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July 04, 2001 01:38am
Retro Strippers Reinvent Burlesque
Source: AP
by: Doug Simpson

(NEW ORLEANS, LA) -- Ladies and gentlemen, all the way from the 1950s, please give a warm welcome to Evangeline the Oyster Girl.

She steps on stage in a white chiffon robe. She dances and writhes, slow and sultry, then slips off the robe to reveal a slinky gown. The gown eventually falls. Then the bra.

In pasties and panties, she soon slips inside an enormous oyster shell. The stage darkens.

Ladies and gentlemen: Burlesque is back.

In contrast to today's all-nude, no-holds-barred ``gentlemen's clubs,'' there is a growing interest in burlesque - the 1940s style of striptease that emphasizes costumes, mood and suspense as much as nudity.

``I think people are really starved for quality entertainment and that's what burlesque is,'' says Lorelei Lane, who performs as the Oyster Girl and founded the Shim Shamettes, a 20-member burlesque troupe in New Orleans. ``It's not just the girls and the band. It's the props and the sets and the costumes: It's a real phenomenon that makes for a really great evening.''

Last month, 20 burlesque troupes from around the country gathered at two New Orleans nightclubs for Tease-O-Rama, a three-day celebration of the allure of old-fashioned striptease.

At its heart, burlesque is striptease - equal parts teasing and stripping. Its fans consider it an American art form that blends glamorous costumes and a slow striptease with jazz and sexy dancing.

Many see the current embrace of burlesque as part of the ``retro'' movement that started in the '90s and revived swing dancing, cigars, fedoras and Dean Martin.

By today's standards, the acts are demure: Most performances at Tease-O-Rama showed less skin than an MTV video. Applause came as often for nudity as it did for the costumes and the performers' sometimes goofy comedic plots.

The Seattle-based Gun Street Girls are bad-girl characters who cheat, lie and steal while stripping down to their underwear. One of the dancers in Memphis Confidential stages a cowgirl shoot-out to the tune of ``Pistol Packin' Mama.''

They do strip, but don't confuse burlesquers with the exotic dancers at gentlemen's clubs.

``I worked in a standard strip club and it got really boring really fast,'' says Eva Wynne-Warren of Atlanta, who performs as Torchy Taboo. ``Then I started developing a performance instead of just wiggling around naked.''

Some neo-burlesque acts are utterly faithful to originals like Lily St. Cyr, known for her bubble bath act in the '40s and '50s. The costumes include feathered headdresses, fringed skirts, beaded cocktail gowns, long gloves and the other striptease essentials.

``It wasn't just taking your clothes off,'' says Dixie Adams, 75, who imitated Marilyn Monroe in a striptease act beginning in 1951. ``It was the way you took them off.''

But Wynne-Warren says today's burlesque is evolving into something more than a recreation of old-fashioned striptease.

``Neo burlesque is going to become something quite different,'' she says. Though inspired by the original burlesque dancers, she said, the current version will be ``pretty much whatever we want it to be.''

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