troupes this weekend when Hot Springs native (now an LA resident) Red Snapper comes to town for two special performances. In honor of Red Snapper's signature fan dances, all the ladies will dance with feathered fans. Foul Play Cabaret performs with Red Snapper at the Low Key Arts Building, 118 Arbor St. in Hot Springs, at 9 p.m. Nov. 11 ($10), and with the Hot Springs band the Holy Shakes at White Water Tavern in Little Rock on Nov. 18. The Diamond Dames perform with Red Snapper, as well as Lola Vee and Sadie J. Byrd from the Memphis Belles at 9 p.m. Nov. 12 ($10) at Juanita's in Little Rock.