Burlesque performers are beautiful teases

Though performers got cheeky during the shows at this year’s Montreal Burlesque Festival, they maintain their art form is all about the tease. Photo by Navneet Pall

There is a common misconception that the striptease in burlesque is another form of red-light entertainment no different than what takes place in a strip club.
On lower St. Laurent Boulevard last week, the burlesque performers were set up on one side of the street at Club Soda, directly across from the erotic dancers at the infamous Cafe Cleopatra. Like their street locations, they face each other on opposite ends of the sexuality spectrum.
While to the naked eye the two seem similar, they are different, explained Scarlett James, burlesque superstar and founder of the third annual Montreal Burlesque Festival.
“The art of burlesque revolves around celebration of women and the audience can see that through the style, the movement and the dancing of the performers. It’s important that the difference between burlesque and stripping at a strip club is preserved,” said James.
Walking through the doors of the festival was like stepping through a time portal back to the 1920s when Montreal was renowned for clubs, cabarets and live entertainment during the time of American prohibition. Melancholic jazz music set the nostalgic tone of the atmosphere while burlesque actors and actresses adorned in vintage furs, silks, gloves, suits and top hats added to the glamorous mode-de-vie of the early 20th century.
“Montreal was Vegas before Vegas and I say that all the time,” said James, whose dream is to revitalize the life of burlesque and bring it back to the city.
At the venue’s reception, a young woman slowly painted a portrait of a blond burlesque performer in a white dress, standing. Pin-up artist Maly Siri believes that young adults today are searching for authenticity and trying to rediscover vintage. “Our society is very hypersexualized and I believe that porn went way too far and now people want to get back to the mystery of hiding the body,” said Siri. “Burlesque never ends in nudity.”
Sales representative Shauna Feldman, more commonly known as the temptress L Diablo, explained that burlesque is more about the journey rather than the destination. “There is so much nakedness in Montreal and burlesque takes you back to a time when seeing a wrist or an ankle was exciting,” she explained. “The meaning of burlesque goes deeper than sexuality, but female empowerment and that’s what inspires my passion.”
Performing to Edvard Grieg’s eerie orchestral piece “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” L Diablo is a supernatural character right out of a Tim Burton film. Just like a puppet master would manipulate a puppet, she used her flamenco skirt as her main stage prop. Curly blond hair bobs ups and down under her top hat as she dances to her own twisted version of the can-can. Every so often she flashes her undergarments to the crowd and she is greeted by roars of howls and applause.
Growing up with a passion for dance, L Diablo took ballet classes as a child, where she was constantly criticized for being overweight. “It’s really nice to be in an art form that celebrates curves and women who look like women and not women who look like eight-year-old boys. No one throws you off the stage because you are five pounds larger,” said L Diablo, whose greatest joy is having women in their 40s thank her for inspiring them to feel empowered over their physical sexuality.
Within the concert space, a fashion show featured lingerie by Parisian label Lise Charmel and the fall collection of Montreal label NEVIK. When the lights went down, a man dressed in a suit and a top hat came onto the stage. Comedian Benjamin Marquis welcomed the audience of “anglophones, francophones, allophones and cell-o-phones.”
From vintage outfits resembling a naughty version of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz to tight latex only Dracula’s wife would wear, women of all different shapes and sizes marched out, smiling and winking at the audience. James, with her hair short, curly and blond, made her first appearance on the runway wearing a silk green robe, playfully revealing her shoulder and curtsying to the audience before disappearing behind the curtain.
Most couples giggled and gossiped between themselves.
Couple Tracy Allan and Braulio Elicer were among the giggling festival-goers.
Allan was impressed by the performers. “It’s amazing how much power these women have over their bodies. They know that even the person in the very back row is watching them take even their gloves off,” she said. “The beauty is that the performer can take as long as she wants and she knows the audience will anticipate for her every move.”
While Elicer would feel awkward at a strip club with his girlfriend, going to a burlesque show was different, as the emphasis is on theatricality and the tease, and not sexual attention.
“The better the tease, the better the show because you’re hoping that the next move is going to be the reveal and the performer keeps postponing and postponing it,” he explained. “The anticipation is building because you’re led on to still have faith that the next one is coming, then that’s where the excitement lies.”
Concordia communications student Elise Hogberg appreciates burlesque’s open attitude. “I love burlesque because it allows women of all ages, nationalities and body sizes to perform and not just one type of woman over and over again.”
Performer Lady Josephine put on her show with a cape and an eye-patch. Resembling the one-eyed bad woman in Kill Bill 2, she had balanced herself on a giant exercise ball.
“Burlesque’s perfect market is our age group. I’m 25 and I got involved with burlesque when I was a student. In university, I was an activist and I was interested in gender politics. Student life is so much about that. Burlesque addresses so many of those things so it became part of my identity,” she explained. “It allows me to be a feminist but also be feminine.”
April March is an American burlesque superstar who began her career in the ‘50s as a young bombshell. Now in her mid-70s, she has very different stories to share with you than your average grandmother.
“Burlesque isn’t about being young and beautiful, it’s about feeling young and beautiful,” she said. The one criticism she had of modern burlesque? She doesn’t approve of the tattoos – at least, not entirely. “Maybe a small one on the butt,” she conceded. “But that’s it.”


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