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Their bodies, themselves: Provocative new doc showcases real beauty of yesteryear's burlesque legends

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It's so seldom that aging women are depicted as sensual beings. Typically, they're tucked away out of sight of popular culture. When older women are visible, matrons and crones are the usual suspects; it's thus we're taught to regard our aging bodies with revulsion and pity, the uncooperative subjects of endless, costly interventions. We women are told we must cut our bodies into new shapes, soak them in snake oil, inject poisons into soft flesh, do anything rather than reveal the marks of our age.

That's why The League of Exotique Dancers, a documentary about women who, decades ago, worked as burlesque dancers, is so very provocative, in more ways than one might expect.

"When a person's body or face shows the ravages of time, it's beautiful," says director Rama Rau, who has also directed Aftermath (2010) and No Place to Hide: The Rehtaeh Parsons Story (2015). Rau told me that the neo-burlesque scene didn't interest her at all because "when 22-year-olds strip -- who cares?"

She was drawn, rather, to the story of older Burlesque Hall of Fame inductees performing to the younger crowds.

The first scenes, following establishing shots of a glittering Las Vegas -- the "Mecca for showgirls" as one remarks -- show women in their 50s, 60s and 70s at the Burlesque Hall of Fame, with stages names like Camille 2000, Holiday O'Hara and Lovey Goldmine, strutting in their glitzy costumes and artfully stripping off their boas, skirts, stockings and bras with winks, bumps and grinds every bit as cheeky and erotic as they were back then.

The older women's confidence and command of their bodies, their movements, is sublimely inspiring. And that's even before the film takes you to meet some of them in person.

 

 

Burlesque as performance art has recently been enjoying a massive revival, thanks to performers such as Dita Von Teese, who re-enact the dazzling strip-teases that used to titillate audiences before the advent of lapdances and porn theatres. The film fascinatingly documents the social, cultural and economic circumstances of the rise and fall of burlesque.

According to Rau, "we've come back to the beauty that vintage burlesque had...the tease, the seduction, rather than open X-rated porn."

"On the other hand, you've had the women come into their own. With mainstream media telling women how to be, burlesque becomes the counter-culture."

The new burlesque has indeed been praised by feminists for its inclusivity and body-positivity, featuring performers of all sizes, abilities and identities. Rau notes admiringly that "I saw people of every colour, transgender, everyone, strut their stuff on stage. They don't care and I think that's beautiful." 

However, as some of the performers featured in League show, American burlesque, which Rau compares to other showgirl performances such as the boringly homogeneous beauties of Paris's Crazy Horse club, tended to transgression even back then, often revealing spectacularly unconventional bodies and in-your-face sexual empowerment.

The dancers' stories are all compelling, but one in particular, Toni Ellison, stands out when she describes the racism faced by black women in both the work she did before becoming a dancer and subsequently.

Sex positivity and sex work have been difficult concepts for many feminists to accept. For Rau, however, whether burlesque dancers "label themselves as sex workers" (and some do) "is entirely up to them. For me it was about expressing themselves. I think they subverted the whole thing and extracted money -- I don't think they care what you call it."

Some of the former dancers are still actively engaged in sex work -- BDSM, for example, and phone sex (one of the funniest scenes in the film shows ultra-vixen Kitten Natividad expertly handling a phone sex caller). The film juxtaposes the sex and erotic work that these women with the other options available to them at the time -- telephone operator, for example, at a much lower wage. At the same time, everything that the women do is honoured as performance -- as it should be.

What makes the film even more compelling is its use of ample footage of burlesque dancers, including many of Rau's subjects when they were younger. This was challenging as "many of them performed in dives and bars where no cameras were allowed" but thanks to a collector, Rau was able to incorporate some never-seen-before footage of the older burlesque performers.

The contrast between the women then and the women now -- "Baby Camille" to "Big Girl Camille" as the wonderfully foul-mouthed Camille 2000 says gently and without regret, turning the pages of her photo album -- is poignant with its own beauty -- the women are very much still the showgirls they once were and they confront their age with dignity and humour. At the same time, the film does not hesitate to document their pain, grief and loss as they reflect upon their experiences with the industry, with assault, addictions and substance abuse, and with the men in their lives.

Rau insisted upon having an all-female crew for League because "women speak to women in a very different way. Everyone were women, even the assistants. We kind of struggled sometimes carrying heavy equipment but I didn't care -- we had to do it."

She thought that having just women around tended to encourage her subjects, trained all their lives to perform for male audiences, to express themselves more freely: "If there had been one single male in the crew, I might not have got that....I got under the skin and around all these masks that they're used to putting on."

She and her crew concentrated on documenting the voices and performances of the women themselves, avoiding the possibility of an objectifying gaze, even a sympathetic one, rather than interview experts or theorists.

"They were very happy that someone was interested in them," Rau told me, and when she screened League for them during the Burlesque Hall of Fame in June 2014. "They loved it -- they were happy and impressed."

The love seems to be mutual: "I've never had so much fun making a film, it's been the most fun of my life."

 

League of Exotique Dancers is directed by Rama Rau. It is showing at Toronto's HotDocs documentary film festival April 28-29 with a theatrical release on May 20, 2016.

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