This is the most glamorous hobby you can have," says the young woman who calls herself Shy Kamikaze.
She certainly looks the part, from her sequin-encrusted ballroom dance shoes to her flouncy black skirt and lace-up corset, with a fringe-and-rhinestone-adorned bra pouring over the top. Even her bright red lipstick is slathered with glitter.
Shy's surroundings this evening are somewhat less glamorous: She's perched in the corner of a west side restaurant's dark basement, curtained off from stacks of chairs, old Halloween decorations, and somebody's bicycle. She's holding up one of a series of filmy garments strewn about the space, while her friend, Bella Sin, slips skimpy clothes over a nylon body stocking. A trail of stray glitter and feathers falls to the dingy brown throw rugs that cover the concrete floor.
"Wear the shimmery red," Shy advises.
Bella's prepping for her next performance at Luxe, the popular Gordon Square eatery where, on a frigid Friday night, her job is to heat up the room with brief hourly burlesque shows. Luxe books one of a rotating group of about a dozen girls to dance on the hour, one night every week.
Bella is one of Cleveland's veterans in a burlesque movement that started on the east and west coasts in the mid-'90s and picked up steam over the last five or six years — if you don't count its actual origins some 80 years ago. The art form has been supercharged recently by independent documentaries like last year's Behind the Burly Q and movies like the audaciously atrocious Cher/Christina Aguilera vehicle Burlesque.
"I've got 50 names in my computer of girls who are interested in doing it," says Bella. "I'm getting e-mails every day."
Shy Kamikaze is dressed to kill too, but she won't be performing tonight: She is Bella's "kitten," a burlesque term for an assistant who collects the unmentionables shed during the featured performer's act. It's how every girl starts — how they observe their more seasoned mentors and how they learn to present themselves. In burlesque, even hobbyists pay their dues.
At exactly 11 p.m., Bella slithers out from behind the iron gate that separates the basement stairs from the restaurant's lounge. The sound system's contemporary dance tracks give way to a vintage bump-and-grind, as a wave of cheers and hollers erupts from the mostly thirtysomething crowd. Others eye Bella curiously over their late-night snacks and glasses of wine. It's clear that some in attendance weren't expecting a fleshy floor show.
They follow her progress as she dips and whirls down the narrow aisle between the tables and the bar, clad in a red bikini and bra top dripping with fringe, and brandishing two large red feathered fans.
Bella shakes her ample booty at a table of six young men. They hoot and clap and snap pictures with their cell phones. By the end of her dance, Bella has dropped her top to reveal rhinestone-studded pasties. And now she's "earthquaking" — the burlesque term for shaking everything you've got. And Bella Sin's got plenty.
More than a reaction to pop diva whims, today's burlesque is a revival and reinterpretation of an entertainment form that peaked in the 1930s and '40s. It was an era that produced celebrity performers like Blaze Starr and Tempest Storm, who headlined the burlesque-theater circuit — even earned cameos in films — before becoming passé in the increasingly explicit '60s. By then, nude shows and X-rated films diluted the art of the striptease.
Most of today's burlesque performers profess a fascination for the old days, when Cleveland's Roxy downtown on East Ninth Street featured old-style burlesque from its opening in 1931 until well into the '50s.
Some of the revival seems to be based on nostalgia. The country's better known burlesque acts, including New York's World Famous Pontani Sisters, are generally associated with a strand of indie-rock culture that reveres rockabilly, hot rods, and roller derby. Others cast their gaze further back, performing to jazz classics of the '30s and '40s.
In addition to a wave of movies and books that fueled a new interest, numerous burlesque expos have cropped up to feed it in places like Boston and (naturally) Las Vegas. And there are troupes all over the country, filled with young women eager to show they can be sexy and entertaining without being crude. Ohio alone boasts Cin City Burlesque in Cincinnati, the Ooh La Las and Viva Valezz! & Her Velvet Hearts in Columbus, and the Rubber City Bombshells in Akron. In Cleveland, there's Le Femme Mystique, the troupe Bella Sin formed seven years ago — and the one that started it all in Northeast Ohio.
Bella was raised in a Mexican border town, where she learned to speak English and Spanish fluently. Her family moved to Denver when she was 13. There, she fed her obsession with American culture — especially the 1950s.
"Going through books in school, I found Gypsy Rose Lee," she recalls, naming burlesque's best-known performer, whose life story was told in the 1959 musical Gypsy. "I started researching and couldn't stop. Then I saw a live show with Kitten DeVille in Denver at a kind of a Beachland type of place. It became what I called my greatest love affair."
Romance delivered Bella from Denver to Akron in 2003. She had just given birth to a daughter when she was struck by the urge to bring burlesque to Ohio.
Her path wasn't easy. Le Femme's first two lineups fell apart before making it to the stage. They tried working with rock bands, but invariably were viewed merely as strippers.
(You'll be forgiven for noticing the many similarities between burlesque and stripping — from the flesh, to the flamboyance, to the ever-present whiff of sex that wafts through the air with each dance. Call one of these girls a stripper, however, and the key distinctions will soon become evident.)
Le Femme Mystique's first break came when a drag queen invited Bella Sin to take the stage at the Innerbelt, a gay bar in Akron.
"When we reached the gay clubs, they knew what we were," she says.
Burlesque's combination of humor and extravagant showmanship hooked Bella from the start. Le Femme Mystique's events — including an upcoming Valentine's Day Sweetheart Showcase at Musica in Akron on February 12 — feature DJs and girls who sing, dance, and even perform comedy.
Shy Kamikaze, for instance, is not only an operatically trained singer; she does balloon-twisting and something she calls "naughty knitting." (For further details ... show up for her next performance.)
"We do anything from hula hoops to ballet. We have escape acts. We have girls that try to do magic tricks," says Bella, adding: "It's more humorous to do a failed trick."
Burlesque has always been as much about costuming, props, humor, and routines based on the slow, deliberate removal of garments, as it is about the inevitable "reveal" at the very end — the flash of breasts, usually covered with pasties, from behind a dropped fan or other prop.
Some consider it a reaction to the media's stringent standards of what constitutes sex appeal. Bella and Shy are well-upholstered women, with full thighs and lush breasts that quiver as they slither — the kind Playboy and strip clubs pass over in favor of toothpick figures sporting immobile plastic enhancements.
Now 26, Bella lives on Cleveland's near west side and works as a Spanish-English phone operator and makeup artist. Like many in the burlesque biz, she tends to be known by her real name by day or by her stage name by night — but few are privy to both.
"My background is so self-conscious," says Bella. "I think that's why I joined burlesque. Women should be comfortable with who they are. I get a lot of, 'I'll join your troupe when I lose 15 pounds.' I go, 'Girl, look at me.' This troupe started in 2004 as a plus-size troupe. Then it became a real-woman show. We have girls who are 118 pounds, and we have one who is over 300."
Shy Kamikaze knew a little about burlesque from clips she'd seen on the History Channel and online. But she was inspired after watching Bella perform at the downtown restaurant View in 2009.
"I was in awe," she says. "Here was this voluptuous woman onstage. I talked to her a little that night and friended her on Facebook. I started going to her shows and watching her. About a year later, I signed up for her troupe and started kittening."
In only a few months, Shy Kamikaze — a microbiologist by day — was onstage for the first time, at the gay club Bounce on Cleveland's near west side.
"I got up there, and I was wearing a green corset and fluffy black skirt, and I had diamonds around my neck. I walked onstage and started singing 'Sexy Minx' by Paloma Faith, and everything just kind of clicked."
Gay clubs are more accepting of the women's disparate body sizes. It's one reason Le Femme Mystique performs in so many of them. "They just want to be entertained, and they are hard to entertain," Bella says. In gay entertainment circles, after all, outrageous tends to be a minimum requirement. "You have to make yourself glamorous and over-the-top."
A gig in a Warehouse District nightspot was less well-received than those she regularly performs at gay bars. She recalls one patron shouting "Put it back on!" as she did her striptease.
But at Luxe, Bella and her sisters are right at home.
"The Gordon Square Arts District is a performing arts neighborhood," says Luxe manager Melissa Cole. "This is a small way for us to embrace that. Our mission statement is to stimulate the senses in a myriad of ways, and I think the art of burlesque does that."
Because Luxe doesn't promote its Friday burlesque nights, the dancers routinely catch guests by surprise. "We've had growing pains, people who weren't prepared," says Cole. "But we have people like Bella, who is wonderful."
Indeed, Bella has trained many of the area's up-and-coming burlesque performers.
Terra Incognita is a sleek, 31-year-old punk rocker with elegant cheekbones and a blunt-cut bob. She had been modeling extensively for local photographers and filmmakers for almost a decade when Bella spotted her online. Next month, you can see her in She Devil a Go Go, a new film from Cleveland's Old School Sinema company.
"I knew it was going on on the coasts," says Terra, who works by day as an ad agency art director and hangs out by night at punk bars like Now That's Class. "Bella's target audience seems to be gay clubs, and I usually go to punk rock bars, so I wasn't aware of it. I said it sounds cool, so I'll try it. I'm not really a dancer, but I can fake it."
For Aurora Sans, a girl-next-door brunette with a couple of modest demi-armband tattoos, it was about the creative expression she doesn't get at her day job as an accountant.
"It was a lot of life changes that led me to burlesque," she says. "I've always been a fan of pop culture, and my apartment is like a museum. I was going through some changes in my life — a marriage, a divorce. Your outlook changes, your comfort level with yourself, your confidence, and your sexuality.
"As an adult, my first public dancing experience was as dancing for the Doors tribute band Mojo Risin. I got comfortable dancing on a stage in front of people."
Terra and Aurora soon left Le Femme Mystique to launch their own Cleveland Burlesque Company. Unlike the gay venues where Bella's group finds its warmest welcome, Cleveland Burlesque's multi-act variety show has scored with rock clubs — thanks in part to Terra's punk proclivities and Aurora's love of metal and classic rock. In December, the group performed between bands at an Auburn Records heavy metal fund-raiser at the Beachland Ballroom.
Recently, Terra and Aurora parted ways too. Terra is continuing Cleveland Burlesque — which she emphasizes is her production company and not an actual troupe — and doing more out-of-town performing.
Aurora, meanwhile, splits her time performing with Terra and Bella, while exploring a new project of her own that, so far, she'd rather not talk about. Like Le Femme Mystique, Cleveland Burlesque also has a Valentine's Day event lined up for February 12, at Now That's Class. They'll be joined by the local bands Madison Crawl and Lords of the Highway, both of whom are influenced by the jumpin', bumpin' music of burlesque's earlier days.
Bella Sin's local fame is growing too. She has performed at venues as varied as the LGBT Center and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was featured in All That Glitters, a documentary on neo-burlesque by Chicago filmmaker Brian Janes. Recently, a young woman snapped a picture of her in front of a Lakewood coffeehouse.
"You're Bella Sin, right?!" the lady exclaimed.
"It's really an art form," says Shy Kamikaze. "Some people have to dance, some people have to sing. A lot of people are drawn to it because they have a passion for getting onstage and entertaining."
"It's something you have to have a strong passion for and be persistent," says Aurora.
"You have to be a go-getter, not just think it will happen to you. I've had people e-mail me and say they're interested, and I'll say, 'Why don't you come and kitten?'"
Not that there's a pot of gold separating the kittens from the cats. Their performances pay $25 here, $50 there — hardly enough to keep up with the cost of costumes, makeup, and props for a constant stream of new numbers. Bella says that the money has only recently started to cover her satin peacock capes, Carmen Miranda headdresses, and lavish fans.
She has seen a lot of girls come and go over the years, and she embraces each one like family. She is optimistic about burlesque's future, even as she venerates its past, hunting down old-time stars and researching Cleveland's burlesque history.
Bella hopes to pull together the first Ohio Burlesque Expo in Cleveland this summer, bringing together performers from around the region and booking a name headliner or two. She's even got dreams of opening a show bar like the old Roxy, maybe in the space on Detroit Avenue that used to house the Bop Stop.
"Cleveland is a melting pot of awesomeness," she says. "It should have a venue that does burlesque."