Several months ago, sometime in early February, Cream City sought to commission writings from the semi-legendary Randall L. Ladnar. We at Cream City always admired Ladnar’s ability to navigate the world of sleaze and smut with a philosopher’s pen, so we were thrilled when he agreed to write a burlesque show review for us. Most importantly, we knew Ladnar’s writings would be a huge credibility boost for the site and likely result in ad revenue increases. Ladnar demanded payment in advance, and we obliged, but his deadline quickly passed with not so much as an update on the review’s progress. The piece was originally slated as a post-Valentine’s Day romp, but by mid-March I was sending bi-hourly emails and texts to Ladnar, demanding the burlesque review, or our money back.
About two weeks ago, I finally decided to pay Ladnar a visit at his Station North apartment. After prying one of his windows open with a crowbar, I tip-toed across his living room, through a minefield of drained absinthe bottles and used condoms, to find the man passed-out on his couch in front of a television set that was blasting the Hallmark Channel at some inhuman volume. I woke Ladnar. He tried to make a break for it, but I introduced him to my good friend, Gerber Clip-Point, who was finally able to persuade him to write the burlesque review, in light of the fact that he could not pay off his debt to Cream City in that moment.
With my associate, Mr. Clip-Point, I watched Ladnar type each and every word of the fascinating screed that follows. Personally, I’m surprised at how amazingly well the thing turned out, given the conditions under which it was written. It’s definitely the kind of classic Ladnar rumination that we’ve all come to know and love. Anyway, in case you find yourself wondering why the hell we’d just now be publishing a partial-review of a burlesque event that happened in mid-February—well, now you know.
Black Lights and Blue Balls
Reflections on the arts of burlesque and stripping
By Randall L. Ladnar
Strip clubs are hardly the typical Valentine’s Day purlieu of middle class candygram-sending American romance seekers. Spending your love day cooed up in the throbbing haloes of bass and viscous glittersmoke is about as traditionally acceptable as a man throwing a pre-wedding fleshlight party for his bachelor bros. So what options are left for the bourgie sort who none-the-less want to pay good money to sit with perfect strangers and watch people undress? Burlesque. It’s like the etsy of American nude entertainment. You can even invite your mother.
At least that’s what I thought until I saw Reggie Bugmuncher take a rotary grinder to a metal plate covering her pubic mound during Gilded Lily Burlesque’s 5th Annual Tassels and Champagne show, showering the stage with a veil of hot sparks. Maybe it was for the best that I hadn’t brought my mother.
What follows is a review of the Gilded Lily Burlesque’s rather remarkable Tassles and Champagne event. But first, a rather indulgent meditation on the difference between stripping and burlesque. If such distinctions bore you, please, proceed to the review.
1. an absurd or comically exaggerated imitation of something, esp. in a literary or dramatic work; a parody.
2. a variety show, typically including striptease.
A Few Facts
All of the strip clubs I’ve ever visited were about as erotically enticing as watching Guy Fieri jerk off into a pit-beef sandwich. Burlesque, on the other hand, with its acceptance of the Rubenesque, its swaying, gravitational dances, the tidal pull of glove & gauze till oh look it’s off (except that tasteful, enamored, en-armored target)… In its embrace of the tease and tarry, I sense a stirring at the root of the photoelectrified, callused, porn-tundra of my American Sexdrive.
What is the difference, you might wonder? Well, a little history is in order. The first American stripper was really just a ballerina trying to be comfortable. Her scandal caused all the “decent women” in the theater to storm out. The men stayed, and the Bowery became the heart of American strippery. Whitman once reviewed these “taboo’d” and “robustuos” theaters (unsurprising: he focused intently, almost pornographically, on the all male audiences who frequented them). In his words, they were:
…pack’d from ceiling to pit with its audience mainly of alert, well dress’d, full-blooded young and middle-aged men, the best average of American-born mechanics—the emotional nature of the whole mass arous’d by the power and magnetism of as mighty mimes as ever trod the stage—the whole crowded auditorium, and what seeth’d in it, and flush’d from its faces and eyes, to me as much a part of the show as any—bursting forth in one of those long-kept-up tempests of hand-clapping peculiar to the Bowery—no dainty kid-glove business, but electric force and muscle from perhaps 2000 full-sinew’d men
Unsatisfied with the term “stripper” to describe her profession, the legendary burlesque diva Gypsy Rose Lee enlisted the help of the American essayist H.L. Menken. The resulting neologism—ecdysiast, from the Greek meaning to molt—is far too erudite to titillate, and worse, reminds one more of an STI than an exotic artist. It never caught on.
Side note: The controversial poet e.e. cummings loved burlesque, and painted numerous portraits of dancers. It’s appeal, he thought (like Whitman), was to the blue collar and mechanical man. He wrote later in life, “Burlesque appeals to me. I’ve seen in the past thirty years of my proletarian life, a lot of burlesque shows (and I hope to see a lot more).”
Additional side note: He also wrote of snow once as “sexually fingering the rooftops of houses.”
Regarding the Appeal of Stripping
The average rutting male juiced up on redbull-vodkas and foursquares of redmeat & budplatinum secretly believes one special thing when purchasing a lap dance: for him alone, the stripper will drop her act. In burlesque, the pleasure is in the act. There is no possibility for separation of act and actor. One would no less expect the Venus de Milo to start offering stony titjobs.
The art of burlesque exists simply indulge. It resides the borderless horizons of the tease, a jurisdiction confined only by the fractal limits of play. Porn is still art, but it is restricted by the genre’s tacit promise of gratification. Its payoff is never unexpected; it completes the circle from urge to act ending creative culmination. It requires not imagination, but a form of sexual empathy—a visual prostheses.
Although not truly a sub-genre of porn, strip clubs activate the same mental (libidinal?) schematics as porn. The viewer becomes the ultimate consumer—paying merely to browse. Too often a lupine browse: carnal—with all the predatory implications of the word. With hunger unsated, lust subsumes to fantasy (a fantasy which has as its basic premise the dissolution of the fantasy, a transgression between worker and client—in just the mind of the client). Too often, the outcome is violence. (Crime against strippers is almost epidemic; crime against burlesque, unthinkable).
I do not say this to denigrate the profession of stripper—I wish only to denigrate the target audience.
Stripping seems like such an American enterprise. The tensions arising from our puritan modesty ensure a market where supply does not outstrip demand. (Yes, I know we have no claim to the artful nude—or, for that matter, the topless muses of art nouveau or the gartered strutting of the le Moulin Rouge, our protoburlesque.) Along the trade route that took us from brothels to burlesque, stripping is an oddly capitalist waystation. To create a market for graphic titillation, one must commercialize nudity, not by heightening demand, but rather by fetishizing supply. Sex as a product carries its own inherent demand, but stripping is not sex, nor ostensibly, the promise of sex. It is actually its opposite: unfulfilled arousal. Striptease. Black lights and blue balls.
It is at this juncture that burlesque and stripping begin to diverge. Out of the guarantee of nudity one must hypothesize sex. This is perhaps the element of the pornographic: visual stimulation of fantasy—many a healthy sex drive craves such. However, this admixture becomes explosive when it is paired with a male gaze that territorializes women’s bodies. Here fantasy threatens to go off the rails. The tease becomes interlude. Whereas the transgressive play* of burlesque refuses to acknowledge gratification as a destination, the monologic ethos of stripping promises a destination somewhere short of gratification.
Inevitability is the enemy of desire. We say longing because desire is distance. The stripper, by inevitable eponym will end up naked. The titty bar, the strip club, build into their names exactly what one finds there. Money is paid, tits are shown. In the inevitability of this exchange, seduction as delay across distance morphs into a lesser cousin: the grind.
Despite their neon dinginess, there is something sanitized in the product put on display. Female form is abstracted, idiosyncrasies submerged. The typical stripper’s appeal is calculated, market tested, chain-store g-stringed; it is often as dull and prepackaged as a Wal-Mart couch. It is a fabricated arena where the good citizen can turn inside-out in predictably dingy ways. Entering the black-light glow & plumeria mist, I feel about as classy as Burt Reynolds in Vaseline filled boots.
For burlesque, the pleasure is in the real, the crenulated zaftig—a rare, un-rendered vitality. (Americans especially are trained at an early age to squelch such animal fascinations with the shape of real bodies. Boys learn to point at cellulite on the legs of teenage girls and laugh as if such vague pocking were not the thumbprints of the vowelless hand of an as-yet-unnamed-god: the lust of the eyes & the lust of the flesh).
Perhaps this is why Menken mined such arachnid origins for his word—ekdysīs. Burlesque pivots on our subcutaneous itch, the ancient suspicion of clothes—the animal sexual teeming of fleshfulness: skin the outward and immediate form of our dying. Shedding ones clothes then, is both a Lazarus act of vital indifference and a dance with the death we each wear outward. To strip is to put on grave clothes. To burlesque is to mock the long toothed reaper with our gaudy pigment and breathing and full-bodied vehemence.
An Uncomfortable Realization
I see now that I never really reviewed the show in question. By now, what specific memories I possessed have faded. Blotted impressions remain. A red sexual gauze of rimshot memories. What I remember: I drank two bottles of champagne. I watched the sashay, heard the repartee, got lost in the frothy cocktail of banjo and clarinet from Sac au Lait. Most importantly, perhaps, for the well-intentioned yuppie, you leave having enjoyed the sex without braving the murky political waters of neon sex-work indulgence, and you are free to like it without the burden of irony. Privilege pervades, choice reigns on all fronts, and its result is a self-conscious artistic product that can be safely, yet not unerotically, consumed by all—perhaps even your mother.
**(Burlesque is by its very nature a queer space, approaching pleasure through vivid multiplicities. ****Here the author is lost for a moment in reveries of the divine Paco Fish, whose recent absence from the Baltimore burlesque scene is deeply felt. (http://pacofish.net/) Soon may he swim back.****)
—Randall L. Ladnar