Working Women

Investigating The League of Exotique Dancers

18 mins read

On March 8, 2016, Kim Kardashian, a woman known for baring it all on her reality show and in magazine spreads, tweeted a nude photo with the caption: “HAPPY #INTERNATIONALWOMENSDAY.” (The capitalisation being her own enthusiastic addition.) The internet, as it does, quickly reacted. She was a slut, a bad example; she should be ashamed. She was empowered, confident, a brilliant businesswoman driving traffic to her subscription-based lifestyle blog and iPhone app. Opposing camps formed and think pieces abounded. Then the internet, as it does, quickly moved on to something else. But as the dust over the debacle settled, one thing was clear: the world is still very uncomfortable with women’s nude bodies—especially when women themselves have ownership of and are capitalizing on their exposed flesh.

Director Rama Rau encountered a similar sentiment (though on a not-so-viral scale) when she announced she would be making a film about aging burlesque dancers. “My feminist friends were horrified,” Rau said over the phone in Toronto. The League of Exotique Dancers, which will open Hot Docs this year (where I work as an industry programmer), traces the careers and lives of some of the biggest stars of burlesque’s heyday from the 1950s to 1970s: Toni Elling, Gina Bon Bon, Delilah Jones, Holiday O’Hara, Kitten Natividad, Marinka, Camille 2000, Lovey Goldmine, and the Grand (Canadian) Beaver, a.k.a. Judith Stein.

Like Kardashian, the women on whom Rau turns her camera spent their lives being judged for capitalising on their figures, and, like Kardashian, the women do not give a damn—then and now. It is this latter fact that sets the documentary apart from so many other narratives about women labouring on the fringes of society: Rau doesn’t pass judgment on the women; she doesn’t moralise their choices or vacillate between finger-wagging and fear-mongering. Instead, she presents a fulsome and celebratory picture of a group of women who, without realising it at the time, forged the way for the sexual freedoms that many women know and enjoy today—though few women recognise these forbearers of the right to bare it all.

This is partly why Rau decided that a documentary on the history of burlesque performers was a natural fit to be explored through a feminist lens: it is a part of women’s history that is routinely erased. “I wanted to show an alternative history of the women’s struggle and feminism—there’s no one picketing [in this documentary], but the women are demanding to be treated as equals,” she says. (It bears noting that the title of the documentary comes from the name of the dancers’ first union.)

Rau admits that before making the film she did not have an abiding interest in burlesque. After finishing her previous doc, The Market, about the illegal organ trade in India, she was not sure what she wanted to pursue next. She did know, however, that she wanted to work again with producer Ed Barreveld. In a meeting, Barreveld floated the concept of burlesque by Rau, who recalled thinking: “Ifit’s just about young women stripping, I’m not interested. I want something I can sink my teeth into—race, sexuality, gender.”

With an inkling that there was more to burlesque than just sequins and pasties, Barreveld and Rau hired a researcher—who also happened to be a burlesque performer—and she pointed the producer-director duo in the direction of the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. (Where else?)

“Woah, that’s a real story,” Rau says of her reaction when she heard about the Hall of Fame, which annually honours women in the field. “I knew this would be an interesting film for me to make; to deal with age, beauty and gravity taking over.” She wanted to start working right away, but there was one issue: she knew that if she was going to tell the intimate tales of these dancers, she was going to have to assemble an all-female crew.

In an industry where the number of women behind the camera is abysmally low, this act in-and-of-itself feels political. For Rau, however, it was purely practical (though slightly sensitive given her trusted producer is male). “I knew I couldn’t have men on this shoot,” says Rau. “These women [the dancers] are trained to please the male eye—they’re in control. I knew as a woman they would talk to me in a different way, react to me in a different way.” Luckily for Rau, on The Market she worked with one of the best DOPs in the Canadian doc landscape, Iris Ng. They paired up again on the film. Rau also hired Shasha Nakhai as the production (and later postproduction) manager and Mary Wong to do location sound. The team then headed off to Sin City.

Whether it was the gender of the crew or merely Rau’s own persistence and persuasive skills as a director, the results are telling. In interview after interview, the burlesque stars reveal not just tantalizing tales about their lovers and glory days, but also candid confessions: struggles with addiction, dwindling bank accounts, and one particularly harrowing brush with breast cancer brought on by botched silicone injections. Rau felt it was important to include these lows, but at the same time she refused to let the doc sink into a depressive tone. When asked if this was an intentional move to subvert the cliché (and problematic) “struggling stripper with a heart of gold” narrative, Rau acknowledged that she was aware of conventional expectations. It was her subjects, however, who dictated the direction of the doc: “It’s in the women and the way they live their lives. I could have dwelled on their poverty now, but they don’t wallow—they’re drinking champagne when they can.”

In The League of Exotique Dancers, the present is not always as pretty as the past, but it is clear that the women refuse to live in anything other than the moment. And even in a film filled with truly inspirational quotes (don’t trade “your pussy and soul for a wedding ring” advises one dancer), this theme is one of the most poignant aspects of The League: while it is looking back on a bygone era, it is also firmly rooted in the present, just like its stars. The doc negotiates this shift away from nostalgia by placing the climax in the women’s performances at their induction into the Burlesque Hall of Fame. As such, the structure of the documentary empowers the women to take action in the present—working on new choreography and designing new costumes—rather than merely passively reminiscing. Rau then interlaces archival footage and photographs from their past performances, which further creates a sense of lived continuity in the women’s lives.

It also helps that the women’s present day performances are just as mesmerizing as the ones they gave decades ago. All of Rau’s subjects are born performers, and while their flexibility might have diminished somewhat, their stage presence is just as impressive as ever. Even in their golden age, the dancers continue to glow. In many ways, it would have been easier to focus on those nubile glory days, but Rau rightly refuses, and instead offers up a sight that is rarely seen on screen: women of all ages and body types having a hell of a good time.

Capturing this exuberance was extremely important for Rau, who wanted to convey the layered aspects of the performances and disrupt the typical “male gaze” that is associated with filming women disrobing. This term, coined by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, points to how film narratives and techniques are often geared to a male viewer: women exist as objects to be ogled, stalling time and narratives with their beauty, and are rarely seen (or treated) as anything more than an unknowable fantasy. Rau notes she wanted to explore creating “a female gaze,” which manifests here as emphasizing the talent, skill and personalities of each woman, and further by including shots of the audience reveling in the performances. The faces in the crowd are supportive and joyful. It is not about consuming and critiquing the women’s forms, but about being a part of a celebratory community.

This female gaze also meant moving beyond a very narrow body type that is typically presented on screen: “The first time I watched [the women] perform, I was stunned,” Rau remarked of her first visit to the Burlesque Hall of Fame. “Not just as a filmmaker but as a person: everybody was accepted—every gender, body type, [including] transgender [women].” This left an impact on her, especially, “coming from mainstream media and seeing the [same] blonde Caucasian bullshit.” Interestingly, just as the tone of the documentary was dictated by the women, so was the diversity.

In Vegas, Rau and her team talked to some 25 former dancers. “I didn’t go in thinking ‘I need a black woman, a Mexican woman’—I wanted the women with the best stories.” The women she found, however, “happened to represent the world.” Rau downplays her role in what is really a radical casting move: women over the age of 30, to say nothing of women of colour over 30, rarely get starring roles. But that she was open to seeing these stories speaks volumes. Put another way, diversity is a quota, but that Rau had the ability to recognise and honour these women is closer to real inclusivity.

For instance, instead of being oblivious to race, as much of mainstream feminism can be, Rau highlights Toni Elling, a Black performer who faced racism at her day job and then as a burlesque dancer. (Elling still has a feisty, no bullshit vibe; of breaking the colour barrier, she says: “I didn’t know I was pioneering. I was just working.”) Similarly, the documentary sheds light on Kitten Natividad, who played up her Mexican heritage as part of her onstage persona. Like her body, her race was something that she could reclaim and capitalise on.

When I told Rau about Kardashian’s nude Women’s Day pic, the director laughed. “Well, good for her,” before noting how frustrating it is that we are still having the same discussions about female nudity as we were when her subjects were on the stage in 1960s. In this way, The League acts as a corrective to these ongoing one-note conversations, or what Rau calls “intellectual feminism,” which favours a very narrow kind of achievement (and one that’s often dictated by white, economically privileged women). As Rau neatly puts it: “It’s easy for people to just dismiss [this work] as pandering to the male ego. But it’s important to see it as part of the continuum of women’s work […] So, it was important to me to treat these women the same way you would a doctor or lawyer.” And after watching the documentary, it is impossible to deny that these women are nothing short of highlytrained professionals.

Burlesque, or even the type of modern-day performance that stars like Kardashian engage in, is far more complex than most will ever comprehend. The dismissal of this kind of sex-infused labour assumes, incorrectly, that harnessing your body as a woman is a “natural gift” and not a cultivated and calculated asset. One that, yes, sometimes is the result of exploitation, but other times is an empowered decision. That we still dismiss, look down on and question work that falls outside of the parameters of what has been deemed respectable, especially in feminist circles, only proves we need more women like these forgotten godmothers of sexual expression. We need more women talking about—and enjoying—their bodies. As Rau says, society creates “shame around women’s bodies, and that’s how you control women.” And shame has no place in this league.


Canadian burlesque legend Judith Stein in _The League of Exotique Dancers_.
Courtesy of Storyline Entertainment
Director Rama Rau
Courtesy of Storyline Entertainment
Gina Bon Bon at her home in Las Vegas
Courtesy of Storyline Entertainment
Camille 2000 gets her makeup done at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend.
Courtesy of Storyline Entertainment
Toni Elling
Courtesy of Storyline Entertainment
Gina Bon Bon performing at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend in Las Vegas in The League of Exotique Dancers.
Photo courtesy of Hot Docs.

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