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Talking the Walk

Kitty West shows dancers how to strut their stuff as part of this weekend's Tease-O-Rama burlesque convention.



Exotic dancers today may have the bodies, but they ain't got the bump. That's what Kitty West thinks, anyway. West, who earned her rank in burlesque annals in the 1950s as "Evangeline the Oyster Girl," will be teaching a seminar devoted to, among other things, the bump -- at Tease-O-Rama 2001, this weekend's convention and showcase devoted to the nearly lost art of burlesque.

West's class trumpets her instruction on the "classic burlesque walk," but she'll be demonstrating the bump, too, because -- as West will tell you -- Lord knows today's performers need some help. "The girls don't know how to bump today!" West, 70, says with some exasperation. "They push their whole bottom out." West recants a bit when talking about her protege of sorts, Shim Shamette performer and director Lorelei Fuller. "Believe me, Lorelei is the closest to it I've seen. She's got the bump," West confides.

West is among the few genuine burlesque stars featured at Tease-O-Rama -- along with her contemporary, 75-year-old Dixie Evans, the "Marilyn Monroe of burlesque" -- but will be joined by about 150 other performers who, for the past few years, have been bringing the bawdy art back to life on stages around the country. Because of such burlesque troupes as New Orleans' own Shim Shamettes, the campy 20-member girlie show that regularly enjoys packed crowds at the Shim Sham Club, to similar revues such as Denver's Burlesque as it Was, Seattle's Gun St. Girls and Las Angeles' Velvet Hammer -- burlesque, in all its saucy splendor, is back.

Burlesque "is not a skin show. It's a way of looking at the women and the clothes," says Alison Fensterstock, a New Orleans freelance writer (and frequent Gambit Weekly contributor) who helped organize Tease-O-Rama, the largest-ever burlesque showcase to date, held this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Shim Sham Club, the Howlin' Wolf and other locations around town. While working on an article about burlesque revival dancers across the country, Fensterstock met several of the performers through an online burlesque community, and they recruited her to help put together the event.

"It's not a bunch of strippers taking off their clothes," Fensterstock says. "The prurient interest is there, but it's also tongue-and-cheek and campy. I think it's very feminist. It's very empowering."

Part of the appeal of burlesque is that it suggests more than the dancer actually shows -- something that's missing in today's strip clubs, say enthusiasts. "Actually the girls out there today aren't stripping, honey. They come onstage wearing nothing," West says. "They come to the shows with duffel bags. The difference in my day was, we traveled with trunks. We had furs, we had a master of ceremonies, a band. We had an act, and beautiful props, scenery, beautiful presentation."

Back in the heyday of burlesque, the dancers were performers, West says -- not strippers. "People thought it was very glamorous, and (the dancers) came out with beautiful wardrobes. They didn't come out naked, and they didn't swing on a pole like a monkey. And the men thought it was sexy. To them, it was appealing."

Fensterstock emphasizes that most of the performers at Tease-O-Rama won't show any more skin than one would see at the beach. "A lot of these groups don't even strip," she says. "They get down to pasties and G-strings or little underpants or something. Because the clothes are one of the most fun parts of this whole thing. You get to wear this totally outlandish, whacked-out costume dripping with feathers and gems and the whole thing, and if you actually took it off it would be less interesting."

The Tease-O-Rama convention is part evening performance series and part daytime seminar events. It will feature workshops such as Go-Go Aerobics with New York's World Famous Pontani Sisters, Bonnie Dunn's Pastie Makin' Class, and West's own seminar on the classic burlesque walk.

"It's a lot like the models' [walk], but you didn't put the feet in front of the other ones like that," West explains. "It was a very sophisticated fast walk, like click-click-click-click. You had a little sway. In those days, you had to learn it or get out."

Tease-O-Rama attendees can buy one-, two-, or three-day passes to the convention, which also features live bands and DJs and culminates Sunday in a Gala Showcase at the Shim Sham Club. "We're all coming together not only to perform for three nights but during the day we have the convention to get together and share ideas, like how to put on stage makeup," says event coordinator Debbie Mink. "We're creating (burlesque) in a new way but with a lot of the old ways in it. So it's a great chance for these ladies to get together and meet, because we've been doing things in our own cities and we haven't gotten a chance to get together."

West believes the current interest in burlesque points to a society longing for a little glamour again. "I think the whole world wants us to come back," she says, "and I hope I'm alive to see it."

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