In western Kentucky, burlesque is one of the last art forms you might expect to take root in local conservative culture. But a Metropolis healthcare worker that doubles as a burlesque performer believes otherwise. On May 11th, she produced a burlesque show at Shandie’s Restaurant in Paducah, reviving a bit of the American history as numerous dancers shimmied in corsets. As Casey Northcutt reports, the show’s dancers moved with passion and dramatic flare as they performed a genre of dance that was popular in the early 20th century.
The second floor of Shandie’s is packed. People dressed in vintage vests and cocktail dresses are literally rubbing elbows with one another trying not to spill their drinks. A woman calling herself “Juliet Moroe” saunters to the vacant space serving as a stage.
She strikes a pose. And she begins to dance. This is burlesque.
This show has been organized by a local performer calling herself “The Violet Vixxxen”. That’s “Vixxxen” spelled with three x’s. Most of tonight’s burlesque performers would not give their real names for this story. The Vixxxen is a woman who will give an interview in a lingerie-like costume trimmed in rhinestones. She’s also a woman who dreams of establishing burlesque in western Kentucky, where she grew up. This show is a firm step toward that goal.
“I just feel like Paducah needs a change. I think that people get tired of doing the same things, and I think that Paducah’s ready for Burlesque. This is a part of our history. It’s an art form, It’s not dirty. It’s not bad. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
The word, “burlesque” means “to make joke or to make a mockery of something”. The Vixxen says it once included a variety of entertainment like vaudeville, strip tease, juggling and fire eating. In the 1920s and 30s, burlesque’s focus started to favor the strip tease, which she believes leads to misunderstanding about the practice. Burlesque, she says, is not exotic dancing. Performers may show a lot of skin but rarely do they end up fully nude. Burlesque is an art—the art of the sensual tease.
“It’s all about the tease, and that’s why a lot of the acts you’ll see, people will really draw out removing a glove or removing a stocking. A lot of women can just look at the audience a certain way, and it’s very appealing.”
Her show includes quite a bite of teasing from women dressed as everything from an island girl to Marie Antoinette. The music ranges from the Queen song, “Killer Queen” to stereotypical big band, and through it all, women of various ages and sizes tease the audience with come-hither looks and bawdy routines. One dancer balances on a chair and removes a stocking with her toes. Another performs a trick I won’t describe on public radio.
For performers like the one sporting the Marie Antoinette costume, burlesque is a form of empowerment. Going by the stage name “Kisa Von Teasa”, the woman dances in an intricate dress, pulling off pieces and retrieving toy guns from—well, various locations on her person. Von Teasa, a 41-year-old massage therapist from Knoxville, says her routines communicate that her age does not negatively affect her personal beauty.
“I’m proud of the fact that I’m 41 years old and I’m sexual and I’m funny and I’m sensual. I’m all of these things. I’ve got cellulite, I’ve got bad skin, I’m not skinny, but I’m still up on stage and I’m still confident and I’m still passionate and I’m still going.”
April Thomas, known onstage as “April Flowers”, loves this kind of confidence. Thomas teaches and choreographs routines for the Bumpin’ Betties Revue, a local burlesque troupe she started under her Sassafras Dance Company. With performances that slant toward vaudeville instead of strip tease, the troupe captures audiences with their expressions and dances without ever removing a single fishnet stocking.
“A wink and a smile goes a long way.”
So far, neither The Violet Vixxxen nor Thomas have heard local opposition to their burlesque performances or classes. They’ve only heard positive responses, and they hope that trend will continue. Vixxxen plans to begin teaching, as well, and between the two of them, they hope to establish the art form in the area. Burlesque could become a new piece of Western Kentucky’s modern culture—a new piece that is, in fact, so old it smacks of 1930’s Hollywood glamour.