The lost art of ‘the tease’
By Miranda Lightstone
As the lounge crowd grooves to the modern yet retro beats in the intimate Papillion club on Beaver Hall in old Montreal, the lights drop and all eyes are drawn to the small stage where a large martini glass stands a quarter full of what looks like champagne. Veiled in white feathered fans, the main attraction emerges from the back, gracefully making her way through the crowd.
Once on the stage, Scarlett James has the crowd eating out of her perfectly manicured hands. Drizzled in diamonds, silky white fabric and an impressive feather headdress, James begins the age-old art of “the tease” — also known as burlesque.
As she removes articles of clothing, the feeling in the room is far from that of a strip club. What James is doing up there isn’t stripping, she’s performing; interacting with the crowd and putting on a show. The goal is not to see her most intimate bits (in fact, she keeps her nipples covered in diamond-encrusted pasties with tassels and wears a thong on the bottom), but is in fact to watch the art of the tease; how she builds the anticipation and she does it with the utmost skill.
“I love how burlesque makes me feel,” James explains, her eyes sparkling beneath perfectly splayed eyelashes and platinum blond hair. Sitting across from her is intimidating and intimate all at once; here’s a successful woman who takes her clothes off for a living; and yet there’s nothing sleazy about it.
Born and raised in the coastal town of Brittany, France, James knew nothing of the world of burlesque until after she turned 18 and she made the transatlantic jump to Montreal. Here, she experienced her first burlesque show and fell in love with the art of the burlesque dance.
James, now in her 30s, remembers going from waitressing to bartending to other odd jobs and knew her calling lay elsewhere. “I tried everything else and nothing fit. When I saw burlesque, I knew. This is what I wanted to do,” she remembers.
Over the past few years there’s been a definite increase in the popularity of exotic dancing. From Carmen Electra’s pole dancing exercise videos to just about any music video, exotic dancing has had a clear influence on pop culture and society in general; but burlesque is taking another angle and succeeding just the same. “Burlesque is about the tease. It is about all women, all shapes and all types,” explains James.
The beauty of burlesque is its history. Burlesque was first recognized as a form of entertainment in Europe in the 18th century and has continued to evolve ever since. Somehow, burlesque managed to get pushed underground by a society that’s more interested in gyrating hips, flashing lights and chrome poles.
Perhaps people don’t quite understand the art and often confuse burlesque with stripping and hold it in the same category. That’s one of the reasons James now offers classes to women who want to explore the world of burlesque while building their confidence and keeping fit (you didn’t think burlesque was easy, did you?).
James is dedicated to her art full-time and it shows in her success as a performer. She spends much of her time booking shows in Montreal, in Chicago and Las Vegas. James is also hoping to bring burlesque into the spotlight this fall with the first edition of the Burlesque Festival, which she founded.
“I am very excited about the festival in September,” she explains.
The festival, which is taking place the weekend of September 25, is set to be quite the sophisticated celebration (with burlesque and boylesque shows, fashion shows and various other entertainment acts).
It’s the perfect opportunity for Montreal to open its arms to the lost art of “the tease.” n