Revenge of the Boobs: The Resurgence of Burlesque in Chicago

Scene from Temple of Boobs: An Indiana Jones Burlesque by Gorilla Tango Burlesque
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Packed with classic rock legends, sci-fi sweethearts and a taste of tradition with nipple tassels, feather boas and bawdy humor abound, the Chicago burlesque scene is embracing new forms of neo-burlesque to great success.

Over the past five years, Chicago burlesque has experienced an uprising in the art form that has been growing and shrinking in popularity since the 1800s. According to Jenn Editor of, the number of Chicago burlesque performers has quadrupled over the past few years.

“Chicago’s burlesque scene has a personality and it’s a complicated one,” she said. “The performers and troupes keep expanding the themes they are exploring and pushing the boundaries of what burlesque is.”

With over 10 organized troupes and dozens of independent performers, there is a “something for everyone” quality to the various shows offered throughout the city whether you’re into cabaret-style stripteases or vaudeville variety shows.

The New Burlesque

While classic touches, like the traditional “wink and a smile” act, are still prominent in many burlesque performances, the true revival of this aged art form is inspired by ever-evolving performers who are working to redefine the emergent genre of neo-burlesque.

“I believe the widest stance is that classical burlesque is done to certain styles of jazz music and involves a glove peel, a long classic dress, and very classy lady-like movements with fans,” explained Hot & Heavy Burlesque performer Dahlia Fatale. “Neo-burlesque is just a wider topic. You can dance to anything, raise any subject matter, and behave in more extreme ways without worry of being deemed not ‘burlesque.’”

Unlike any other troupe in the city, Hot & Heavy Burlesque is known for placing a particular emphasis on the music used in their performances and their boundary-pushing efforts to incorporate themes of metal, classic rock, horror films and live music.

“I chose to go to neo-burlesque because classical was not enough for me,” said Fatale. “I understand and appreciate all that the legends did for the world, but in real life, I like listening to punk and metal. I go to rock shows and drink whiskey. I am not satisfied with just ‘being a girl.’ I like to have artistic freedom.”

Produced by award-winning international performer Viva La Muerte, Hot & Heavy has been wowing audiences with their unique performances since 2009, most recently receiving rave reviews for their Burlesque Tribute to Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Opening on Nov. 17, Fatale and Muerte will join a band of rock star performers in a tribute to Queen complete with live vocalist Kyle Greer impersonating Freddy Mercury. The Rock and Roll burlesque starts at 10pm at the Viaduct Theater, located at 3111 N. Western Ave. in Chicago, IL 60647. Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 at the door.

Revenge of the Nerds

Just as rockers have found their place in the neo-burlesque movement, nerds everywhere are reveling in the recent surge of shows centered on everything geek-chic. Heavily rooted in the Pacific Northwest, nerdy-themed burlesque troupes and shows have been popping up across the country to form a subgenre of fandom and fantasy known as “Nerdlesque.”

Coined the “Summer of Nerdlesque” by Jo Jo Stiletto, a Seattle-based producer and self-described “nerdlesque historian,” this past summer exploded with nerd-themed shows from coast to coast. The genre proved its staying power with the pure, devoted fandom displayed by both the performers and the audiences who filled up sold-out venues to see their favorite fan obsessions alluringly brought to life.

“The whole “geek chic” aspect appeals to both geeks and curious non-geeks who want to see how something like Power Rangers can be made sexy,” said Gorilla Tango Burlesque (GTB) dancer Cinnamon Twist.

While comic book queens and sci-fi sirens have always been featured in modern burlesque acts, the past few years have introduced a fresh take on geek-tastic performances with a refocused attention to detail and dedication to the sexuality of nerdiness.

“In a way, it is easier to find people to cast for these types of shows,” said Cinnamon Twist. “It can be less refined with a little more of the hip, quirky girl appeal. It is more easily approached by the inexperienced because in some ways it relies more on humor and costuming.”

Voted the Best Burlesque Troupe of 2012 by the Chicago Reader, the “Geek Girls” of GTB have received national attention for their limitless stream of hour-long scripted parody shows inspired by everything from Super Mario Brothers to Star Trek.

“We’re just a bunch of nerdy, confident, funny people looking to make audiences laugh and have an enjoyable evening,” said GTB performer Slightly Spitfire.

Some of the girls have even received local recognition for the talents and tricks displayed in their gut-busting, breast-filled shows.

“Apparently I have been made infamous around the community for my ability, and demonstrating of it in GTB’s Temple of Boobs: Indiana Jones Burlesque, to clap my boobs together at a remarkable volume,” said performer Juicy Lucy, who has been a “Geek Girl” since June 2011.

For more naughty nerdlesque, visit the Gorilla Tango Theatre (1919 N. Milwaukee Ave. Chicago, IL 60647) every Friday and Saturday at 9 pm and 10:30 pm for only $20 a show.

Common Misconceptions

Despite these emergent forms breaking ground in the world of burlesque, there are still many misconceptions surrounding the provocative art form.

“Most people assume we are strippers,” said Juicy Lucy. “And we are, kind of. What separates burlesque dancers from strippers is our ability to tease an audience by breaking the fourth wall and inviting them in.”

“Burlesque is also strongly rooted in comedy,” she continued. “You will laugh as much as you will hoot and holler!”

For many performers, the removal of clothing plays a very minor role in the construction and choreography of their acts.

“I usually choreograph 90 percent of the dance and then consider where to add the removal of clothing,” said Fatale. “The stripping is just an afterthought that enhances the performance.”

Instead of spotlighting the reveal, most burlesque shows are created with a topic or theme the artist wants to address. The themes are usually focused on politics, life experiences or other personal interests that could appeal to wide audiences.

“I like creating scenes from life: for the reveal to be as natural as possible,” said Cinnamon Twist. “It is easier for me to use natural impulse to remove an article of clothing, rather than creating a flirty character and working a crowd that way.”

Aside from stripping, performers also face scrutiny from family members, friends and audience members who make assumptions about their personal lives and the business behind burlesque.

“People think I have a crazy sex life and am out partying all night, every night,” said independent performer Marci Vousplait. “In reality, I’m a homebody and like watching bad reality TV with my dog and long-term boyfriend.”

To put it simply, “Burlesque is a celebration of the body, rather than the objectification of it,” said Vaudezilla performer Trixie Sparx. “Its theatrical nature paired with the deliberate element of ‘tease’ sets the two worlds apart.”