The New Burlesque 

Torchy Taboo puts the tease back in striptease

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Wynne-Warren reveled in the element of female fantasy evident in the feathery, glitter-dusted finery and the music -- ranging from Tom Waits to Nick Cave -- but also in the composition of the audience. Instead of dancing for the clammy chumps of strip clubs, in most cases, burlesque performers are dancing for an in-the-know crowd of retro savants.

Wynne-Warren discovered that many of the women performing at Tease-O-Rama were gloriously zaftig in a manner inconsistent with the even more fulsome burlesque queens of yore and certainly out of line with contemporary ideas of naked beauty. The Seattle dancers who perform as The Gun Street Girls, for example, all have the look of sexy baby dolls, their alabaster casings inflated past girlish to womanly.

In the New Burlesque, "there's no stigma attached to a performer's age or her body type," says Theakston, who has since parted ways with Wynne-Warren. He judged this year's Miss Exotic World contest in Helendale, Calif., where neo-burlesque and old-school queens like 70-something Tempest Storm stripped. "The audience is extremely accepting of these variations of shapes, size and looks."

Even though her stripping days are behind her, Wynne-Warren is haunted by its influence. Strip clubs are what she always measures burlesque against. She makes no bones about it, the stripper is her nemesis, a reminder of the vulgar displays she wants her act to topple. At a recent performance at the Star Bar, those tensions came to a head.

Wynne-Warren and a new burlesque recruit, Destiny, had prepared a show, but when they got to the Star Bar, the crowd was primed for strippers, not the conceptual, stylized titillation of burlesque. All set to unleash the fiery seductions of another age on a rock 'n' roll crowd, Wynne-Warren was mortified to find a cadre of strippers sharing the stage with her burlesque act.

To add insult to injury, the strippers were calling the shots. They wanted Wynne-Warren and Destiny to open the show, because [Wynne-Warren adopts the stripper's helium-girly-girl voice] "we show our pussies and since you don't, if you go on after us, the crowd's going to think you're lame."

It was a blatant affront to the world of Peekaboo from the world of Spread'em. "That was like taking a glove off and slapping me in the face," says Wynne-Warren.

Destiny was up first, but the burlesque ambiance was imperiled from the very beginning when the crowd did the unthinkable: "They touched her with tips," says Wynne-Warren disgustedly. "She was trying to do a burlesque act, and they were treating her like a stripper."

Like Superman turning on his heat-vision, Wynne-Warren was not going to put up with another crowd of drunken men calling the shots. When it was her turn on the stage, she gave them all a taste of her icy dominatrix stare-down.

"I went out there and I sat down and I looked at everyone like, 'You will obey me now!' And they did!" she says. "I did the flaming bra and I did the torches, and they went berserk."

Wynne-Warren may have worked for other people for most of her life, but she controls every detail of her burlesque shows, clearly relishing the chance to say, "Oh, she is soooo fired," when one of her dancers gets out of line. A crafty type who previously channeled her creativity into event planning and sewing wedding gowns, Wynne-Warren makes all her own costumes, choreographs her own numbers, chooses the music, designs the lighting, manages Dames Aflame and books the venues. She can speak expertly about the pitfalls of Velcro and the endurance of various glues used to affix pasties. She has become a dedicated, astute archeologist of burlesque.

Wynne-Warren's mission is to give female desire center stage, and her conviction is highly infectious. She believes in burlesque and its ability to put sexuality back in female hands. But alongside her determination, Wynne-Warren retains some of the scattered, too-many-late-nights, inability-to-focus qualities of a proverbial party girl. Even four years out of the business, she is still on stripper time, that endearing and maddening rhythm common to women who live a reverse chronology, dancing at night and sleeping during the day, working odd shifts, never staying at one bar for long, always moving on.

Wynne-Warren is currently serving cocktails at the Dollhouse, but her avocation fuels dreams of escape. She has a million ideas. She thought about running off to join the circus ("But it came to me!" she laughs, referring to her fire-breathing boyfriend). She thought about spending some time touring New York's burlesque circuit, which even includes a revived Coney Island burly show.

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