Show Business

UNDRESSING UP

Vancouver’s Fluffgirls bring the tease back to strip

KEN MACQUEEN February 18 2002
Show Business

UNDRESSING UP

Vancouver’s Fluffgirls bring the tease back to strip

KEN MACQUEEN February 18 2002

UNDRESSING UP

Show Business

Vancouver’s Fluffgirls bring the tease back to strip

KEN MACQUEEN

Nurse by Day, Burlesque Queen by Night. Cecilia Bravos life seems, at first blush, to be ripped from the headlines of a 1930s scandal sheet. But the willowy Vancouver redhead is no bit player in a well-worn male fantasy. As founder and driving force behind the Fluffgirl Burlesque Society, she’s reviving a venerable art form—but with a twist, as well as the obligatory shimmy and shake.

The Fluffgirls are a woman-run operation and the local leading lights in a modest—well, modest in the relative sense of the word—North American movement to return the tease to the strip. Neo-burlesque, as the Fluffgirls define it, is burlesque danced on feminine terms. Much of the hootin’ and hollerin’ comes from the female half of the audience. A brave few even consider it a feminist statement, writ large in silk, fishnet and feather boas.

Bravo, 30, who dances as The Blaze, is

not prone to overanalyze such things. People dance and people watch, for any number of reasons, she says. If her peekaboo productions offend some sensibilities, tough. “It’s OK to exploit yourself if you’re an adult,” she says with a theatrical roll of her eyes. “The women in my show, they’re in control of what they’re doing.” And what they’re doing is good, clean, naughty fun, in her view. “It’s not full nudity,” she says. “It’s really about style.”

For Bravo—who works as a nurse consultant for group homes for the physically and mentally challenged—her nocturnal vocation began as a love of vintage clothes and old records. It took off from there, so to speak. She produced her first show at a Vancouver east side hotel in 1997, and was forced to perform when she found only a handful of dancers. “It was terrifying,” she says, but the applause hooked her. “The first one was so much fun, even though it was surreal and B-movieish, and just bad. So bad it was good.”

For inspiration, she studied the giants of an earlier age, the likes of Lili St. Cyr, Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee, all of whom visited Vancouver’s lively burlesque houses and bottle clubs in the 1950s. She learned that others, including the Dangerettes of Toronto, are also filling the pumps of the past. Last May, the Fluffgirls attended the first Teaseorama, a burlesque convention in New Orleans, sharing the stage with such headliners as the Devil-Ettes, the Shim Shamettes, Torchy Taboo, and Dita Von Teese.

Whether shedding clothes or building a following, Bravos philosophy is essentially the same: take it slow, keep smiling, save the best for last, and leave ’em begging for more. She’s fanned demand by staging periodic shows, and by booking Fluffgirls—a fluid cast of usually about six dancers— into fundraisers and special events.

From monthly shows at an east Vancouver hall, she progressed to her biggest financial gamble yet. In January, she booked the Commodore Ballroom, the classiest venue in downtown Vancouver. She hired a band, imported talent, a magician and plenty of local fluff. The event sold out, drawing a raucous crowd of more than 900. Bravo is pouring the profits into a return engagement in April, relieved that she

didn’t lose her shirt. Although, in a sense, she did—the predictable result of wearing a balloon dress and carrying a hatpin.

“They’re tapping into something here,” says Becki Ross, an associate professor of sociology and women’s studies at the University of British Columbia. Ross is writing a book on Vancouver’s striptease culture from 1945 to 1980. That was a less explicit era, one that vanished when strip club G-strings began dropping with the regularity of autumn leaves.

Ross says nostalgia is one reason for the surprising return of burlesque. The prim placement of pasties and fans leaves plenty to the imagination, even after the slow, sensual peel of the costume. The critical change from the past is that women run the show and women appreciate the spectacle, says Ross. “These Fluffgirls and others really disrupt the homo-social game of men buying and selling erotic fantasy for other men. That’s been the history of striptease and burlesque.”

Ross considers its “cheesy, sexual vampiness” a display of confidence and “a feminist portrayal of womens desire to be liberated sexual subjects and not just the objects

of men’s gaze.” And, she adds with an earthy laugh, partying and downing martinis is a great way to spend an evening.

Sometimes The Blaze wears her shortlived balloon dress. Other times she’s behind a peacock-feather fan. Often lately, The Blaze stays in the costume trunk while Bravo the producer cuts deals. She’s determined to raise the standards with each show. On a recent Wednesday night—at a fundraiser for Copious, a local poetry and arts magazine—Bravo stayed inside her lamé dress and left the performance to two of her dancers. Sheila Mort, 21, arrived looking like a fresh-scrubbed librarian in a modest black dress and horn-rimmed glasses. In fact, she’s classically trained in ballet and sews clothes and costumes. Seamstress by day, Betty Bijou by night.

Mort, a.k.a. Betty, joined the Fluffgirls almost two years ago, as an outlet for her fascination with camp and costumes. “I love the attention; I love the crowds that we get,” she says. “It’s always been a very positive experience for me every time I get on stage.” Fier creation, Betty Bijou, is a work in progress. “Betty is pretty cute,” she says, “and Betty likes to play.”

The Betty Bijou who emerges on stage to whistles and catcalls has shed the bookish glasses, the subdued style, the muted colours and most everything else. In their place are two artfully positioned feather boas, a headdress and a killer sense of rhythm. “It’s really about doing the best I can to expose myself,” she explains, “and making sure all that exposure is stuff that I’m happy with.” Being a Fluffgirl is the tamest part of Nikki Kenyons resumé. In her other job she models leather, latex and bondage wear. Fetish Model by day; Ruby La Rouge by night. It seemed “a natural progression,” Kenyon says. “The two were bound to knock heads at one point.” What drew her to the Fluffgirls, apart from “the flirt and the chase” of burlesque, was the fact that it’s a female-run operation. “Cecilia is an amazing woman,” says Kenyon, “but she’s also an amazing businesswoman.”

On most nights Ruby performs “1950s kitten-with-a-whip kind of stuff,” which, Kenyon concedes, “is not a far cry from me.” Tonight, she’s showcasing a new act. “I’m doing a little cowboy number,” she says with a coy smile.

Little hardly covered it. E3