LA Burlesque: Beyond Bumping and Grinding in the City of Angels
From the titillating burlesque you imagine when you first think of the genre to one that fuses with lucha libre, Los Angeles has it all.
Burlesque is glamorous, gritty and glittery. It’s all about the art of the tease and capturing an audience’s hearts and hormones. But beyond being tantalizing and titillating, it is an art form created to satirize mores and stereotypes of the time. While it dates back to the late 1800s, it is currently a staple of the Los Angeles arts scene. Burlesque’s most mainstream stars Dita Von Teese and The Pussycat Dolls started here, eventually bringing their version of the art to a global audience in the 2000s. But that is only one dimension of what the burlesque scene in Los Angeles truly is.
Los Angeles and New York City were the centers of the neo-burlesque revival of the '90s and 2000s. This laid a foundation for a burgeoning burlesque scene taking root in dozens of cities across North America. The community has grown exponentially in the last decade and has become more inclusive of different body shapes, ethnicities, gender expressions, and styles. The City of Angels now has something for everybody. As a traveling burlesque artist and teacher for the last 10 years, I’m a part of this evolution and your trusty guide into this bizarre and shiny world of tease.
Visitors in search of their first (or fiftieth) show can experience a spectrum of styles and themes and locations. Burlesque shows take place in dive bars, classic cavernous theaters, or fancy speakeasies at venues from downtown to Hollywood to Venice to Long Beach.
While all the choices can be overwhelming, the Bootleg Bombshells is a solid (and free!) weekly show that serves up the real flavor of the city. This crew brings burlesque and performance to the Townhouse in Venice every Wednesday at midnight. (I guess that’s technically Thursday but you know I mean.) It’s situated next to the beach so the audience is generally a mix of tourists and locals, but everyone is showing love and tipping their dollars!
Lulu Mon Dieu, the founder of the Bootleg Bombshells, built this group as a space for dancers of all ethnicities, genders, shapes, and styles. “It’s a show that is interactive, in-your-face, in-your-lap, weird, edgy, rock-n-roll... and it works,” says Mon Dieu. She started it after an impromptu audition as a soloist in 2013 and the venue hired her to produce a full show. Seven years later, Bootleg Bombshells has expanded to monthly shows at two other venues (El Cid on Sunset and Harvelle’s Long Beach). While you won’t find classical burlesque, it’s a space where performers come to experiment and show off their unique brand. “As a producer and as a performer, it's amazing to me to be able to provide this platform for performers to come and do what they want,” Mon Dieu notes. Bootleg Bombshells member Coco Ono agrees, “There’s a place for your weirdness here.”
Burlesque used to be paired with comedy back in the vaudeville era of the early 1900s and Lucha VaVoom is keeping that tradition alive with a uniquely LA spin. This show, which has been running for 17 years, mixes Mexican lucha libre wrestling with comedy, music, and burlesque. It’s well known around town and draws celebrity guests in the audience and on stage. You’ll have to plan ahead because these shows only occur a few times each year: Valentine’s Day, Cinco De Mayo, and Halloween. But it is an extravaganza worth seeing.
Another well-established LA burlesque variety show is “Tease If You Please.” If you want all the rhinestones and highly produced Hollywood glam, this is it. Some of the best classical burlesque performers in the country grace the stage as solo acts or in ensembles. The costuming is exquisite with copious crystals, beads, and sequins designed to catch the theater’s extensive lights, and it is easily the classiest show in the city. The troupe's dancers resemble a fusion of the Rockettes and Vegas showgirls. It’s produced and curated by Miss Donna Hood, and six years after it began in a small downtown club, it has become an essential part of LA’s Broadway and theater scene.
If your idea of fantasy is a bit darker and supernatural, “Belle, Book and Candle” will be your speed. Produced by Pleasant “Princess Farhana” Gehman and Shana Leilani, professional dancers who are also witches, the evening features occult-themed burlesque performances, “go-go ghouls” and gifted psychics. They are tarot, palm, playing card, and oracle readers, as well as crystal gazers, mediums, and energy healers on stage and in the audience offering their services. The show, celebrating its third anniversary, takes its name from the popular 1958 film starring Kim Novak as a beatnik sorceress in Greenwich Village and is apropos for the pagan vibes. Check out the calendar for the gorgeous and historic Silver Lake venue, El Cid, to find their monthly show.
Boylesque! and Pansy Craze Peepshow
Burlesque isn’t just about women-identified performers, this art form is very queer. Boylesque is the umbrella for male-identified performers and Tito Bonito, a.k.a. the Cuban Missile Crisis, is one of LA’s and the country’s best. He started a new monthly show aptly called “Boylesque!” at the Faultline Bar in East Hollywood once a month on Wednesday nights. He also hosts the Pansy Craze Peepshow, a rowdy and bawdy LGBTQIA burlesque & variety showcase every second Thursday of the month at downtown’s Redline Gay Bar. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch him working his assels... that’s when performers put pasties with tassels on their butt checks and make them spin. It’s quite impressive.
One of the newest monthly shows is NIGHT SCENE, a “punk burlesk dive,” happening every third Thursday at The Slipper Clutch downtown. Curated by Miss Ashley Hayward, a local producer and performer, it’s a wild and literally messy homage to LA’s punk undercurrent including a live band which always elevates a show’s energy. And it’s free so again, tip the performers generously!
Three of Clubs has been a Hollywood home for burlesque for about 15 years and was home to one of LA’s longest-running weekly shows, Monday Night Tease. Now it hosts Moonlighting Menagerie, a burlesque variety show hosted by Miss Marquez, every first and third Friday; as well as a vast array of theatrical burlesque shows. (I went there to see a musical burlesque interpretation of the classic '90s horror movie Scream, and it was absolutely brilliant and hilarious.) If you want to stay in Hollywood for an upscale speakeasy vibe, La Descarga is the spot. Burlesque usually starts around 10 p.m., but you should make reservations and make sure you’re in proper attire for their dress code.
While it’s always a safe bet to check out the calendars of specific venues for shows, there are certain Los Angeles-based performers that you must see if you have the chance. Egypt Blaque Knyle, born and raised in South Central LA, holds the most burlesque crowns and titles—that means she basically slays every festival she competes in. Festivals are a significant part of the burlesque community as gatherings to showcase talent, network with other performers, and attend classes. A proud Afro-Latina, the regal Egypt dominates every stage and also pushes for more women of color to be recognized.
Speaking of queens, Michelle L’Amour, an internationally renowned performer and Miss Exotic World 2005, is now based in Los Angeles and your life will be forever changed if you catch her famous act “Buttoven’s Symphony No. 5.”
Regardless of where you go or what style you enjoy, make sure you support the artists and respect their craft. This means tipping the dancers well, especially if it’s a free show. Burlesque isn’t the most lucrative art form for most performers but it comes from a love of storytelling and a spirit of resistance. Unfortunately, Instagram, where most folks promote themselves, keeps shutting down many performers’ accounts because of “community standards” around nudity (even as hate speech runs rampant on the site). So show up, bring your friends, and support these artists. It’s how we keep this quintessential LA art form alive and thriving.