Stripping Down to the Roots

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Before a packed theater in Hollywood, a nude blond totters onto the stage tied up and blindfolded. A hush falls over the audience of several hundred as she begins to flex her arms and whip her torso around like a bronco, until eventually the rope loosens and her hands break free. She sheds the blindfold and slips out of her bonds to reveal a black thong. She glares icily, turns around and slaps her butt. The crowd — especially the half of it that's female — gives it up.

This is New Burlesque, the artistic stepsister of stripping. Performed mostly by and for twenty- and thirtysomethings, it has been spreading across North America for the past five years, practiced by troupes from New York City (Le Scandal) to Vancouver, Canada (Fluffgirls Burlesque), to New Orleans (the Shimshamettes).

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Inspired by the now quaint stripteases of the '50s and before, New Burlesque serves up a parade of women who take off most of their clothes to musical accompaniment. Each woman is armed with a gimmick, playing, say, a cowgirl on a hot day in Texas or a French maid hanging her culottes on a line. The performers are women of widely varying body types who see stripping as self-expression rather than a job, and they draw audiences of both sexes in equal numbers. New Burlesque bears almost no resemblance to modern strip clubs, which have been pushed to extremes in order to attract an increasingly demanding clientele.

"I'm fine with strip-club stripping," says Katherine Valentine, the affable redhead who plays the stern Teutonic M.C. Miss Astrid in Manhattan's Va Va Voom Room burlesque show. "But stripping is a man giving money to a woman in exchange for a sexual feeling. The burlesque thing has very little to do with that." Michelle Carr, who founded Los Angeles' Velvet Hammer in 1995, puts it another way: "Go to a strip club, and everyone out of the gate looks exactly the same. What we get is a chance to express ourselves creatively."

But New Burlesque does revolve around the baring of flesh, which makes for delicious ironies in places like Manhattan, where stripping is more strictly regulated than theater. Local legislation forced Show World, a fort-size Times Square adult entertainment palace, to devote at least 60% of its space to nonlewd entertainment, and the venue posted a NO LIVE GIRLS sign outside the building. But the Va Va Voom Room held court on one of its floors for six months in 2000. "We were probably more nude than the nude shows they had there," says Valentine. "There were live girls, but it was 'art.'"

New Burlesque is not the only stripping-inspired phenomenon to find mainstream acceptance. Since last year Crunch gyms have offered a Cardio Striptease class that features exercises culled from stripper moves; disrobing is optional, but enthusiasts grow bold. "The regulars start to come in high heels or in new underwear," says founder, instructor and former stripper Jeffrey Costa.

But even as amateurs enjoy the more wholesome side of striptease, work has become more explicit in recent years for the pros. Marcy Finnas, 38, a stripper of 17 years who works in the Las Vegas area, says her job used to be more about performing. "Now," she says, with clubs and police showing greater tolerance of physical contact, "it's about sex. It's about getting men off." Whereas the stage was once the focal point of strip clubs, the job in most venues now consists almost entirely of giving lap dances.

That kind of activity may explain some of New Burlesque's appeal. As strip clubs sell more touch than display, the pleasures of striptease seem nostalgic, almost innocent.