Teasing that’s pleasing

By Meryl Fulinara

The bright flash of the spotlight that hangs above the stage is the cue for music to slowly fade into the dimly lit room. The light reflecting off the velvet curtains creates a cast shadow of a voluptuous woman; as the music builds, so do the theatrics.

Sophisticated entertainment that taunts and teases its audience-this is not modern sexuality, but a throwback to the nostalgia of old glamour. Burlesque’s sexually stimulating form of entertainment is bumping and grinding its way onto the stages of cities across the country.

In Chicago, one of the scene’s fearless leaders is Michelle L’Amour. Her jet-black hair, porcelain skin and red lips make her look timeless, like a classic pin-up model in one of Alberto Vargas’s erotic paintings or an actress surrounded with the allure of old Hollywood.

“I love movement. I’m pretty restless in nature so [dance] appeals to me in that way,” L’Amour said. “I like the challenge of creating different moods and feelings with [my] body. I think it’s beautiful.”

Burlesque, although often mistaken for little more than your average striptease, was originally linked to a satirical genre of theater that consisted of vaudeville acts that poked fun at high society. Burlesque acts have been entertaining British and American audiences since the 1840s.

Although this extended cousin of theater got its start in spoof stand-ups, the primary attraction of burlesque was sex, which came in a tight little package of vulgar humor and immodestly dressed women.

L’Amour said the biggest misconception about burlesque is that dancers are simply strippers.

“I want to turn the audience on. That is my main objective,” L’Amour said. “As far as burlesque and my style of dance, I think it’s sexy. It can be comical and sarcastic at times and I think it is smart. I want sexuality to be portrayed with intelligence.”

Lynette Kucharski, a burlesque dancer in Chicago who goes by the name “Lady Ginger,” said most people miss the fact that burlesque is a full production. She said it’s costumes, lighting and music, and every part is involved in crafting an entire performance.

“I think people miss the artistic side of it,” Kucharski said.

Every performer has his or her own artistic style, said Frenchie Kiss, a burlesque dancer in Chicago and a member of one of L’Amour’s dance groups, the Starlets.

“Michelle [L’Amour] is known for her a-s that goes pow,” Kiss said. “She is always doing a butt wiggle, because that is what she is known for.”

The petite L’Amour dazzles her audience with her sultry dances that make even women scream cat calls. One act involves balloons, a burlesque staple, and reinvents the prop used in so many dance routines.

Most often, L’Amour said, dancers will use balloons in their acts but will seductively pop them. Her routine is a little bit different in that at the end of the act, the helium balloons make her undergarment float to the ceiling.

Burlesque is all about the tease. Dancers try and seduce their audience; giving a devious wink at sexuality. Curvaceous woman taunt and toil viewers with sexual innuendo. They are suggestive with their sexuality but are not bawdy.

L’Amour’s style budded and developed toward the end of her college career. She is one part pin-up, one part glamour and 100 percent burlesque. She said she had always been interested in the sexier side of dance.

Every burlesque dancer has a distinct persona or a certain way she moves, something that sets performers apart from one another, Kiss said.

“I spent a lot of time in front of the mirror working on poses, most often [while I was] naked,” L’Amour said. “I learned how to pleasingly move my body while not wearing a lot of clothes, even before I started dancing.”

More interested with the larger-than-life vivacity of Chicago than the humble dwellings of suburbia, L’Amour said she tried to escape from her ordinary and mundane Orland Park, Ill., life and fled to the city as often as possible.

“[Orland Park] was a little too boring for my taste, I suppose,” L’Amour said.

Before her days as an audacious showgirl, L’Amour found herself in a more rigid form of dance-ballet. At the age of 15, which is old by ballet dancers’ standards, L’Amour learned quickly and even started teaching classes.

“I ended up teaching some of the people that were in the same class as me who had been taking it longer,” L’Amour said. “It was kind of bizarre, but once I took it, I really threw everything I had into it. And that’s what I set out to do when I started.”

After two years at a community college and then two years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, L’Amour graduated with a degree in accounting and found herself back in the city where she set up her own dance and production company, Lavender Cabaret.

L’Amour has two dance companies under Lavender Cabaret productions. The Sugar Babies consists of trained dancers who perform ensemble and chorus line dancing. The other group is the Starlets, whose members consist of women who have trained with L’Amour and specialize in the burlesque striptease.

L’Amour and her dancers perform at various clubs throughout the city. On every first Wednesday of the month, L’Amour and the Starlets perform at the Motel Bar, 600 W. Chicago Ave.

The show at the Motel Bar has the girls perform in three acts. The bar, almost pitch black, is turned into a romp room. The only source of light comes from an overhead spotlight that shines on L’Amour and her Starlets.

The three-part act gives each dancer a three-to-five-minute segment that allows them to bust out their best moves, slowly trying to seduce unsuspecting audience members with their daunting striptease that

leave not only their clothes on the floor, but also men’s jaws.

“Michelle [L’Amour] has a really good eye for detail and making sure that we’re ready to go on with our numbers and that our show is cohesive and the numbers we are putting on all work together,” Kiss said. “Ultimately we want people to go away from our shows feeling excited about burlesque, loving what they saw and having a reaction.”

The main goal for the burlesque troupe, Kiss said, was for the audience to get a reaction-whether it’s a fun reaction, and, “I want to do that” reaction or even a sexual reaction.

L’Amour said it’s something she has always been drawn to.

“I was training for burlesque without even knowing it,” L’Amour said.

Possessing old time glamour without being aware of it, L’Amour said the posing she practiced so fervently-for reasons unbeknownst to even herself-in front of the mirror were actually pin-up poses.

The transition from classical ballet to seductive burlesque was almost natural, L’Amour said.

“I didn’t really know that when I was working on them, but that helped me in developing my own style,” L’Amour said. “[Burlesque] was there, I just had to have someone ask me to do it. It was right under the surface.”

The burlesque performer’s first show was at a student show at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign the month before her graduation. L’Amour choreographed the show and striptease for someone else, but when the girl couldn’t make it, she filled in for her. Now, she is Chicago’s burlesque queen.

“There is no turning back once you bare your bottom onstage in front of strangers,” L’Amour said. “You can only move forward, and the costumes will only get smaller from there-and they have. It’s incredibly addicting, fun and exhilarating. I love it-I’m obsessed.”

Women get swept up in the world of burlesque because it’s encouraging and sexy, L’Amour said. She said burlesque is all about the exaggeration of femininity.

“I strive to bring something genuinely burlesque, so I’ll go for the classic bump-and-grind and the sexy performance,” L’Amour said.

Burlesque dancers want to flaunt their curves and encourage woman to exaggerate them, L’Amour said.

“A lot of times women try to hide their curves, and for a lot of women, [burlesque] is a freeing experience for them,” L’Amour said. “I usually tell them, ‘yeah I want you to stick out your butt,’ and ‘go ahead, touch your boobs.'”

She said sexuality isn’t something that people deal with every day and sometimes she forgets because it’s what she does for a living.

Burlesque allows women the ability to gain confidence in themselves and their bodies, Kucharski said. It makes women feel sexy and feminine but at the same time allows them to be in control.

“Michelle has taught me not to doubt myself,” Kucharski said. “She taught me that it’s okay to push the envelope. She taught me to be confident and believe in myself and to believe that I have more inside of me than I sometimes give myself credit for.”