5 min

Bump & grind

Toronto burlesque takes off

Credit: Paula Wilson

Don’t look now, baby, but burlesque is booming. What just a few years ago was a rare treat is quickly becoming a staple of Toronto nightlife, with new acts and events popping up all over town.

“It used to be, ‘What? You want to do what in my club?,'” says Tanya Cheex of Skin Tight Outta Sight Rebel Burlesque. “Now I don’t even have to do the leg work, they’re coming to me.”

And there’s no shortage of performers looking to don pasties and shake their tatas onstage for an appreciative audience. “It was actually kind of exciting how easy it was to find people who wanted to be involved,” says Rozi, ringleader of the recently formed troupe The Shameless Dames. “People were practically auditioning for me on the sidewalk they were that interested.”

Sasha Van Bon Bon, Toronto’s grand pooh-bah of pasties, has been involved from the beginning of the burlesque revival. As well as founding The Scandelles, a troupe that has taken burlesque well beyond its roots and into the realm of experimental theatre, Van Bon Bon was a member of The Dangerettes, the troupe that lead the city’s burlesque renaissance in the late 1990s.

“In 1998, burlesque was still really novel in Toronto,” recalls Van Bon Bon. “I think we were the only group and we were specifically working with a live band. That whole sort of nostalgic aspect to it really appealed to people.

“When we first started doing it we were sticking to the formula of old-school burlesque. The basic formula is live band, girl comes on in sequinned costume and enacts whatever inane stereotype – the gypsy, the balloon dance, the fan dance. There are skits and you sort of strip down like, ‘Ooh, my shoulder!’ and then maybe take a glove off and then, ‘Ooh, pasties!’ It’s the same routine over and over again but with different archetypes.”

Since then, burlesque has exploded, with different troupes carving out their own niches. Van Bon Bon has noted the current surge with mixed feelings. “In the last year I would say there’s like 743 burlesque troupes that popped up all of a sudden. There were maybe three or four for a little while and then I think everybody was like, ‘I want my own burlesque troupe.’

“I think a lot of women who are voluptuous are left out of sexual representation so they find themselves in a position of being able to do sexual performance that is appropriate for them, especially with the more nostalgic stuff because that body type fits well with the ’40 and ’50s-type [burlesque] that people are doing…. But just because they look like Bettie Page doesn’t mean that they should be on a goddamn stage.”

Although there are loads of queers involved in the scene, the act of burlesque is queer in and of itself. One could say it’s like drag’s kissing cousin. Just like drag, burlesque plays with gender expression, exaggerating ideas of femininity and womanliness and, more often than not, finding a way to subvert those expectations.

Cheex got her start doing Marilyn Monroe impersonations on Church St. “I’ve been billed as Toronto’s only female female impersonator, a title I’m quite proud of.

“I remember when I was in my early 20s I was hanging out with Bitch Diva and a bunch of other performers. I was wasted and I was all like, ‘I love you guys! I want to be a drag queen, too!’ And Bitch Diva was like, ‘But honey, you’re a woman!’ But now I am a drag queen. I’ve had my way.

“Those are my sisters, the ones I really relate to. Their sense of artifice and impersonation and illusion, I really relate to it. I’ve kind of been adopted by them because I’m nearly as artificial as they are, although not quite. I don’t have to strap anything down between my legs.”

“One of our friends says we’re drag queens trapped in women’s bodies,” says Skin Tight’s Sauci Calla Horra. “I just love that because you know all the trouble drag queens go to in transforming themselves and I think we all get something out of that process, becoming a larger than life character.”

“Or just a larger than life version of yourself,” adds Cheex. “It’s the glitter, it’s the glamour, it’s all the trappings.”

Flare, who started out as a drag king before joining The Scandelles, also sees similarities to drag in the way burlesque can get stuck in a rut. “It’s a different genre but I was also boxed into that, ‘Okay, you’re a drag king so that’s all you do. You do Eminem now and dance around acting like a guy.'”

The Scandelles has allowed Flare to break free of those limitations. “This group [has] branched out beyond burlesque… it’s a challenge every time I come in and we get a number together. All of a sudden it’s not just about doing something repetitive and putting out one thing – like representing masculinity in the way that I see it, or breaking it down – it’s now about taking something that might have happened in the past, relating it to the future, how does that incorporate in what’s going on today.

“For me that’s amazing to get onstage and play a male character and pass completely. It’s really interesting. In some of the pieces where I do take off my clothing I’ve heard, once, a glass drop. They’re like, ‘Oh my God, it’s a… I don’t know!’ And I don’t know.”

“She goes down to pasties in this number,” explains Van Bon Bon, “and it’s awesome ’cause a lot of people who’ve never seen a drag king think, ‘Okay, this is a guy who’s a great dancer doing this piece,” and then at the end they’re like, ‘Wow! He has beautiful boobs!'”

“We have drag in our shows all the time,” says The Scandelles’ Kitty Neptune. “We have drag in our lives. It’s kind of what our lives are about. We’re always playing with those boundaries of male and female. Are they more comfortable seeing it at our shows? Well, whether they’re comfortable or not they’re going to see it because it’s a big part of our shows.”

Although it isn’t a hard and fast rule, the burlesque scene is largely populated by bisexual women. And many of the straight artists describe themselves as hetero-flexible or queer at heart. “I’m with a man, but I identify as queer,” says Cheex. “Everything I think about is queer. I surround myself with queer people.”

Adam Bailey, the token male of The Shameless Dames, goes as far as to argue that the burlesque scene is to bisexual women what Church St is to gay men. “As a gay man I have the luxury to either take part in the Church St gay male-oriented community or to step away from it and not deal with it,” he says. “It’s a luxury and it’s wonderful. Bisexual women, bisexual anybody, just don’t have that option of their own community right now and it’s nice that in burlesque bisexual people do have this thing that they can choose to be involved with or not.”

But burlesque’s queer quotient isn’t limited to the stage, it’s reflected in the audiences they attract. “In our audience we have tons of lesbians and we have tons of queer boys,” says the Shameless Dames’ Lassy Vicious. “At the last show we had a full table of queer boys front-row centre and I’m down there [shaking her boobs], and I’m like, ‘You guys support me. But you just don’t care the way I need you too.'”

The Shameless Dames, Skin Tight Outta Sight and The Scandelles could each be described as pansexual troupes with pansexual followings.

“We are a very queer troupe,” says Van Bon Bon, “but we have a very mixed audience and by mixed that means there are tons of straight people in the crowd, so we’re bringing this type of theatre to straight people as well.

“If I did have a political agenda about this it would be to bridge those cultures. I’ve socialized a lot in straight cultures too, and I think it’s so important to bring the sort of community we have to them or let them see it. It feels like that will make a difference somehow or other, even if it’s just on a grassroots level.”