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Burlesque and cabaret take a modern turn with Whiskey Tango Sideshow

Feathers will be flying and toes will be tapping as nouveau cabaret takes the Community for the School of Music and Arts by storm on April 6, with an act that ranges from singing to dancing and everything in between.

The Whiskey Tango Sideshow will be presenting their latest show, “Pin-up Girls for a Calendar Year.” The Trumansburg-based troupe is redefining ‘burlesque’ with a show that features traditional burlesque in addition to elements such as aerial acrobatics, sideshow, and song with a healthy dose of flirtatious feathers, gender bending and tantalizing glimpses of skin.

The troupe was the brainchild of Janna “Deadly” Edelman and Susan “the Bullet” Allen, and consists primarily of five women including Danielle “Danger” Kearns, Erin “the Axe” Griffeth, and Liz “the Bombshell” Leidenfrost. Many of Whiskey Tango Sideshow’s performances also feature visiting guest artists. Unlike their contemporaries, the troupe does not like to be identified with burlesque, but with what they call “cabaret nouveau.”

“Burlesque is one facet of the multitude of things that we do in this troupe,” Leidenfrost said. “We touch on the macabre and also the emotional and the very tender and lots of aspects that burlesque, I feel, does not encapsulate. We touch out to all kinds of different audiences. We had to create a term for all that we do so that we weren’t just limited to the word ‘burlesque.’”

Traditional burlesque was noted for its risqué use “peep show” nudity in the early forties and fifties, and has evolved as public perception of female sexuality has changed.

Las Vegas entertainment reporter and blogger for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Norm Clarke said burlesque remains popular due to its teasing nature.

“Traditional burlesque had such a forbidden and naughty style to it; that’s before it was acceptable for so much nudity,” said Clarke. “We’ve seen a sort of cyclic return to that classy style. I think it has a special place in entertainment and that’s why it has remained relevant. It’s such an exotic reference to yesteryear.”

Unlike burlesque acts of past years, Whiskey Tango Sideshow advocates their performances as a celebration of themselves coming together as successful women embracing their intelligence and femininity, as well as their sexuality.

“What we do is artistic and more cerebral,” Allen said.

Griffeth added that the troupe supports creating spaces for women in society that aren’t always seen as acceptable.

“It’s more a celebration of who we are and that part of ourselves and a lot of other parts of ourselves all combined in one,” she said. “In a lot of other venues, you can be the intellectual one or the emotional one, but you really shouldn’t be the sexual one, but in this form, you can be all of those things.”

The Whiskey Tango Sideshow isn’t the only venue that is promoting re-appropriation of the burlesque art form. Bettina May, a Brooklyn-based Canadian burlesque performer who made headlines last year for receiving her green card for her burlesque act, said that there are benefits to performing burlesque in contemporary time.

“I do love being a modern woman in this time and doing vintage style in my everyday life because I get to have all the benefits of a modern woman, like getting to vote and go to university and equal pay for equal work,” said May. “Everything that I do is one hundred percent my idea and that feels so empowering. I’m a businesswoman and I’m an entrepreneur. That’s just as valid as a man that puts on a suit and goes into an office.”

Despite its modernization, the increasing popularity of modern burlesque hasn’t necessarily stopped stigmas surrounding the art form. Journalist Deni Kirkova, who formerly performed burlesque, attributes this to miscomprehension of the craft.

“It is controversial even now,” she said. “People scowl at the idea of a vintage stripper trying to pass her act off as classy. That’s how skeptics see it.”

The ladies of the Whiskey Tango Sideshow, however, are mainly focused on their creative processes, developing shows that celebrate their femininity, sexuality and their chemistry together as a troupe.

“It’s something that we do for ourselves because we’re inspired,” said Edelman. “It’s not about creating things for an audience. It’s because we have a really awesome idea that we’re into…we want to do something that we want to do and that feels like a nice empowerment piece.”

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