Ever since I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s as a teenager, I’ve held an admiration for the art of burlesque. If you’ve never seen the movie, or it’s been awhile, there’s a great scene where Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard duck into an early morning girlie show with the goal of getting zozzled. A voluptuous beauty in a skintight fishtail hemmed dress appears onstage and begins bumping her shapely hips to the beat of a vaudevillian drum. “Gracious!” Audrey exclaims, yanking her oversized sunglasses down her nose. “Do you think she’s handsomely paid?”
As an adult, I had the pleasure of attending burlesque performances in Toronto; my friend Lizzie used to run a great Cabaret Noir which often featured burlesque dancers. I love the sexy cheekiness of this artform, as well as its unapologetic femininity. Much imagination and preparation goes into planning and executing these performances; the skill of the burlesque dancer is often overlooked and/or underrated.
Much of the action in my debut novel Filthy Sugar takes place at a burlesque house. One of the joys of writing Filthy Sugar was that I got to be my own Busby Berkeley. Coming up with ideas and choreography for my protagonist Wanda Wiggles was super fun. Some of the burlesque scenes were inspired by famous striptease performers: a chapter in which Wanda bathes almost naked in a giant glass of champagne is a nod to Lili St. Cyr, while Bettie Page and Tempest Storm’s act in the 1955 film Teaserama gave me the idea for the sexy maid/mistress routine between Wanda and fellow burlesque dancer/lover Lili Belle. In addition to watching vintage footage of burlesque performances and wiggle movies, I also took a drop-in class at the Toronto School of Burlesque, which helped me to learn the basics of the artform.
Some of the routines were inspired by nothing more than my imagination. Here is one of my favorites, excerpted from my novel:
The chorines, dressed in shimmering onyx black cat suits with a mammoth feather affixed to the back of each girl’s bowed head, lock arms as they arrange themselves into the shape of a giant almond. At the sound of Eddie’s fat drumroll, the hoofers roll their shoulders backwards and bob their heads: the assembly line of feathers fluttering flirtatiously. I emerge from the centre of the elephantine eye with arms outstretched, spinning atop a small revolving stage like a little ballerina doll in a jewellery box.
Coyly, I peer over my shoulder at the audience. Is Mr. Manchester in the house tonight? Is he watching me? I part my lips and slip a gloved finger into my mouth. Slowly, I remove the soft satin grey glove with my teeth, tossing it toward the footlights. The band kicks it into high gear and I wiggle my bottom and shake my hips as the crowd roars. I wrap my left arm over my chest and unzip the back of my dress with my right hand. Holding the gown loosely over my breasts, I throw out a wink and a smile to the audience. With the impatient pounding of Eddie’s drum, I let the dress fall as the eye blinks and swallows me whole.
Filthy Sugar is available from Inanna Publications as both a paperback and as an e-book. It is also available in Kindle, Kobo and audio editions. Or ask for it at your local bookseller!
Heather Babcock, 2021