Photos by Madeline K.B. Ross

New York burlesque is back, in all its topless glory—on
well-lit Manhattan stages and at private parties; inside living rooms and in the cramped back spaces of Brooklyn bars. Susan Gardner, a.k.a. Miss RunAround Sue, the artistic director of Sugar Shack Burlesque, estimates that in the last eight years the number of regular burlesque dancers in New York has tripled.

“Burlesque provides a room where there’s no posturing and very little judgment,” says Sue Gardner, who performs as Miss RunAround Sue. "Our
society is so segregated that anytime you can get diverse people together
harmoniously, it’s medicinal.” (Photos by Madeline K.B. Ross)
“Burlesque provides a room where there’s no posturing and very little judgment,” says Sue Gardner, who performs as Miss RunAround Sue. "Our society is so segregated that anytime you can get diverse people together harmoniously, it’s medicinal.” (Photos by Madeline K.B. Ross)

Before falling into the burlesque scene through a chance
introduction at a gallery opening, I, like many New Yorkers, had only a hazy understanding of what burlesque was and a vague uneasiness that it might be what one acquaintance called “white-collar stripping.” 

Gemma
Stone of Rhinestone Gorilla lip-synchs the National Anthem in an homage to
Beyonce at the recent "Boober Bowl" event.
Gemma Stone of Rhinestone Gorilla lip-synchs the National Anthem in an homage to Beyonce at the recent "Boober Bowl" event.
Üla Ülberbusen,
Brooklyn-based burlesque dancer, ukulele performer and self-proclaimed  “Tart with the Teutonic Tetons.”
Üla Ülberbusen, Brooklyn-based burlesque dancer, ukulele performer and self-proclaimed  “Tart with the Teutonic Tetons.”

 The slippery impossibility of defining burlesque comes from the wide range of performances that make use of the label. While photographing shows I witnessed the slow and seductive undressing of a mannequin leg; a topless woman fitting the entire six feet of a package of Bubble Tape into her mouth; a “sexy stretching” session; and a twenty-dollar bill being used in a decidedly un-ADA approved flossing maneuver. These disparate performances were
seemingly unified only by the ubiquitous presence of nipple tassels. 

Lucida Sans, producing director of Rhinestone Gorilla. The first burlesque
act she ever performed was “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid,
done in the style of Liza Minelli.
Lucida Sans, producing director of Rhinestone Gorilla. The first burlesque act she ever performed was “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid, done in the style of Liza Minelli.

Most, though not all, neo-burlesque performers agree that their art is fundamentally different from stripping. Jenny Weinbloom, (stage name Lucida Sans), producing director of the Rhinestone Gorilla troupe, explains the distinction: 

“Both exist to titillate, both are about displaying the body. But because strip culture has a financial relationship built into it, a performer has certain expectations that they have to meet. In burlesque we can do whatever we want and we have a lot more control over how we present ourselves.”

Burlesque dancers typically receive a set amount agreed upon in advance, rather than  relying on tips from the audience. Only a small percentage of the burlesque community relies on performances as its primary source of income. “Many of us spend more on burlesque than we make,” says Weinbloom. 

Burlesque dancer Dangrrr Doll
Burlesque dancer Dangrrr Doll

Gardner agrees there is a difference between striptease
and burlesque. But she is also quick to point out that there is a substantial overlap.

“The same skills can be used in both—a lot of the booty work that girls are doing, as well as the fan work or the glove peel, that came straight out of the strip houses. And there are men, audience members who go to both,” says Gardner.

Peekaboo Pointe, winner of a
2012 Golden Pastie award for “Sexiest Shimmy and Coolest Quake” at the New York
Burlesque Festival.
Peekaboo Pointe, winner of a 2012 Golden Pastie award for “Sexiest Shimmy and Coolest Quake” at the New York Burlesque Festival.

Gardner organizes weekly burlesque dance parties in the Lower East Side where up-and-coming dancers can perform, and credits burlesque with helping her access her own femininity. “My mother was a thief and she’s still wanted by the FBI,” says Gardner. “Her specialty was charming people.

"I was a little scared of coming into my own as a woman because I had seen the destructive use of attraction and flirtation. Burlesque was an acceptable way to do this, with no danger of being misunderstood.” 

Gardner calls her awakening to the burlesque “a riotous act of freedom.”

“I’m originally from a one-stoplight cow town in Massachusetts,”
says Cherry on Top, a performer with The Wild Cherryz. “I always knew I wanted to
move to New York, so as soon as I turned eighteen I said ‘See you later!’”
“I’m originally from a one-stoplight cow town in Massachusetts,” says Cherry on Top, a performer with The Wild Cherryz. “I always knew I wanted to move to New York, so as soon as I turned eighteen I said ‘See you later!’”

The truth is that some burlesque looks like stripping but most
does not. Anyone in an audience can tell the difference between a burlesque performance and a strip club. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about obscenity, “you know it when you see it.” In burlesque a narrative is created and a character is developed. The performer begins with a surplus of clothing and finishes semi-nude. What comes in between can be sexy, provocative or, surprisingly often, funny. 

Cherry on Top, off stage and out of costume.
Cherry on Top, off stage and out of costume.

*  *  *

Madeline K.B. Ross is a freelance journalist based in New York City who has written about food and culture for Interview, Vs. Magazine and Grist. You can follow her on Twitter (@madelinekbr).

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