Neo-burlesque thrives in small bars with a ‘play’ involving striptease

Burlesque may have high-kicked the bucket on the Strip. But underground in Las Vegas, tassles are twirling like it’s 1949.

In the past two years, attempted burlesque revivals at Pure in Caesars Palace (Pussycat Lounge), Mandalay Place (Ivan Kane’s Forty Deuce) and Treasure Island (Tangerine, which featured nightly burlesque shows) all failed. Yet two dozen valley burlesque dancers are busier than ever. They go by names such as Kalani Kokonut, Vita Vixen and Penny Slots. They perform at swankless hangouts such as the Double Down, Beauty Bar and Boomers Bar. And their $10 shows emphasize the tease over the strip.

It’s all part of a national trend, neo-burlesque, that hews closely to cabaret conventions established six decades ago by pioneers such as 82-year-old valley resident Tempest Storm.

"There is no immediate gratification," says Jenn Neal, 31, who hosts neo-burlesque shows under the pseudonym Jenn O. Cide. "It’s not a beautiful woman walking on stage three quarters of the way naked and then taking off her bra and there she is wearing pasties.

"It’s a performance that involves striptease but is a play."

It’s not even always a beautiful woman — at least not in the conventional sense.

"I would never be accepted on the Strip," says Amanda Wing, 30, a registered nurse whose alter ego calls herself Cha Cha Velour. "I’m heavily tattooed, I’m old."

Neo-burlesque’s theatrical element is best exemplified by Karla Joy Cunningham, 23. A mild-mannered saleswoman at the Fashion Show mall’s Bettie Page Boutique, Cunningham nocturnally transforms into Miss Karla Joy. Her routines see her covered in blood, sitting in a tub of glitter and trampling a set of prop buildings while dressed as Godzilla.

"You’re already gonna watch me take off my clothes," says Cunningham, who performs monthly at both Boomers and the Double Down. "You know what you’re gonna see. So I’m gonna make you laugh at the same time."

Neo-burlesque began 15 years ago in New York City, where a new dance breed — led by the Dutch Weismann’s Follies and former fetish model Dita Von Teese — rebelled against the desensualization of conventional stripping.

"The only way you could get sex was just blatant," says Corey Ruffin, producer of a Michigan neo-burlesque troupe called Super Happy Funtime, which performs at the Aruba Theater on Aug. 29. "It wasn’t artful and it wasn’t played with. It was just really objectifying and guttural.

"It was ‘Girls Gone Wild.’ "

The first two neo-burlesque troupes in Las Vegas — Babes in Sin and the Sin City Grind Kittens — formed in 2003. Since then, the trend has seen a slow and steady rise. Attendance at Babes in Sin’s annual All Tease No Sleaze amateur burlesque contest, for instance, swells by about 100 per year. (This past October, more than 500 filled the Las Vegas Country Saloon to capacity.)

Las Vegas producer Luke Littell reports a record 1,000 attendees for his burlesque convention this June. The Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend boasted four days of shows, a vendor fair, burlesque classes and, this year, a new Vegas landmark in its wake: the Burlesque Hall of Fame at 520 E. Fremont St. (The former Exotic World museum was relocated here from Helendale, Calif. by curator and former burlesque dancer Dixie Evans.)

Neo-burlesque has been the subject of at least 20 independent documentaries in the past two years. And Hollywood is threatening its first serious exposure with a movie starring Christina Aguilera and Cher. "Burlesque" opens Nov. 24.

"It’s had a huge resurgence," Littell says.

But not on the Strip. (While the successful Strip production shows "Crazy Horse Paris," "X Girls Burlesque" and "Peepshow" incorporate burlesque, too many modern elements disqualify them as burlesque shows.)

Littell blames the failure of Strip burlesque on nightclub patrons who didn’t want the flow of their expensive evenings interrupted by shows requiring their attention.

"I think everybody likes to look at a pretty girl in a nice costume," he says. "But they’re more interested in there being a background dancer who’s getting the mood of the crowd going."

Furthermore, neo-burlesquers don’t even refer to what the Strip tried as burlesque; they say the true form has never been tested there.

"I think that when you just get a couple of showgirl-looking girls to shake their ass in lingerie, that’s not the definition of burlesque," Wing says. "That’s boring."

Contact reporter Corey Levitan at clevitan@ or 702-383-0456.

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