Not Just Naughty: N.Y. Burlesque Busts Out In New York City, a burlesque revival that started in the 1990s is still going strong. These days, patrons of what some call "neo-burlesque" are male and female, young and old, gay and straight.

Not Just Naughty: N.Y. Burlesque Busts Out

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

In the mid-1990s, New York City enjoyed a burlesque revival that began at loft parties and underground clubs. Many dismissed it as a passing nightlife fad -another reaction to the crackdown on adult entertainment by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. But the audience for burlesque has continued to grow steadily over the past decade.

This weekend, the New York City Burlesque Festival reclaims Times Square, where feathered boas reigned decades ago. Lara Pellegrinelli reports.

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LARA PELLEGRINELLI: If this doesn't instantly call to mind the peeling off of satin gloves and fishnet stockings, then maybe you're not old enough to be tuning into this broadcast. Striptease likely goes back to the invention of clothes, but burlesque dates roughly to the 19th century and has always been more about comedy and satire.

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PELLEGRINELLI: The Slipper Room has the longest running burlesque show in New York City.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

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PELLEGRINELLI: A performer with the moniker Weirdie Girl has been go-go dancing for tips in glittering heart-shaped pasties and cheerfully making out with female patrons attending a bachelorette party.

Unidentified Man: And give it up for Weirdie Girl.

PELLEGRINELLI: She takes the jewel box stage as a despondent beauty pageant contestant. Her sash reads Miss Understood.

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PELLEGRINELLI: Slowly working her way out of her red ball gown, she reveals a beaded bikini and another sash across her chest, this time with the words Weapons of Mass Destruction.

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PELLEGRINELLI: Finally, she's crowned Miss America and pulls out a knife, smearing what looks like blood across her bare midriff. She's practically naked, but this is social commentary.

Ms. SARA ANGEVINE: I don't think it's the same as any type of, like, normal strip show.

PELLEGRINELLI: Sara Angevine, a graduate student at Rutgers University, came to the Slipper Room for a birthday party. She says she has seen her share of drag shows and adult entertainment, but none were like this.

Ms. ANGEVINE: It's celebrating women's sexuality and their bodies in a way that I think gives them a lot of ownership.

PELLEGRINELLI: Whatever you think about the potential for female empowerment through burlesque, the context for it has changed radically since the 1940s. Back then it was like vaudeville's red-headed stepchild, and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia unceremoniously shut down Times Square clubs.

Mr. MICHAEL MUSTO (Village Voice): Most men were showing up to watch it mainly because this was their big chance to see a naked woman.

PELLEGRINELLI: Michael Musto frequently writes about burlesque for his column in the Village Voice.

Mr. MUSTO: There weren't a lot of opportunities to see naked bodies at that time, except in very covert places. Nowadays, of course, you could turn on your computer and you have access to all kinds of nudity. So I think the people that go to burlesque now are not just getting their ya-ya's off, they're enjoying it really as an entertainment.

PELLEGRINELLI: These days, patrons for what some call neo-burlesque are male and female, young and old, tourists and locals, gay and straight. The performers come to burlesque through performance art, drag and the circus.

Angie Pontani started her career on the Coney Island boardwalk, where they still have rough-and-ready weekly burlesque shows.

Ms. ANGIE PONTANI: I trained in dancing from about four years old. As I got older, I went on, I studied pointe and I studied some Martha Graham and some modern, which was absolutely not for me at all.

PELLEGRINELLI: Pontani co-produces the New York Burlesque Festival, which is presenting over a hundred performers this year, some traveling from as far away as Sweden and Japan.

In New York, aspiring festival participants — women and the occasional man — can learn the craft at the New York School of Burlesque.

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PELLEGRINELLI: Jo Boobs — not her real name — is the school's headmistress. Much of the time, her class doesn't feel especially different from a dance or theater workshop — except for the fact that everyone's wearing four-inch heels. But there's more here than mascara and body glitter: a spirit typical of burlesque of acceptance.

Ms. JO BOOBS (New York School of Burlesque): I get really excited when I'm working with someone who's been through a major trauma or is disabled. Like, I've had a private class with a woman who had a double mastectomy and taught her to twirl tassels.

PELLEGRINELLI: As she explains to a class, Boobs has learned to reconcile burlesque's past with its more liberated present.

Ms. BOOBS: What's really radical about burlesque is taking a form that represents an era that's extremely oppressive to women basically and honoring their art form, which was left behind.

PELLEGRINELLI: With a revival them going strong for 10 years, it's not behind them anymore. You might say it's all up front.

For NPR News, I'm Lara Pellegrinelli in New York.

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