“Gratuitousness is boring,” says Damiana Dolce. “Burlesque has content.”
A dancer since the early years of Montreal’s burlesque revival, Dolce has poised, well-articulated opinions about the what defines “burlesque.” In an age where new interpretations are constantly stretching (or narrowing, depending on your perspective) its definition, Dolce has one strict rule. “Empowerment,” she says. “A burlesque dancer is not just taking her clothes off, she’s empowering herself and the audience. She’s being creative, expressive, and the audience genuinely appreciates her. There’s a message.”
This apparent contradiction – building up by stripping down – is what makes burlesque so intriguing, and when performed with sincerity, so powerful. One of the greatest compliments she’s ever received, Dolce recounts, was from a middle-aged couple. “They said, ‘We’re going home to have sex with the lights on for the first time in our lives.’” Dolce laughs, still amazed. “The idea that nakedness is shameful – burlesque dancers are taking that back.” Her performance empowered a married woman to see her own capacity for sensuality for the first time. “Women today have so many body issues. We’re told you can’t be overweight, underweight, have cellulite, or any imperfections whatsoever. We’re calling bullshit.”
This distinction separates burlesque performers from exotic dancers, a comparison that remains polarizing, if not insulting, to many. But Dolce takes it in stride. In fact, if a stripper wanted to call herself a burlesque dancer, Dolce says she couldn’t argue. “How do I know if the classic burlesque dancers I idolize were performing today, they wouldn’t be working at Chez Parée?” It’s important to remember the historical context of burlesque’s roots she says. “Those performers had to keep on their G-string and pasties because that’s all they could get away with at the time. If they’d been allowed to get as naked as exotic dancers do now, they would have.” The important difference between the two comes back to Dolce’s golden rule. Stripping feels like sexual exploitation, not empowerment. “And from both sides,” she specifies. “They’re exploiting the women dancing, and exploiting the men who attend. No matter what strip club you go to, you kind of feel someone’s being taken advantage of.” An exotic dancer is careful to construct barriers – both physically and emotionally. The performance is a commodity exchange between sexual object and consumer. A burlesque dancer, however, uses the vulnerability of nakedness as a connection. It opens a dialogue. Dolce jokes, “You know a burlesque dancer doesn’t feel obligated to get up there, mostly because there’s no money in it. After the costume and the cab ride, you’re just hoping to break even.”
As the art form becomes more widely accepted, the idea of what constitutes burlesque is widening too. Montreal’s style niches allow both performers and spectators to explore its different interpretations. “It’s great for me because I can participate in all different scenes – each with their own energy and audience,” Dolce says. Having lived through the cat fights, rumor mills, and alliances that created the distinct troupes of Montreal’s burlesque circuit, Dolce speaks carefully when describing the divisions. She lists Bluelight as retro, pin-up; the Bad Ladies as theatrical, vaudevillian; Candyass Cabaret as underground, “KitKatClub-esque”; the Grand Burlesque Review as glamor and… “Commercial?” I suggest. “I didn’t say that,” she holds up her index.
While the fluid definition of burlesque may have helped bring it out from underground, it might also be responsible for watering it down. Velma Candyass laments the “pussydollification” of the bigger burlesque acts selling out theaters in New York and Tokyo. These 23 inch waists are undercutting what burlesque is trying to accomplish: “Burlesque is about nonconformity, political incorrectness on so many levels – especially in the way it embraces all women’s bodies,” says Dolce. Before the glamor girls came on the scene with their Barbie Doll figures, “I felt like we were really making progress,” she says. “I felt we were changing something meaningful.”
But Dolce is careful: “Burlesque will become more generic; it’s inevitable. But that’s their version. I can’t say one is ‘more burlesque’ than the other.” In the meantime, she’s performing the interpretation of burlesque she believes in. Far from cynical, her years on the burlesque scene give Dolce’s performances a velvet finesse. On stage this month with Candyass Cabaret during Just for Laughs, her act is as hilarious as it is seductive. You’ll definitely want to leave the lights on.
See Damiana perform with CandyAss Cabaret at Just For Laughs:
- Candyass Cabaret at Just for Laughs/juste pour rire – 9:00 PM Saturday 13th
- Candyass Cabaret at Just for Laughs – 8:00 PM Sunday 14th
- Candyass Cabaret at Just for Laughs – 9:00 PM Thursday 18th
- Candyass Cabaret at Just for Laughs – 8:00 PM Sunday 21st
- Candyass Cabaret at Just For Laughs – 9:00 PM Friday 26th