It explains that “Portland’s unique love affair with strip clubs is usually blamed for keeping a true burlesque subculture from establishing itself here as it has in other cool, cosmopolitan cities like San Francisco and Seattle. We are years behind the trend.” But now, apparently, there are multiple burlesque shows, and even a burlesque nine-week course for those who want to learn the “proper way to take it all off.”
“When you go to a strip club, you go for TA. That’s it,” says Sahara Dunes, the founder of Burly Girl Productions and namesake of Professor Sahara’s University of Burlesque. She started producing shows in the lean days of 2004, when she got out of the Army (trained as a nurse in a combat support hospital, she is an expert in grenades, M16s, and dismantling another human being with her bare hands—hot). “Some of the strip clubs have really good performers who are really talented; they can dance and do tricks on the pole and all that kind of stuff. A burlesque show is more about the art of the tease. Honestly, you can take one glove off and that’s your show.”
Or, say, straddle a carousel pony, or ride around on roller skates, or shoot fire from your boobs. Not surprisingly, the members of Portland’s burlesque community take that open definition and run with it. Some are purists: aforementioned equestrian Charlotte Treuse also does a classy, beguiling version of the classic feather dance to “St. James Infirmary Blues.”
Interestingly, Rosemarie Harmon, the former September Rose, who I Q&A’d earlier about her own burlesque performance to “SJI,” as an exotic dancer back in the late 1960s-early 1970s, was actually based in Portland back then. An excerpt (click here to read the whole Q&A):
Q: Was “St. James Infirmary” a good pick for a burlesque performance?
A: It was usually used for what was then called “floor work,” or a “floor routine”. (Now it is referred to as a “floor show”, which used to mean the entire revue, musicians, chorus girls, singers, the works.) Anyway, as a dirge with a sensual and sorrowful tone, this piece was a natural for the way floor routines were done when exotic dancers posed on fur rugs and couches and used other props during their floor work. This floor work was the /last/ number, the finale, done in a languid, graceful way. There was never any hopping up and down to grab a buck because dancers didn’t work for tips at that time. Pole dancing was a future event.
[Pianist] Mother Light and I mused that “St. James Infirmary” was also about death: “…and I saw my baby there… stretched out on a long white table, so pale, so cold, and so fair…” We thought that death, the long sleep, and the long white limbs of a stripper who was doing her finale (and most strippers were white at that time; women of color were referred to as “novelty acts”) — a dancer so passively displayed probably had a huge appeal to men who were habitués of these skin palaces. They came to see females who were the antithesis of modern woman: no voice, presumably no education, naked and physically vulnerable. Although not necessarily available–which is another theory altogether.