Burlesque of northern America

KRISTIN TILLOTSON | Updated 2/7/2013

Minneapolis Burlesque Festival brings in 80 performers from 23 cities.

Gina Louise Woods teaches the art of striptease at their Playful Peacock Showgirl Academy.
Photo by Elizabeth Flores

The secret to executing a proper tassel twirl, explained Minneapolis burlesque artist Gina Louise Woods, is to employ a bit of physics.

“Size doesn’t matter, it’s about body posture,” she said. “For most people that’s a very straight back. Bounce slightly on the balls of your feet, to get the tassels going, and then you’ll get a centrifugal-centripetal thing happening.”

Whatever you do, though, chimed in her cohort Ophelia Flame, “don’t lock your knees!”

Both women will take the Ritz Theater stage this week at the Minneapolis Burlesque Festival, featuring 80 performers from 23 cities. In addition to dancers, the bill includes comedy, aerial and musical acts as well as workshops for newbies. The headliner is Canada’s the Lady Divine, who has been performing since the 1970s and is considered a mentor/goddess of the feathered fan by those in the know.

The art of the old-fashioned striptease has enjoyed a healthy comeback, and, unlike its modern, more revealing counterparts, attracts at least as many women fans as men. The primary reasons, say veterans and recent converts, are an inherent sense of community between performer and audience, a feeling of being in with the in-crowd, and the simple fact that burlesque, while titillating, leaves at least a little something to the imagination.

Half the appeal of doing burlesque might be coming up with a name. Some particularly fetching monikers on the docket for the fest include Alotta Boutté, Foxy Tann & the Wham Bams, and Vincent Van Gogh Gogh — yes, men do it, too.

“You can look at burlesque as a form of drag,” said Woods, who is producing the festival. “Because you’re playing an exaggerated version of yourself. People get caught up in the nudity, but for us it’s about the journey, the art of seduction.”

The local “neo” burlesque scene has been around since 2003, when the Le Cirque Rouge troupe took over the empty Warehouse District space vacated by the New French Bar. Woods launched Lili’s Burlesque Revue in the same spot two years later and also organized the annual event BOMB, or Best of Midwest Burlesk, which ended last year. This weekend’s fest is intended to fill the void.

Woods and Flame now teach regular classes at their Playful Peacock Showgirl Academy. Courses include costuming, dance techniques (including tassel twirling, natch) and overcoming stage fright. While not the biggest, Minneapolis boasts one of the best scenes in the country, Woods said, because many nationally known performers, like the award-winning Flame, are based here, and the production quality is high.

“Is it entertainment or art? We think it’s both,” Flame said.

The performers come from all sorts of backgrounds. For most, strutting their stuff in over-the-top costumes once a week is a moonlighting gig. Woods, a former English teacher, also has a background in modern dance. Flame teaches yoga by day. Two formerly local dancers returning to town for the festival both got their start here taking Woods’ classes.

Minnie Tonka, who hails from the western suburb to which her stage name pays homage, now performs in New York. Her act leans toward the vaudeville end of the spectrum. “My personality is more comic and hammy,” she said. “I use a lot of ’80s rock ’n’ roll in my act.”

Stella Fox, who will perform a bullfighter routine Friday, lived in Minneapolis for several years before moving last March to Denver.

“I thought it looked liberating,” she said of her first exposure, at a workshop. “Then I fell in love with the people. I met so many amazing women, and men, who were also taking classes. Everyone’s shy the first day. But by the second or third week, you forget your body issues and just shake and flaunt whatever you’ve got. I’d never sauntered around in my underwear in front of a bunch of people before. It feels safe in that situation.”

Minneapolis Burlesque Festival

When: 8 p.m. Thu.-Fri., 7 & 10 p.m. Sat. Where: Ritz Theatre, 345 13th Av. NE., Mpls. Tickets: $25-$150. www.ritz-theater.org.