The art of the peel. The striptease. The shimmy-and-shake. Whatever you want to call it, burlesque has played a role in American culture since the late 19th century.
Of course, that role has changed and been redefined over the last 100 years or so. Today, the term could conjure up images of scantily clad women, feathers and fringe, a heavily Botoxed Cher, Las Vegas showgirls — all fair associations. But no matter what your perception of it is, unless you’ve seen Cincinnati’s own Cin City Burlesque (CCB) in action, you have no idea what burlesque can be.
During a Sunday afternoon rehearsal at Covington, Ky.’s Step-N-Out Dance Studio, CCB members prepare for their upcoming holiday show at Bogart’s. The women refer to one another using saccharine-sweet stage names like Sassy Frass, Ginger LeSnapps, Lucky Charms, Honey Dew and Sugar Plum. Contrary to what’s seen onstage, the girls are mostly covered up in all-black casual, athletic wear. As they run through each number, all of the peeling (removal of clothing) is simulated; their main concern is nailing the choreography — something that sets CCB apart from countless other burlesque acts. For these women, it’s all about entertainment — a fun, clean performance. T&A come secondary.
The ringleader of this group is firey madam Ginger LeSnapps, a veteran of ballroom, Latin and Jazz dance with killer technical skills. From auditioning dancers to booking shows to teaching choreography, Ginger does it all. She runs the burlesque troupe like any solid business — with contracts, strict rules and the goal to make money — her business just happens to involve sequins and striptease.
Cin City Burlesque was founded in 2009 as an offshoot of Pink Productions, an event planning company owned by Ginger and Sassy.
Under the Pink moniker, they orchestrated various women’s events, like bachelorette parties. These weren’t your standard penis tiara parties — Pink was all about celebrating women.
As business progressed, clients started asking for burlesque routines as part of their party packages. Sassy and Ginger, both of whom have an extensive dance background, began researching the history and taking workshops taught by professionals in the burlesque community. The two were surprised to find a lack of actual dance involved.
“It was a lot of, ‘Walk over here and then take this glove off. Then walk over to this part of the stage and take a glove off,’” Ginger explains. “It was just a lot of walking around! We were kind of a little bored with it.”
The duo decided to put their own spin on it and began offering burlesque workshops for women. When clients and party guests wanted to know where they could see Ginger and Sassy perform, it was clear that they needed to form a troupe.
Sassy and Ginger were joined by three other Cin City Burlesque founding members — Sugar, who is still a performing member, and Cherry Tarte and Brandy Flambé, who are not — along with a male “boylesque” revue (now defunct), The Hammerheads. With experienced dancers of Latin, ballroom, tap and other genres, CCB was able to take a more choreographed, ensemble approach to burlesque. Four years later, the group is comprised of a dozen performers; one hilarious, androgynous emcee known as Sweett Biscutt; two “ninjas” (stagehands); and a “kitten” who retrieves discarded clothing off stage. They’re currently the only local burlesque troupe in Greater Cincinnati.
While putting their stamp on the shimmy, CCB also pulls from the historical definition of burlesque which, according to Ginger, “is to spoof something in an upside-down fashion.”
Before thongs and glitter came into play, burlesque was all about satire. And these girls have clearly studied up on the subject. They are all eager to explain how burlesque has changed over the years; Sassy says stripping was not even involved during burlesque’s inception.
“It was just about humor,” she says. “And then when prohibition came and you had to have some way to get people to come in, that’s when they started peeling. ‘We’re still funny but we don’t have any booze, so…’”
Burlesque, in its heyday, was a dinner-and-a-show date night activity. As Sugar explains, when sexual repression resurfaced in the 1950s, burlesque was dubbed taboo and went underground.
“The human body became something you didn’t talk about,” she says. “You didn’t express yourself; you didn’t talk about nudity. So nudity and burlesque became naughty. Now, our generation is like, ‘No, we want to express ourselves and show that I’m OK with my body,’ but it’s not in a naughty way. This is in a liberating way.”
A revival of all things retro came about in the 1990s, as Swing and Rockabilly regained popularity, and burlesque began to rear its bejeweled head once again with the help of Dita Von Teese. The contemporary burlesque queen is now a household name, crossing over from burlesque to more mainstream modeling and acting (oh yeah, and marrying and divorcing Marilyn Manson). But Ginger points out another important factor in the recent burlesque resurgence.
“Burlesque has always been popular in times of economic stress,” she says. “Because people will always still spend money on booze and a good time. Anything to make them forget their troubles.”
“People are looking for a new way to entertain themselves and forget about what’s going on in your life,” she continues. “And that’s all burlesque is — it’s fantasy, there’s nothing real about it. There is absolutely nothing real other than our bodies onstage.”
And while it’s easy to get swept up in that fantasy, with the heart-pounding routines and sparkly surface, CCB keeps it real when it comes to women. Beneath the fringe and false eyelashes lie real people you’d see in real life — your girlfriend, your roommate, your neighbor. They’re beautiful, no doubt, but not airbrushed or unattainable. Onstage they look like Rock stars, but they’re not dressed to the nines every day in vintage designer ensembles a la Dita.
“We take it very seriously,” Ginger says of performing. “But we never take ourselves very seriously.”
Burlesque is an expensive, time-consuming endeavor that requires a staid commitment. Ginger has set the CCB standards high to ensure a successful show. Every member must audition, sign a contract and re-audition to keep her spot each year. There’s a certain DIY factor to CCB, too. In addition to memorizing dance routines and performing in sync, the girls must produce their own solo performances, assemble and embellish costumes and style their hair and makeup, all while managing their respective daytime careers. Not just any girl off the street could pull off these moves, the comedy and the balance of subtle sex appeal. These women are pros.
So how does one manage to have fun and look great while sticking complicated dance moves and undressing? It turns out confidence is every burly gal’s favorite accessory — which comes in handy when you’re disrobing down to a pair of panties and pasties.
“Comedy and confidence is the sexiest thing,” says Honey, who joined the troupe in 2011. “Somebody going up there trying to be sexy ends up looking like Zoolander. That doesn’t look sexy. … But if you get up there and you’re confident in yourself and just having a really good time, that’s sexy.”
Most acts involve some type of humor — either taking a playful approach to a serious song or dance (the holiday show features Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” — use your imagination) or putting something funny in a more sensual context.
“For people that are not familiar with burlesque,” Ginger says, “they have to have a sense of humor and some intelligence. That would be my biggest thing, if you’re easily offended. … It’s social commentary. Really, for me, it’s everything but sex.”
She’s quick to point out that this doesn’t apply to every burlesque performer. Sex sells for many groups. Some performers and troupes dance for tips (CCB does not accept tips, but will donate cash thrown onstage to a charity or offer it to the “kitten”); some troupes drink alcohol onstage (over Ginger’s dead body).
People concerned about the semi-nudity or sexuality in these shows miss the bigger picture: Burlesque, particularly what CCB does, is inherently not about sex or showing off bodies.
“The peeling, the reveals are just the punctuation, it’s not the story,” Sassy says. “It’s the exclamation point at the end of it.”
That flash of skin is just a cherry on top of a well-rounded, entertaining show of women, for women. And since ladies make up around 80-90 percent of the audience, that’s who CCB performs for.
“If there is a man there, it’s never like a bachelor party,” Sassy explains.
Like any quality performers, CCB members cater to their audience, basing their shows on what women want, making jokes geared toward ladies and keeping a roster of diverse girls.
“If you’re a woman in the audience,” Sugar says, “you’re gonna identify with somebody [onstage]. We’re old and young, tall and short, skinny and less skinny…”
“We don’t like to use any of the other terms around here,” Honey interjects, causing the group to erupt with laughter.
“I shake and I shimmy,” says Lucky, who’s been with the troupe since 2010. “But when I stop, there are parts of me that keep going. And those are the bits and baubles that I love. That’s the fun stuff.”
Ginger encourages all the girls to embrace their bodies, advising that if there’s a certain body part that makes them self-conscious, that’s probably the one to really show off.
It’s no secret that women tend to beat themselves up and, often as a direct result, tear one another down. The women of CCB are combatting this issue, one peel at a time. A confident, relatable woman onstage without inhibitions is an inspiring spectacle, and every member has stories of audience members approaching them after performances to praise them for representing a broad spectrum of beauty.
“I’m a size 12/14 and I’m six-foot tall,” Sugar says. “So I’m a giant on that stage. But when I get off stage and I have that woman come up to me and say, ‘If you can do that onstage and do that in front of 500 people, I can go home to my husband/my boyfriend/my girlfriend and I can feel confident in my own skin,’ that’s what gives back to me. And I am giving to them — it’s not the men in the audience, it’s that girl in the audience that’s insecure with her body because society told her to be.”
Giving back has been a troupe mission since the beginning, from preaching self-acceptance via striptease to raising money for various charities and causes such as Caracole, breast cancer and multiple sclerosis. Even within the group, the girls constantly build each other up with positive feedback and compliments. It’s a real sisterhood, the opposite of the cattiness seen in many competitive female groups.
And while audiences have embraced CCB, Cincinnati’s conservative sensibilities and the general misunderstanding of burlesque force the women to keep a certain amount of anonymity (like the use of stage names). Which is ironic, considering crowds of hundreds have seen their butt cheeks.
But most negative perceptions of burlesque stem from a total ignorance about the subject. Lucky’s parents worried she was getting “mixed up” with the wrong crowd when she told them about her foray into burlesque. Another popular response is, “So you’re strippers?”
“Strippers are lovely,” Sassy says. “Go for it, sister. But if you’re coming to see strippers and you come to our show, you’re going to be really disappointed. And vice-versa. If you’re going to see burlesque and you go to a strip club, you’re not going to see burlesque. You just have to know what you’re in for.
“If you want entertainment and comedy — and also boobs — then come to us.”
Find more info on CIN CITY BURLESQUE at cincityburlesque.com .