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A Chicago Burlesque Primer

We steer you through all the feathers and fans of the barest of subcultures.
Thursday Jan 08, 2009.     By K. Tighe
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

pictured: Belmont Burlesque

It happened in theaters, music halls and gin-joints; a young lady by the name of Lili St. Cyr caused an uproar by innocently bathing on stage, and Gypsy Rose Lee raked in major cash—and one hell of an arrest record—peeling off her clothes at the legendary Minsky's. There was also the incomparable Sally Rand, who famously proved that the "fan is quicker than the eye" right here in Chicago at the 1933 World's Fair. Such is the rich and storied history of an often misunderstood art form: burlesque. And you thought it didn't go beyond the awkward gyrations of a few dozen Suicide Girls. Tsk. Tsk.

Chicago's burlesque scene is bawdy, brazen and brimming with extraordinary talent. It can be a daunting world to navigate without proper guidance, so we've prepared a handy primer to steer you through all of the feathers and fans of the barest of subcultures.

Belmont Burlesque
Need a dose of tease without the sleaze? Well, maybe just a little of the sleaze. The Belmont Burlesque Revue delivers a sultry brand of romping revelry at the Playground Theater (and occasionally other venues). Plowing through master-of-ceremony duties (and usually an entire bottle of Jim Beam) is the delightfully dysfunctional crooner Jack Midnight, aka Mark Henderson, who wears the ugliest vintage tux on the planet. Of course, you'll find tassels and ta-tas galore, along with plenty of improv, slapstick, magic and even a dim-witted hillbilly. You get all of this for only 10 bucks. What more could a vaudeville tourist ask for? How about a BYOB policy to make sure the entire ordeal is well, err, lubricated?

When the HotHouse closed, the Girlie-Q-Variety Hour lost its home, and heaps of fans wondered when they'd ever see another queer burlesque review. Lucky for those folks, campy maven Miss Bea Haven (sorry, couldn't resist) reincarnated the project and settled it into the Empty Bottle for shows featuring plenty of edgy performers, live music and a raucous blurring of gender lines. While we're waiting for the announcement of the next show, Miss Bea Haven offers "art of burlesque" classes at Design Dance.

Michelle "Toots" L'Amour
Nothing short of burlesque royalty, Chicago's own Michelle L'Amour has her peep-toes in just about every exotic activity in town. Crowned Miss Exotic World in 2005, L'Amour has performed for over 50 million people, has a cocktail at the Motel Bar named after her, hosts "In Bed With Michelle L'Amour" on Fearless Radio (now on hiatus while it gets turned into a video series), and still finds time to take on proteges at Arabesque Dance. Whew! If just thinking about this lady's schedule leaves you breathless, imagine how you'll feel when you see her perform. L'Amour has been involved in many of the city's burlesque groups, including the Pillow Fight Club, the Star and Garter Burlesque Show, Lipschtick and the Motel Bar's Absolut Burlesque series. In short, if it's in Chicago and held up with a garter, L'Amour probably has had something to do with it. Catch her on Thursdays at 11 p.m. at Blue Bayou.

Arabesque Dance
Ready to give it a go? Become intimately acquainted with feather boas, fedoras and ostrich-feather fans in one of L'Amour's Arabesque classes. Hardly a bored housewife's pole-dancing flirtation at a flashy fitness chain, The Art of Burlesque explores the tease, which means no nudity is required. Advanced classes dig further, training students on makeup techniques, costume choices and music selection. Students are able to develop and workshop their own routine before the graduation performance. Arabesque also offers belly dancing classes, an art which has long been intertwined with burlesque performances.


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