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A newspaper reporter described one such performance by the infamous Fatima as "a dancing exhibition that includes the wiggly-wiggly, the wormy squirmy, and the ouchie-couchie." Later, a filmed version of Fatima's act would be one of the first motion pictures ever censored.
In an age of relative innocence, free of triple-X entertainment and pay-per-view porn, burlesque grew and flourished as an erotic art form.
The genre's increasing popularity over the next five decades evolved to incorporate elaborate sets where dancers fluttering colorful ostrich feather fans emerged from giant oyster shells and slowly stripped down to tasseled pasties. Water shows cloaked the allure of shapely women in tight wet bathing suits as family entertainment, and were as popular as they were outrageous. Performers such as Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm, Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr became legendary.
By introducing America to sexuality, burlesque quite innocently paved the way for the porn industry that would ultimately overshadow it by the end of the 1960s. As the love generation discovered puberty, the seduction of a slow, choreographed striptease could no longer compete with the full-on nudity of the burgeoning adult entertainment industry. Strip clubs, porn films and later the VCR would make burlesque virtually obsolete by the '70s.
But beginning in the mid-'90s, interest in burlesque as a more erotic alternative to strip clubs, propelled by retro-nostalgia trends such as swing, tiki culture and rockabilly, pushed the antiquated art form back into the public eye.
"I don't know if burlesque ever really died out," claims Jo Weldon, a fan and performer from New York who runs a Web site devoted to the naughty art form. "With the way the media is now, and especially with the Internet, it's much easier for people to find out about it. It's natural for people to be interested in burlesque, and for the media to pick up on that," she says. "Burlesque is charming, a very visual, entertaining performance art."
Whether Lezbosagogo will be Phoenix's entree to the national burlesque stage remains to be seen. Not that troupe members care much about those geeks. Their act is less concerned with respecting the traditional aspects of a burlesque routine (Pulliam admits she did no research into burlesque before or since forming Lezbosagogo) than it is with titillating a lesbian-friendly audience. Or any audience, for that matter.
But burlesque dancers and fans like Weldon say that's okay, too. She says there's room in the burlesque scene for both the expected and the unexpected. "Everybody admires and respects traditional burlesque and those who reenact it, but there's also this complete element of anything goes."
Weldon raves about the Tease-O-Rama convention in San Francisco she attended last year, describing it as "the most amazing thing I ever saw." The variety was what impressed her. Weldon says she found the different body types in shows "extremely sexy. You had stripper bodies, mature women, heavier women – I found it really exciting."
Weldon was really impressed by the divergent performances, such as an act by Trixie Little. Dressed as a muscular superhero, Little's routine consisted of subduing an evil man-in-a-monkey-suit through choreographed tango/kung fu-acrobatics. "There's room for absolutely anybody," she says. "I'd love to see the lesbians there next time."
Angela Pulliam, 40, saunters into Espresso Depot in downtown Phoenix and seats herself at a side table. Her skin is deep chocolate, her head bald, her doe eyes lost behind the metal hoops and bars that dangle from half a dozen piercings like fishing lures. Pulliam is fierce, not fierce as in dangerous, but gutsy-cool-raw-street fierce.Even without the pierced lips and shaved head, Pulliam would make quite an impression. She is joyous, confident and gregarious with a mouth that smiles as easily as it laughs – all useful character traits for a promoter.
Her strength comes, she explains, from sinking to the very bottom of herself and her existence and clawing her way back to life.
"I should be dead right now," Pulliam says. "Instead, I'm on top of the world."
Not so long ago, Pulliam was a homeless crackhead. Now she is the founder, manager and den mother of Lezbosagogo, born four years ago in her Phoenix living room. And, much to her delight and hard work, she and her troupe find themselves preparing for their biggest gig ever, what she hopes will be their "breakout" performance. Excitement spills out of her like boiling milk.
It's the Gogos she's come to the cafe to talk about, though her own story intermingles with theirs, and she's brought one of her gang along, veteran dancer Angela "Skylar" Nowak, to explain the concept.
"Girl-on-girl interaction" is what Skylar says sets the Gogos apart from other burlesque troupes, as Pulliam nods in agreement. "Grinding, touching breasts, face between legs, hair pulling, biting, licking. We give them something they haven't seen before," she says. "And then there's the muff-diving contest."
Pulliam tosses her head back and laughs out loud. Skylar smiles demurely as Pulliam says, "We always want a big crowd, so weeks before the show we'll start promoting." Pulliam and her dancers print up fliers and advertise on the Internet and hype on radio spots. The night of the show, the Gogos employ "crowd lubricators," girls who will work the club for hours giving away tee shirts and getting the patrons excited.