Sunday, December 19, 2010

Burlesque Returns to LA: A Visit to Bordello in Little Tokyo

Dear Reader:

May I share a confession? I yelled “Woo-hoo!” Saturday (12.11.10) night during a burlesque show at Bordello.

Bordello is a charming nightclub in LA that contains, according to the website, the oldest bar in Los Angeles. My friends and I ventured there to celebrate the end of the Fall semester of grad school. I realized that when it comes to sensual spectatorship, I may not be the voyeur I imagined myself to be, rather, I am more of an enthusiast/cheerleader.

This realization led me to wonder if my “ooos” and “ahhhs” might have signaled, (a.) my naïveté regarding the live burlesque show, or (b.) more specifically, my naïveté regarding male-centered-live performance created and performed by women.

Confession number two: Until Saturday, my only experience of burlesque was what I had read in books about the great performers of the past like Josephine Baker and Gypsy Rose Lee.

Actually, the only “women” I had ever seen performing live sporting provocative clothes were, in fact, guys. That’s right, professional and amateur Drag Queens for an AIDS research benefit sponsored by a university. (What is it with grad students and cabaret-style entertainment?) That was a bawdy, night and for a good cause, too.

Not knowing exactly what to expect from a burlesque show outside of an academic institution, I kept an open mind, and discovered that at Bordello, located on E. 1st Street in downtown Los Angeles, the female stage performers enhanced their feminine allure to reveal and display the naked truth about the beauty of the female body. Today's burlesque sirens are thinnish, toned, and quick on the uptake. So, maybe they are not so different from past burlesque entertainers, although they did strike me as more petite and less curvy than the black-and-white photos of follies girls that of days gone by. What more can I say, except all of the dancers looked healthy.


Unlike my experience at the drag show where the focus of the performance was on the art of female mimicry, at the burlesque, I appreciated the vicarious nature of the art form. When watching drag performers, I never got the sense that I was acting a fantasy of dancing in front of an audience. Instead, I was enamored by the lengths to which the guys transformed themselves into women. Their beauty was awesome, and over-the-top.

But while watching the female burlesque dancers at Bordello, I had moments where I identified with them and I imagined myself on stage performing the routines. I also considered how I would need to enhance my own work-out routine, which consists of working with a personal trainer three times a week for resistance training and light cardio. I plan to return to yoga in the New Year, and possibly a dance class.

One of my friends who attended the burlesque with me asked me if I felt empowered by watching the burlesque dancers strut their stuff. I have to say, no. Rather, I felt awed by their confidence. At the same time, I recognized their confidence as a tangible quality that, I too, posses. Is there anyone who wouldn't want to be admired for their beauty, strength and confidence? Ah, but there is the question of nudity.

Maybe the jiggling, giggling, and gyrating of the striptease are but a metaphor for the kind of performance all of us give as we present ourselves to the world. Attention gender feminists: I say "all of us", but that is definitely open for interpretation. Have at it on this board, if you like by posting comments.

As I imagined myself up on stage twirling around a pole, doing the splits, using my abdominals to squeeze and support my body while dangling precariously off the ground, I inhabited the role of spectator. Thus, my internal narrative relative to my own self-perception became part of the experience.

Rather than seeing the burlesque dancers as exploited due to their sex, I saw them as youthful, vibrant, and employed. That is to say, these women were not amateurs, but professionals whose job it was to demonstrate confidence, grace, comedic timing and the intangible quality of sex appeal while balancing on Lucite heels. All of these acts possessed an internal logic and an intelligence, hence, “Woo-hoo,” as synonymous for: “Good job!” or "Hats off!"

I did wonder what other audience members thought about my exclamation.

There seemed to be a near even mix of men and women at Bordello and I was initially a bit confused by this. I thought, this would be more of a women's night. Nonetheless, it was a fun evening and I participated in the burlesque experience with guys who seemed to be appreciative of the art and mystery of the genre.

This place was awash in satiny pink drapery, warmed by the glow of chandeliers with red lights. The men were friendly, yet, not necessarily on the prowl.

Sensing my confusion, one of my girlfriends stated, “I think this place looks like a big vagina.”

Indeed, her comment caused me to think about this space as a space of heterosexual fulfillment – a male-centered space, where women were the focus of the gaze.

Therefore, in this gendered, presumably heterosexual world, my "Woo-hoo!" shout out, may have been read as an unnecessary coda, or a signal of my momentary confusion or general confusion. It could also be read as just a shout.

A word about the speech-act known as the “shout-out” is necessary before I make my next point linking the shout-out to the context of the event.

I see the shout-out as a speech act of enthusiastic admiration addressed to a subject at a distance. The context in which a shout-out is given may be broad and can encompass meetings, musical or theatrical events, as well as sporting events.

Although not typically associated with a particular ethnic group, I have most commonly witnessed the shout-out in the form of a call-and-response speech act that has traditionally been associated with the African-American tradition. Typically, the mood of such a speech act is lighthearted, but the mood can also be solemn. In both cases, the shout-out is meant to convey praise on the subject.

Another way to think of the shout-out is as an auditory turn. The shout-out, like the gaze, provokes. At least that is my understanding, but the basis for my exploration of this speech act within the context of this experience at Bordello is my utter amazement that my provocative utterance was not returned.

I most commonly have witnessed the shout-out at sporting events such as college football games. Typically, at such an event, cries of enthusiasm are echoed by spectators who are expressing joy at a stellar play by members of the team on the field, or conversely, shock at a poorly executed move by one of the players.

I was unprepared to be a spectator within a heterosexual space of fulfillment, a space like Bordello, the very name is synonymous with brothel. Thus, understanding my momentary confusion at being a woman in a male space gazing at other women, provides insight into the role gender places in everyday-life.

As to the topic of how to “appropriately” respond to the female stage performer executing moves in a space of heterosexual fulfillment, I remember feeling a bit shocked that no one seemed to echo my shout-out. With the exception of my two female friends, I had suddenly noticed, that all of the people directly closest to me, were men. At one point, while a song by Weezer played and a girl dressed in a Santa Hat strutted her stuff, a guy turned to be and said, "Weezer is great! It's so good that they used Weezer for this!" To which I replied, "Yeah, I like Weezer, too!" So, that was about all we could comment on, really, as the stripper continued her comical, and artful, routine.

Perhaps that is why my shout-out was met mostly with subdued smiles of amusement from the men who were closest to me. These men, I surmised, were not having the same kind of spectator experience as I was, assuming that they had heard my shout-out in the first place. To reiterate, I was having a vicarious experience. For some reason, I expected that my shout-out would be met by other exclamations by either men or women watching the show with me, but that was not the case.

So, if the men were not having a vicarious experience, what experience were they having? An internal experience?

I gather from their wry smiles, I may have interrupted some internal experience of their own. When I really focused my attention on the totality of the experience, I could see them gazing intently at the stage and the girl on the stage.

Unfortunately, I also found myself falling in to the trap of really wanting to know what the guys who were watching the burlesque show were thinking about … aside from the obvious.

For example, I wonder if when watching a burlesque show, does a guy ever look at the pink, ruched, drapery and pink chandeliers inside the club and think, Ooo, what a lovely job they did with the décor? Or, How does one build the stamina to execute that spin?

Or, perhaps the questions men ponder while women display their feminine essence and sexualized presence are not of a material nature, if questions are pondered at all.

If I, a female, experienced the burlesque vicariously, could it be that men experienced the burlesque indirectly, or via an exchange value (or conversely, a non-exchangeable act) of some sort? I believe so. More research may be necessary, though.

All of this I considered while celebrating the end of the semester at Bordello.

After paying a $13-cover charge, I stepped into a space of old-time grandeur with black chandeliers lit with pink lights, pink satiny drapery, and classic-style-furniture; Western/Victorian, let us call it, or cowboy meets cathouse.

Not knowing what to expect, I initially thought we would be seeing a cabaret, think Liza Minnelli.

But no, Bordello is located in the heart of downtown LA, which means, not Broadway and not Hollywood. Instead, its charm rests in its authenticity, and post-war, funky, yet, humble vibe.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post Gail. I am intrigued by your reading of the event and I agree with you. I do think Bordello can function as a space of "heterosexual fulfillment," though it always seemed to be offered, then teasingly taken away. In this way, it was not as male-centered a space for me. The landscape of the club and the performances seemed to be (at least from my perspective) for the women. Men just happened to be there. I noticed that the MC for the night was a woman, and most of the crew who took down the sets were women. I'd be curious to know if most Burlesque troupes are so female-centered. I feel like I need to spend more time fraying through the female/male gazes present that night. I want to delve into the subject positions, into the ways they consumed the spectacle.