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Arts & Culture

Hide the children (but not the women), burlesque is in town

Photo: Photos by Christopher L. Combs, License: N/A

Photos by Christopher L. Combs

Clockwise from top: Jasper St. James, Kassy Luvjoy, Gaige, Vixy Van Hellen.

Photo: Christopher L. Combs, License: N/A

Christopher L. Combs

Jasper St. James, Camille Toe, Kassy Luvjoy, Vixy Van Hellen, Gaige, Suki Jones

Photo: Jeffrey Millies Photography, Chicago, License: N/A

Jeffrey Millies Photography, Chicago

Coco Lectric

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The New York nights were sultry when H. L. Mencken coined the term "ecdysiast" to describe Gypsy Rose Lee, a star of Minsky's Burlesque during the Great Depression. Lured by promises of the bump and grind, they packed the joint, but what made the stage door johnnies succumb was a sly thing — a wink and a smile. But the subtlety of her performance was lost on reform-minded city officials. Raids on Minsky's and other establishments soon killed burlesque in the Big Apple. By the 1970s, it was gone from the rest of the country, too.

With tassels a twirling, panties flying, and boas sailing, the First San Antonio Burlesque Festival launches this weekend, inaugurating an annual celebration of the underground art form that has seen a resurgence and found new respect in recent years. The brainchild of Rose Muñoz, aka Gaige of the Devil Bunnies, the two-day fest is a convergence of the energies of the Bunnies with the talents of other SA burlesque troupes: the Pastie Pops, Stars and Garters, Napalm Cherries, and Scarlet Darlings — with international Neo-Burlesque stars Coco Lectric and Perle Noire as headliners, and the participation of dozens of invited burlesque and variety acts from Texas and across the country.

Emerging in the mid-1990s in parallel with the London-based cabaret revival that looked to the dark charms of Weimar Germany, the Neo-Burlesque movement began in New York with performers like Dita Von Teese and was pioneered in Los Angeles by Michelle Carr's The Velvet Hammer Burlesque, whose performers modeled themselves on Lee and other classic burlesque stars like Tempest Storm, Dixie Evans, and Lili St. Cyr. Radiating with the golden light of Southern California and displaying a liberal range of feminine pulchritude exemplified by women of all sizes, Carr's group embraced the bewitching ecdysiast version of striptease — setting the standard for the movement. Focusing on the tease more than the strip, and incorporating elements of vaudeville comedy, Neo-Burlesque is an affirmation of self-empowerment that soon moved out of (pre-smoking ban era) haze-filled rooms to spawn a festival circuit linking cities across the globe from Finland to Japan. New York began its annual burlesque festival 10 years ago; the Texas Burlesque Festival began in Austin in 2008. But before you say,

"Here's San Antonio, late to the party as usual," know this: "It'll have a San Antonio Hispanic vibe that none of the other festivals have," says Muñoz. "We're going to mix it up a bit more, make it more entertaining."

Muñoz was dancing salsa when she met a choreographer at Calle Ocho five years ago and decided to try burlesque. Her first troupe was Noir Vamp, a cabaret-style troupe that sang and danced. "We didn't go down to pasties," says Muñoz. "I discovered that's not my forte." She soon joined the Devil Bunnies; now a group of six, they were originally three performers. "We took a sideshow approach — fire eating, fire dancing, grinding, stuff with blood, and just random stuff," she says. As DB performer Gaige, Muñoz is known for making sparks fly from her metal costume with a die-grinder. The sideshow gambit has worked well for the Bunnies — along with fellow DB performer Kassy Luvjoy (also performing at SABF), Muñoz will be doing a tour with acclaimed heterodox gypsy caravan Revolution Circus beginning this October. And though her personal future as a performer looks bright, Muñoz felt that the Bunnies' circuit of club performances, at venues such as Nightrocker, Limelight, and The Korova, needed to grow. With four other burlesque troupes in town facing the same situation, and having the experience of staging two festivals — Fight Fest and Viva Vaudeville — Muñoz decided to launch SA's first national-level burlesque festival.

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