|INDIANAPOLIS – In the striptease business, the emphasis was always on "the tease."
In a more technical sense, "it’s the art of discarding clothing in a strategic (suggestive) manner."
But, anyway you want to define it; burlesque is in the midst of a revival.
In this somewhat staid Midwestern city, there are at least three burlesque troupes - Bottoms Up Burlesque, Angel Burlesque and Crème de les Femmes - all of which maintain a busy schedule throughout the city,
On Oct. 18 at the Indianapolis Athenaeum Theater near downtown Indianapolis, members of these troupes will be dancing to the old familiar "thump-da-thump" beat, while perhaps swirling two strategic tassels.
It’s called: Sin’s Last Stand: A Night of Historic Burlesque Acts. Its purpose is not to titillate, or corrupt public morals. Rather, it is to complement the Indiana Historical Society (IHS) exhibit, You Are There 1920: Busted! Prohibition Enforced."
The burlesque show will strictly adhere to the art of American striptease, as viewed from the 1920s up through the 50s. Many historians of the 21st century believe that burlesques shows have been "misfiled" in the public mind.
Think more of the "dance of Salome," rather than dancer poles and burly biker bouncers.
"We’re really striving to put the art of burlesque in context," says Eloise Scroggins, a member of Bottoms Up Burlesque. "Especially beginning in the 1920s, with national Prohibition, society saw women experimenting more with how to express themselves through fashion, hairstyles, and even their behavior in social settings. We want to use burlesque to play with the idea that female and sexual expression has changed through time and this very feminine and flirty art form is a unique way to look at those changes."
Scroggins, who is also director of exhibition research and development at the IHS, says that burlesque - and all its accoutrements - are making a big revival.
"People are drawn to burlesque," she says. "There is an active collector niche. There’s vintage clothing, playbills, photo cabinet cards, old make-up. I visited a lot of antique shops - and strange places like people’s attics and basements - to get things for the exhibit.
"There’s also the romantic nostalgia for the 1920s. It’s just like everything that was old is new again."
Scroggins, as a burlesque performer during the past six years and a staff member at IHS, admits she’s "wearing two hats" at this exhibit. She, as well as other "burlesque performers" takes great umbrage to being categorized as a "stripper."
"Not to denigrate those women, but burlesque is - and was - completely different," she says. "Burlesque is exciting, it’s titillation, I guess. But, it’s more about what you don’t see, than what you see. It’s creating an image in someone’s imagination. It’s more about the journey."
Burlesque, or the art of the tease, celebrates the beauty of the feminine form, according to museum staff, and America’s repeated attempt to remove sexual expression from public view.
"It’s safe to say we’re pushing the envelope on this one," says Erin Kelley, IHS director of Adult and Community Programs, "but you’re going to get a history lesson too."
From Victorian-era performances of Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes and the naughty striptease acts found on the vaudeville circuit, to the crackdowns and raids of the Prohibition years and the pinup girls of the 1940s and 1950s, women have found ways to express themselves regardless of the laws or social mores designed to prevent them from doing so, museum officials say.
The exhibit You Are There and the Athenaeum Sin’s Last Stand performance are orchestrated in such a way as to convey several aspects of our American history.
Both facets of the exhibit show the legacy of prohibition. It never worked, for one, and it increased corruption and spurred the growth of "organized" crime.
"Another of the themes you begin to see is changes in societal norms and morals," Kelley says. "Prior to prohibition men and women were never together in bars. We see how women began to express themselves differently. Going into the 1920s, women were suffragettes and that was a noble cause. Then, the 20s ended with flappers."
The historical displays also display two seemingly discordant themes in American history: a desire to protect society versus the desire to preserve freedom of choice.
"Alcohol was a real problem in the early 20th century," Scroggins said. "But the "Great Experiment" (Prohibition) never worked, it was a failure. And the attempt to legislate behavior is at odds with the core of American’s desire to preserve our freedoms."
And, despite this historical social experiment, not much has changed within our modern society, according to the program promoters. "The rhetoric has not really changed," Scroggins says. "It’s not really a stretch to make a comparison with then and what is going on now."
The program partners all say the historical themes surrounding prohibition - individual rights versus government responsibilities; the consequences of legislating morality and freedom over one’s own body - are all themes with modern day relevance.
And, ironically, the historic Athenaeum is an appropriate venue to host the event, according to Cassie Stockamp, executive director of the Athenaeum Foundation.
"We wanted to come together in a fun and non-threatening way that will bring up these issues and hopefully allow people to have adult conversations about them," Stockamp says. "Given the Athenaeum’s history as a civic center where challenging conversations were meant to be had, we wanted to be a part of this event."
The near downtown historical sight was built in the 1890s as a "house of culture" for many liberal-minded Germans who immigrated to the United States after the failed revolution of 1848. They believed in the philosophy of Friedrich Jahn - "a sound mind in a sound body."
Eric C. Rodenberg