When divvying up which Hot Docs titles to see, the League of Exotique Dancers was my obvious top pick. I figured the concept of a burlesque hall of fame would be an easy topic to write about. As so often is the case when dealing with women, I turned out to be right for all the wrong reasons.
The Burlesque Hall of Fame celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015. Located on Fremont Street, the Burlesque Hall of Fame is in the heart of old Las Vegas, which is fitting as many of its inductees likely performed on Fremont Street a half-century ago. The fact that the Hall of Fame marked its past by staging a live show is incredible to me. It’s such a departure from the usual sports hall of fame fare, where the hall feels more like a mausoleum than anything. Fittingly, the Burlesque Hall of Fame feels ALIVE in every sense.
Director Rama Rau captures that vibrancy and delivers a wonderful showcase for these living legends. Her use of archival footage and on-location shots make the documentary feel as alive as these women, all of whom are strong, empowered, and charismatic. They are used to being the centre of attention and they will keep yours from start to finish. Normally it might seem odd to meet 60-year-olds with names like “Kitten” and “Lovey”, but here the names fit perfectly. These women have a tangible joie de vivre and, in telling their stories to us, they display the pride they have for the burlesque culture that they led for decades.
These performers still have their costumes (many of which still fit), and are ready to make up new routines, even though they haven’t been onstage in 30 years or more. They celebrate the revitalization of burlesque after it almost died off due to the rising popularity pole dancing, lap dancing and porn coming to theatres (the last point really proves how long these women have been shaking their tail feathers – things really have come full circle since I cannot think of a more antiquated concept than showing porn in a theatre).
As burlesque faded in the 1970s, these dancers dropped out, many after 20 plus years in the business. They moved on to other careers. One woman became a star of Russ Meyer movies, another became a dominatrix, and a third started making flannelette nightgowns in the small mountain town of Nelson, B.C. Some of them kept dancing in one form or another, while others quit cold turkey. Their similarities outweigh their differences though, and all of them are clearly ready for another moment in the spotlight.
Their upcoming return to the stage inspires nostalgia across the board, and we are allowed to peek into their lives, good and bad. Toni Elling broke the colour barrier in burlesque, but somehow, all the racism she clearly faced didn’t sour her outlook on life. She’s without question the world’s 3rd sweetest old lady, next to my two grandmothers, and her outfit for the hall of fame gala will melt your heart.
Septuagenarian Marinka lets us in on an industry secret: a red light shining on stage meant there were cops in the audience, while a green light meant the performers were free to be as sensual as they wanted to be. Incidentally, throughout this movie the green light is on a lot – there are very few pasties and tassels on display.
The bare skin is appropriate because nothing is hidden from the camera by these remarkable women. There are no excuses or regrets. These legends are a joy to watch because they are all so honest, so open, and so comfortable in their skin. When pajama-making Canadian Judith Stein (a.k.a. the Grand Beaver) is asked how she, as an older woman, gets away with being a burlesque dancer in a small town, the answer is simple: “Just because I don’t really give a damn.”
For a split-second, Stein’s comment reminded me of the old staple, “dance like no one’s watching”, but these women all WANT you to watch them dance – that’s what they love most about burlesque. League of Exotique Dancers perfectly captures that attitude, and you will enjoy watching as much as these performers enjoy dancing. And what’s more burlesque than that?
Thursday, Apr 28, 9:45 PM, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Friday, Apr 29, 1:30 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Tickets can be purchased at the Hot Docs website.