Odds are you don't know the meaning of the term "burlesque" off the top of your head. If you even know it at all.
In the past month I've discussed the term with co-workers, friends, editors and so on, and defining it has been a chore.
Recently I sat down with (and saw a show of) the girls of White Lightning Burlesque -- Mz. Kitty, Gunpowder Annie, Cherry Delight, Fancy Dee Wang and DeVilla Valentine, a group of women ranging in age from early 20s to mid-30s -- to further understand this facet of Knoxville nightlife.
White Lightning founder Mz. Kitty, (aka Laura Mullaney) says burlesque is "all about the tease." In short, it's women dancing seductively to recognizable songs while removing their clothing down to skimpy lingerie or tassels. They don't get naked, so don't confuse them with strippers.
Fancy Dee Wang points out that historically burlesque has always been popular during and shortly after wartime, and seeing as how we're currently in the middle of pulling out of a war and facing an economic apocalypse, burlesque is holding its own.
Although Fancy's correct about burlesque popularity, it still begs the question: After/during rough times, why would I want to be taunted by beautiful women I can't have?
It's a humorous fallacy, but the reason behind it is that burlesque pays attention to detail. Costuming is more than a little important and, with White Lightning, all aspects of wardrobe are taken care of by the troupe. They find their own clothing; they make their own costumes; they create their own look.
Burlesque abides by local laws that separate the act from strippers and the bars from strip clubs. And because White Lightning travels (they've done shows in such cities as Atlanta, Charlotte, Chattanooga and Baltimore) the act must be familiar with the laws of each region.
In Knoxville, for example, the bottom half of breasts can't be shown, and three-fourths of one's posterior must be covered. "As if someone's going to measure it," Fancy cracks. Yet the penalty for violating these rules come in the form of a hefty fine. But Laura assures that White Lightning doesn't so much as bend these rules and are always in the clear, being more PG-13 than R.
Burlesque focuses more on dancing than on other aspects of performance, like vocals or comedy. That falls into the category of cabaret.
Sometimes their shows have themes with regards to music and props, but, overall, the girls say that rockabilly or more Southern songs resonate with the Knoxville crowd, which makes perfect sense. Also, Fancy points out that the Goth crowd, which is somewhat prominent in Knoxville, is drawn to their shows, creating a large portion of their fan base.
At a recent show at the Chrome Pony this proved to be true, with hair dye and tattoos galore among the crowd.
The performers took turns dancing in different permutations, some with solo numbers, sometimes in pairs or trios. They wore corsets, lingerie with fringe, leggings, garters, and occasionally started with full dresses. Each had on a surprising number of layers, elongating the undressing process. "They spend so much time getting dressed just to get undressed" the MC commented during a set change.
On this particular evening DeVilla Valentine was unable to perform, leaving four girls in the group.
Most of the songs were recognizable, but genres hopped all over the place, ranging from Frank Sinatra to Stealers Wheel (in a routine referencing the infamous scene from "Reservoir Dogs") to a Les Claypool side project.
Gunpowder Annie stole the show with a solo dance to "I Need Somebody" by the Stooges, beginning with a leopard-print coat. The song packs a punch of raw power and Annie's sassy attitude (provoking the crowd to cheer her on by slyly acting as if she couldn't hear them) complemented it perfectly. It would certainly take your mind off your dwindling savings account.
Fortunately, White Lightning Burlesque performs frequently (at least once a month) at other venues. Their next shows are May 29th at the Longbranch Saloon and June 12th at 4620.
© 2009, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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