Burlesque Hits the Bartop
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Burlesque Hits the Bartop

In honour of the Toronto Burlesque Festival, which begins tonight, we take a look at the world of bartop burlesque.

Photo of Rubie Magnitude by Setaj Ladd.

The difference between Rubie and Chantelle appears at the drop of a stage curtain.

With flaming red hair, a hula-hoop and a reputation for playing fierce characters onstage as her trademarks, Chantelle Hedden, otherwise known as “Rubie Magnitude,” is part of a community determined to keep burlesque alive in Toronto.

“In modern context, burlesque’s primary association is with striptease and a very showy performance,” says Hedden. Beginning tonight, the 8th annual Toronto Burlesque Festival will offer locals the chance to explore the revived art. But there’s plenty to check out during the rest of the year, too.

Over the past decade, the revival of the striptease has made its way into performance nights and dedicated burlesque bars around town and, especially, on the Ossington strip.

Nicky Potter is co-owner of The Painted Lady, the first burlesque bar to open on Ossington in 2008. “I feel like six, seven years ago in Toronto, even though things were starting to change, they were still largely uptight and a bit constrained,” she says.

Potter and co-owner Sam Papatragiannis began incorporating striptease into The Painted Lady through weekly feature shows of “bartop burlesque,” where a performer is elevated above the crowd onto a bar. “Only some burlesque dancers are comfortable with [bartop burlesque] and know how to move on a narrow long surface–it’s almost like a runway,” she argues.

“We wanted to bring that onto the streets of Toronto, onto the sidewalks, so that people who came to our venue could start engaging in the dialogue.”

Hedden has become a fixture at The Painted Lady over the past year and a half, performing on the bar every weekend. She says bartop burlesque offers a more casual environment than performing on a stage, where interaction with the audience is less likely to happen. “Its still very performative and stylized and I’m dancing, essentially doing a striptease.”

Hedden says while people are usually respectful at the bar, there were times when she had to set boundaries around touching during performances. “I am accepting tips so I think that sort of confuses people.”

“The most memorable times would be people trying to argue with me about it…they’re like, ‘but I gave you five dollars’ and I’m like, ‘that’s for appreciating my performance and not so you can touch me.’”

Hedden says if bartop burlesque has taught her anything, it’s to be more assertive. “That’s something I’ve struggled with in my life. So I find that having to deal with a more rowdy crowd and having to set those boundaries for myself translates to my day job [as a bra-fitter]. I’m less likely to let a pushy customer make me feel bad or walk all over me.”

In the 1940s, burlesque became commonly associated with the saucy striptease when it was shown in popular theatre houses across Toronto like The Lux Theatre, the Casino and Victory Burlesque. Back then, burlesque shows were often villainized across the city.

In Bumping and Grinding on the Line: Making Nudity Pay, Becki Ross, associate professor in sociology and women’s studies at the University of British Columbia, wrote that the “glamorous ‘golden area’ of the tasteful tease” faded with the rise of more explicit forms of nudity in the 1970s through the introduction of strip clubs.

The birth of strip clubs across the city posed direct competition to theatre houses featuring burlesque performances, the last being Victory Burlesque, which closed in 1975.

When The Painted Lady opened nearly 30 years later, Potter says it took time for people to embrace burlesque as an art form. “I used to notice a lot of people getting upset, getting shocked or not knowing how to take it.” This included couples that went to see a featured burlesque show.

“Suddenly, the lady would notice the man looking [at the performer] and they’d get all upset and grab the man and storm out,” says Potter. “Now, that doesn’t happen anymore. We’ve also had more and more women over time embracing [bartop burlesque].”

Potter thinks that the increased visibility of burlesque in the city and its association with other more accepted art forms, like live music, has changed public perception on what it represents. “I don’t and never for a second claim that we had anything to do with the burlesque movement that’s been going on for years,” she says.

“But being one of the first in the city to bring it regularly into the public eye and onto the street literally, the effect that the conversation has had on the audience has definitely changed over time.”

The 8th annual Toronto Burlesque Festival begins today and runs until August 30. Visit the fest’s official site for schedule and venue info.