Portland’s neo-burlesque movement a nod to the past with a taste of the present

Posted Oct. 11, 2012, at 2:12 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 12, 2012, at 6:38 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Every seat in the house is full. They’re standing in the back two rows deep. It’s summer and it’s hot. Cool night air trickles in through a crack in the black curtain covering the stained glass window, which is thrown open as far as it will go in the former church. But it’s not enough. The crowd begins to sweat.

Then the room gets even hotter.

The lights go down at the Mayo Street Arts Center in Portland. The retro surf guitar music cranks up and new-wave burlesque dancers Vivian Vice and Jolene Divine slink onstage in skirted genie bikinis, complete with pink satin gloves up to their elbows. The catcalls begin — from men and women — in the seemingly evenly split audience. The performers smile. Later, the mistress of ceremonies reminds the crowd that catcalling is strictly encouraged.

Divine, the blonde, and Vice, her brunette counterpart, run through a synchronized dance of shimmies and shakes. They pull each other’s gloves off and run them up their thighs to more whoops and wails from the audience. Their long, yet nonconcealing, skirts come off next. All eyes are on the performance. The dancers teasingly throw in a few more hip swivels before turning their backs to the audience and reaching for the clasps between their shoulder blades. Undoing them, they slide their sequined bras off, hold them above their heads in triumph then toss them aside.

“When people are catcalling, we know we’re doing a good job,” says Jolene Divine a few weeks later, sitting at her partner’s kitchen table in Portland. “It’s validation.”

“It’s no fun dancing to a silent audience,” adds Vice.

Due to safety issues around overzealous fans, the pair go only by their stage names when talking to the media.

Known as Whistlebait Burlesque, they are part of Portland’s thriving, yet still fringy, modern burlesque scene. Other local performers include the Dirty Dishes, Atomic Trash and Holly Danger. They met while dancing in Portland’s original risque revival show “The Nutcracker Burlesque,” which has been selling out annual holiday runs for a decade.

In the summer show they hosted at the Mayo Street Arts Center, which included other performers with ties to Maine, they also did classic fan dances and a naughty housewife routine complete with brooms.

“We take inspiration from vintage burlesque performers from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s,” says Divine. “We use music from the era and the whole rockabilly, pinup culture inspires us as well.”

The self-described burlesque sisters will be sharing their knowledge in a “Secrets of the Tease Workshop” at Bright Star World Dance on Congress Street in Portland on Saturday, Oct. 20. They’ll go over classic pinup poses, flirty glove tricks, struts and slinky walks. More information can be found at brightstarworlddance.com.

Burlesque has been around in America since the 1860s. It evolved as working-class entertainment through vaudeville in the days before television. A typical burlesque show might feature a parody of a high opera, a comedian, some slapstick, a chorus line and a featured lady taking off her clothes.

Divine and Vice agree burlesque is not the same as stripping. It has a playful innocence and coyness not found in modern roadside “gentlemen’s” clubs.

“Burlesque is the art of the tease. It’s about the journey, not the destination, says Divine. “It’s not raunchy. We keep it PG-13.”

“R-rated,” retorts Vice and they dissolve into giggles.

A few blocks away, another performer from the summer show, Holly Seeliger — aka Holly D’anger — says first-time burlesque audiences often don’t know what to expect.

“Is it going to be like going to a strip club? Is it going to be like going to a dance recital? Is it going to be a comedy show?” says Seeliger. “Usually, there’s a little bit of all of that.”

Plus, no one is offering the dancers two-dollar bills. The dancers split the ticket money like any other performance group.

“You don’t even have to take your clothes off to be a burlesque performer,” says Seeliger, who has a political science degree and is currently running for the Portland School Board. “It’s more about tease.”

In one of Seeliger’s big numbers, she devilishly lip-syncs to Eartha Kitt’s “I Want to be Evil” wearing horns in her red hair and a red trench coat. Revealed underneath is a furry, crimson bra.

“All the dance moves wrote themselves,” she says.

While in town visiting her family in Lewiston, Amanda Wing, who goes by Cha Cha Velour onstage, took part in the big show as well. A week later, curled up in a lawn chair at poolside, wearing a leopard print robe and a flower in her hair, she agrees burlesque is different from what you find in a strip club, but says it’s still stripping.

“It’s not completely serious stripping. It’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek,” Wing, a 1998 graduate of Lewiston High School, says. “It’s totally campy. You’re being sexy but you’re not taking it a hundred percent seriously.”

She doesn’t think there’s anything attractive about the standard, overly serious “duck face” many models and strippers strike, anyway.

“A smile is sexy,” she says.

She makes her living — what she calls her Clark Kent job — as a cardiology nurse in Las Vegas. She got into burlesque after an injury sidelined her roller derby career. She didn’t think of herself as a stripper at first, but that changed when she got involved with the Burlesque Hall of Fame, where she volunteers her time giving tours and serving on an advisory board.

“I know a lot of women who are in their 60s and 70s and their 80s — I’ve met women in their 90s — who were burlesque stars of their time. They were the strippers of their time,” she says. “So, for me, there’s no shame in saying I’m a stripper.”

Wing also teaches. In January she opened Las Vegas’ first burlesque studio where she not only teaches the moves, but the hair, the makeup and pasty making. She’s taught women of all ages, from late teens to women in their 50s. She says neo-burlesque is open to all body types. It’s about being entertaining and “owning” it.

“I’ve met so many women who are amazing through this, and seen them transform, and shared with them what burlesque has done for me,” she says. “Like expanding my self-confidence and helping with my positive body image.”

Seeliger agrees and says it’s exhilarating to put her doubts aside and have fun.

“If you want to see a supermodel, look in a magazine,” she says. “People love variety. Anyone can be beautiful onstage, I think.”

In Portland’s burlesque scene, the performers are in control. It’s very much a DIY labor of love. They make their own costumes, choreograph their own pieces and develop their own on-stage personas.

“There’s something mesmerizing about watching people dance or perform and I like the idea of being free and creative,” says Seeliger. “I’ve always made costumes and clothes. It seem like a natural use of my talent and is something I really enjoy doing.”

She says getting up there and baring it all, or just some of it, can be therapeutic. It’s empowering, the audience can see that and they like watching a performer shine in the moment under the stage lights.

Vice and Divine say women are sexual and they shouldn’t be afraid of that part of themselves, no matter what they look like.

“Everyone has their own shape,” says Vice. “It’s about making your shape beautiful no matter what size you are.”

Performers say that’s why burlesque shows attract men and women in equal numbers.

“Of course guys love a burlesque show,” says Jolene Divine. But she says women catcall and tell her what she’s doing is a liberating art form.

“They’re envious, they want to do it. They’re inspired by it — just the whole self-expression part of it,” she says. “It’s pretty amazing. You have complete control over your audience. I love it.”

Vivian Vice adds, “To be able to express yourself in a sexual, respectful way is very liberating for women.”

Portland has an appetite for burlesque. With regular performances about once a month, Whistlebait Burlesque has no plans to hang up their pasties any time soon.

“It’s a part of us,” says Vice. “I don’t see us stopping.”