Sometime in the naive years before puberty, I told my mom that it wasn't fair how I had to wear a shirt when my dad and brothers didn't. She absolutely did not see how "fairness" had anything to do with it and promptly administered a firm and enduring lecture on the definition of "appropriate" and on being a "respectable young lady."
How long has the world been so uptight about a simple thing like nudity? People just go gaga over naked flesh. Like, everybody remembers the Janet Jackson Super Bowl half-time nip-slip (where were you when the wardrobe malfunctioned?) and how America went apeshit. Right?
But there's a fine line between women being exploited for their bodies and people embracing the loveliness of human anatomy. As loveliness goes, burlesque is a fine way to appreciate it, especially as an artistic expression that is also unbearably fucking hot. To witness artful burlesque in action, I caught the Boudoir Beauties, a longstanding West Palm Beach-based collective of art/stripteasers ("It's all about tease, not about sleaze," is one of their mottos), at Kevro's Art Bar on a Thursday evening. Skirt-dropping ensued!
Ambience: Kevro's (166 SE Second Ave., Delray Beach) has huge abstract paintings, eye-catching amalgamations of earthy greens and blacks and fiery oranges and reds, decorating the visible walls. The narrow room is headed by a small stage, with the bar stretching vertically across one wall and colorful furniture positioned against the other. "Can I see your ID, sweetheart?" asked a grandmotherly woman who wore her silvery hair pulled back neatly. Taken aback by the most sugary-sweet bouncer I've ever met, I flashed my I.D. but wondered how the hell she was going to forcibly remove anybody who wasn't 21. I grabbed a seat at the bar between two older gentlemen in dress shirts and glanced around. Soft blue light and hanging white sheets gave the vacant stage a seductive, ethereal quality, and the 20 or so chairs facing it were beginning to fill. Crowds of men in slacks and women in heels gathered on the limited indoor floor space or spilled out into the night to listen to a band playing on the patio.
The Show: Reality TV's Calvin Cyrus, a big, bespectacled comedian, came out on stage sometime after 9 p.m. and announced that the theme of the performance was "Hell Date" — each girl's routine was a sexy story set to music and somehow relating to romance gone awry. Cyrus acted as the host, filling all gaps between performers with one-liners, improv, and audience interaction — namely, trying to get them to buy raffle tickets ($1 could win you something from the undergarments grab bag) or reveal their own personal worst dates (no one volunteered). One of the first performances featured the red-haired Crimson Boudoir, who started by unstuffing her bra to a doo-wop song — much to the glee of the elderly women seated around me — and ended in her underwear and a surgical mask, injecting poison into cupcakes she'd baked for her lover.
From then on, girls unsheathed their bodies in a blur of sparkly eye shadow, vampish red lipstick, and fabric falling limply to the floor. They pulled off stockings, peeled off skirts, unlaced corsets, and kicked away shoes, methodically and sensually working their way down to panties. Leggs Monroe, a slender blond wearing dark smudgy eye shadow, ended her first routine by revealing her perky breasts — the nipples covered by two star-shaped pasties. As she bounced offstage amid wild applause, someone called out, "I give it two stars!"
Francean Fanny, a shapely platinum blond with ivory-white skin and blood-red lipstick, simulated cooking for one of her routines — she peeled off stockings and gloves and dropped them into a big metal cooking pot until she was down to a strawberry-red corset and matching panties. For the finish, she artfully removed her corset while blocking the audience's view of her tits with a cookbook, and then she dropped the corset into the pot and danced jauntily offstage. Other acts involved top hats, toy guns, Silly String, glow sticks, voodoo dolls, and shiny gold hot pants.
Apparently, not only is burlesque the art of cock-teasing; it's also the art of employing a bunch of random-ass props, retaining the class of 1940's starlet glam, dancing to good music, and being ridiculously fucking sexy. How is that it hasn't gone completely mainstream?
Best Act: In my opinion, Crimson Boudoir best captured the true mood of the moment after a "Hell Date" in one of the final acts. She wore a dress reminiscent of a 1950's pink prom frock, wobbled around the stage to Daft Punk's "One More Time," and popped pills while swigging from a martini glass, ending up a tangle of flesh and fabric on the floor of the stage. Isn't that truly the only way to deal with being an aging single woman with a ticking biological clock (and on prom night) with no Mr. Right in sight?
Drinks: Strangely, Kevro's Art Bar has a two-drink limit, which the owner of the bar (Kevin, or "Kevro") said was a "strong suggestion, though not enforced." The bar served "Kevrotinis" and a large selection of wine and beer. Though the atmosphere seemed to suggest that wine might be an appropriate beverage choice, I decided to screw sophistication and just have a $2 Coke. Kevin's wife, Deb — a blond, lively woman — and their friend Eric, a big, friendly guy who called everyone "young man" or "young lady," worked quickly behind the bar.
Sometime during the intermission, raffle numbers were called, and winners went up to the stage to fish out their undergarment prize from a big Whole Foods bag.
"They couldn't find something sexier than a grocery bag?" asked Alex, a young man who wore his shirt collar unbuttoned to about midway down his chest.
"Health food isn't sexy to you?" I asked.
"No," said Alex, who had come to the show to support one of the girls from his acting class, "but at least we know the prizes are organic."
Customers: The clientele was a mostly older crowd of wine-sipping sophisticates — not quite the raucous crowd of horny college boys you might expect at a venue where girls are getting naked. When a gray-haired elderly woman's raffle number was drawn, she drew a racy slip from the grab bag and draped it on herself to cheers from the audience.
Also in attendance was Ellies, a thin girl with almond-shaped eyes and long black hair. She wore cherry-red heels and skinny-cut jeans. At intermission, I asked her why she'd come to see the show.
"I danced with the Boudoir Beauties for over a year," she said.
"What was your routine like?" I asked.
"Very Marilyn Monroe-ish — it involved a big fur coat," she said. "My stage name was Lady Phoenix."
"Supersexy," I said. "Did people ever think you were a stripper?"
"Yeah, but it's so not stripping," she said. "Stripping did come out of burlesque eventually, but this is classy. It's art. Besides, we never go fully nude."
So take it from me: Burlesque isn't going to get any women-must-cover-their-tits laws repealed anytime soon. But it's a nice way to look at nudity — a controlled, artistic environment in which you feel as if the girl is exploiting you ($5 suggested donation and you still won't show nipple?! Oh come on!) more than you're exploiting her. And you know that cheap, sad, smoky feeling you get when you leave a strip club? With burlesque, you get the lingering scent of a starlet's perfume, an appreciation for the art of thigh-high stocking removal, and a sense that you might have just witnessed something historically significant and charmingly intelligent.
But, hell, even if burlesque is just a bunch of hotties taking off fancy underwear, I'm not complaining.