"TAKE IT OFF!" bellowed the man in the beige hunting jacket and camouflage boots at the back of the theater, as he slammed down his fifth successive Bud Light of the evening. And, surprisingly, the elegantly well-dressed woman on stage complied.
Now, this tactic might not work everywhere. And Hunting Jacket Guy seemed surprised himself, seeing as how he seemingly stumbled into a burlesque show on a Saturday evening at the otherwise sleepy Alamo Drafthouse in West Oaks Mall. He might have come to see Sherlock Holmes, but he was in for a much better treat this past Saturday night: a sold out Tribute to Bettie Page -- pin-up and burlesque queen -- as performed by Austin-based burlesque troupe The Jigglewatts along with other dancers from across the state.
In between film clips from seminal Bettie Page work Teaserama and a trailer for the upcoming movie on her life -- Bettie Page Reveals All: The Authorized Biography -- dancers took the stage in the Alamo Drafthouse's largest theater to bare it all for an excited and eager crowd of fans.
We quickly noticed, scanning the crowd, that approximately one-third of the audience fell into Hunting Jacket Guy's demographic. That is, folks who had shown up for a movie, but found themselves instead in a theater full of scantily-clad women and folks who looked like they walked in from the set of John Water's Crybaby. We imagine the conversation at the box office went like this, "What's this Tribute to Bettie Page thing? Huh? Naked women? HONEY, WE'RE GOING TO THIS INSTEAD."
The rest of the audience seemed to be seasoned burlesque-show pros, hooting and whistling at the ladies on stage -- who not only enjoyed but encouraged the catcalls -- and chatting excitedly about past and future shows, local pin-up societies and the finer points of red lipstick. Excitement for each girl's performance grew throughout the night, and with good reason.
The night started off with a bang as Ginger Valentine performed in a blue satin dress that quickly hit the floor, as did one of her pasties. Ever the consummate pro, she managed to keep the un-pastied breast covered while performing without missing a beat, using a feather boa as a stand-in. As she exited the stage, emcee Cherry Zap cheekily teased the audience: "You almost got more of a treat tonight than you thought you would!"
From there, we were wowed by the intricate dance steps and highest of high kicks from Elisa, who performed a routine to "New York, New York" that left her clad only in a top hat and suspenders at the end; the classed-up "hot for teacher" routine of Houston's own Grace Truvant; the stunning feather dance of national burlesque sensation Ruby Rockit; and the acrobatic, tassle-twirling phenomenon that was Pearl Lux.
As the night progressed, we got a sense that this lo-fi setting -- a shaky spotlight, a stage not entirely meant for dancing, a microphone that cut in and out all evening, girls that congregated after their numbers alongside the audience members, clad in satin robes and exhaustedly clutching flutes of champagne -- was exactly how a real burlesque show might have been in the 1930s (minus the buckets of beer being served up by the Alamo Drafthouse waitstaff, naturally).
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The grittiness added to the enjoyment of the evening, settling in comfortably alongside the natural beauty of the girls on stage. These weren't girls with fake tits. They weren't wearing Spanx or push-up bras or cheesy colored contacts. They were (nearly) naked as God made them, in all their birthday-suited, big-assed, small-boobed, small-assed, big-boobed, perfect glory. They had tattoos. They had attitude. They were all real, all women, and entirely refreshing.
The neo-burlesque movement isn't nearly as underground as it was when it first started up again in the mid-1990s, and that's refreshing, too. Far from being a spectacle where men show up to gawk at the hot "nekkid" ladies on stage, a burlesque show is an empowering situation for other women and the men out there who appreciate the real feminine form -- not the one presented to our society in airburshed photos and unrealistic fashion spreads.
And lest you confuse these women with strippers, let us set the record straight: While some (but not all) of them may strip down to nothing but a g-string and pasties, burlesque dancers aren't strippers. Strippers sell sex. Burlesque sells nothing but artistry, empowerment and a little tongue-in-cheek fun. And couldn't we all use a little more of that in our lives?
For more photos from the event (warning: NSFW), check out our slideshow.