Nude Awakening

High style meets lowbrow in the neo-burlesque revival that is grabbing America by the pasties, offering people more tease with their strip. The movement began in the 1980s when Dixie Evans started Exotic World, a museum dedicated to old burlesque, in Helendale, California. Halfway between the glitz of Las Vegas and the glamour of Hollywood, the museum is in the old home of Jennie Lee, another famous burlesque dancer. Since its opening, it has grown exponentially. Evans' contest, Miss Exotic World, began a new interest in the lost art form, and new performers and venues started popping up across the country.

"Like any other underground movement, it's just finally bubbled up to the surface of the mainstream," says dancer Michelle M. Baldwin (a.k.a. Vivienne Va-voom). Baldwin and her group "Burlesque As It Was" were part of the original Denver-based burlesque scene that inspired the current Burlesquefest tour.

According to Baldwin, the main difference between neo-burlesque and old burlesque is the diversity of the acts. "We are all rooted in that original idea of burlesque, but some gals have taken it in a more modern or punk rock direction, while others are strict traditionalists and revivalists." But the basic premise -- that the tease is as important as the actual nudity -- is still intact. Costumes are outrageous and extravagant, acts are character-based, and the show is much more interactive than what today's audiences have come to expect from a striptease.

While some acts in Burlesquefest offer balls-out brashness, such as Catherine D'Lish's almost-nude bath in a gigantic champagne glass, others are based more in titillating tease. The women in the show play with the audience and take command of the stage. At a recent stop on the tour, a performer addressed an unruly audience member by saying, "Darling, don't you know we like you so much better when you don't speak?"

Burlesque audiences now are as mixed as it gets. "We get audiences of all ages, from young hipsters to older folks who still remember the golden age of burlesque in the '40s and '50s," says Baldwin. The show, the first of its kind in half a decade, is playing to packed (and satisfied) houses in several major cities. "It's a huge endeavor, but the word from the road is that it's working," says Baldwin.

Burlesquefest includes Catherine D'Lish, the "founding father" of neo-burlesque who also reigns as Miss Nude USA, Showgirl of the Year and Miss Exotic America, and holds a host of other racy royalty titles. D'Lish is joined by Kitty Crimson, a buxom Marilyn Monroe doppelganger with a princess pout who wins over fans as "Minerva the Mermaid" and "the amazing Devil Girl." The bill is rounded out by Lola Lush and her breasts of fire, the gothic-industrial-themed circus stylings of Oracle Dance, and MC Kitten on the Keys, a self-proclaimed "firkeytoodlin' frisky feline," whose act includes a piano, ukulele and accordion.