"This is a love letter to my favorite kind of perverts," announces Sadie LaGuerre before dropping to all fours and slithering between the tables on the floor of the tiny Hawthorne Theatre Lounge. As Leonard Cohen intones "I'm Your Man" through the house speakers, the 6-foot-tall peroxide blonde is amassing a pile of clothes on the barely calf-high stage. Off comes the trench coat. Then the gray button-down shirt. Soon, LaGuerre's curvy, tattooed frame is contained by only a corset and black stockings. She plays with her necktie and chews seductively on the rims of her glasses. Finally, she unhooks her bra, and there they are: a glorious pair of large, star-shaped pasties.
What? Were you expecting something else?
In a place like Portland, where the phrase "Live Nude Girls" is practically the city motto, nipples covered by tasseled adhesives might seem a tad anticlimactic. But in the world of burlesque—the performance art that underscores the "tease" in striptease—the climax matters less than the foreplay. A performer is judged not necessarily by how good they look naked, but how good they are at getting naked. And LaGuerre, 33, also known as Bella Beretta and, in her offstage hours, Nico Jeffries, is one of Stumptown's best—and most experienced—undressers.
"That's what I think the coolest thing about burlesque is: It doesn't toe a party line on what 'sexy' is," says Jeffries, who started performing in Seattle in 1999 and, after a successful stint in Los Angeles, returned to her native Portland in 2007. "Somebody can do something that's not that sexual at all, but it's how they do it, and all of a sudden you're like, 'My pants feel itchy! I feel crawly and funny!' It's that eye contact, that connection."
Admittedly, that's a pretty heady concept for this town. Portland's unique love affair with strip clubs is usually blamed for keeping a true burlesque subculture from establishing itself here as it has in other cool, cosmopolitan cities like San Francisco and Seattle. We are years behind the trend. Almost overnight, however, things have started to change: In the first months of 2009, garters and pasties have become nearly as ubiquitous as areolas and Lucite heels. The Hawthorne and Dante's are hosting weekly revues. There are monthly shows at Kelly's Olympian and the Fez Ballroom. And, as of this writing, the first students of Oregon's only burlesque school are learning the proper way to take it all off—at $300 for a nine-week course.
What's going on? Has the Rose City suddenly tired of having its lap ground upon by women in thongs?
Probably not. Portlanders may have just finally figured out the ideological difference between stripping and burlesque—although both performers work for tips. And no, it's not another 50 pounds, as the old (and wholly inaccurate) joke goes.
"When you go to a strip club, you go for TA. That's it," says Sahara Dunes, the founder of Burly Girl Productions and namesake of Professor Sahara's University of Burlesque. She started producing shows in the lean days of 2004, when she got out of the Army (trained as a nurse in a combat support hospital, she is an expert in grenades, M16s, and dismantling another human being with her bare hands—hot). "Some of the strip clubs have really good performers who are really talented; they can dance and do tricks on the pole and all that kind of stuff. A burlesque show is more about the art of the tease. Honestly, you can take one glove off and that's your show."
HELL ON WHEELS: Roller-burlesque from Portland's Baby Le'Strange.
Or, say, straddle a carousel pony, or ride around on roller skates, or shoot fire from your boobs. Not surprisingly, the members of Portland's burlesque community take that open definition and run with it. Some are purists: aforementioned equestrian Charlotte Treuse also does a classy, beguiling version of the classic feather dance to "St. James Infirmary Blues." Baby Le'Strange, on the other hand, fuses a '70 glam-rock image with whacked-out conceptual routines involving cupcakes and superhero costumes. The all-lesbian Rose City Sirens dot their striptease with bits of absurd comedy and social commentary. And then there's the city's "boylesque" troupe, Burlesquire, which provokes conversations about gender identity just by existing.
As for Jeffries-LaGuerre-Beretta, who works a day job in marketing to make ends meet, she's never had much use for what she calls the "finger-in-the-cheek girls," who ape Bettie Page and act coy as they suffer several wardrobe malfunctions. A self-described "big, mouthy broad," she has always been more attracted to the femmes fatales on the covers of 1930s pulp paperbacks and the mix of danger and eroticism they represented. She created her characters to bring that dichotomy to life onstage. And she does, often venturing into the crowd and confronting those too timid to applaud. It could be said she is reclaiming the modern definition of feminine sexiness, the one dictated by admen and strip-club proprietors, and balling it up and shooting it back into the face of male society.
But, really, all she wants is a reaction from her favorite perverts.
"I don't like to be deep and lofty about this anymore," she says. "When it comes to applause, don't give me that, 'Wow, you look so empowered—right on, sister!' Fuck that, man, I'm taking my clothes off. I want you to get down to your base, monkey-howling table-clapping."
A Month Full Of Live, Semi-nude Girls And Guys
Sugar Q Burlesque Club
Taking over in the Hawthorne Theatre Lounge after a monthlong engagement by Sahara Dunes' Burly Girl Productions, this local troupe promises an intimate celebration of "fancy panties, fancy hair, and fancy makeup"—right next to the deer-hunter arcade game. Thursdays at the Hawthorne Theatre Lounge, 1507 SE 39th Ave., 233-7100. Feb. 19-March 26. 8 pm. $10. 21+.
A fiery combo of striptease, jugglers, magicians and, yes, fire dancers, doused with a bit of classic rock-'n'-roll sleaze. Because, c'mon, it's Dante's. Sundays at Dante's, 1 SW 3rd Ave., 226-6630. 8:30 pm. $7. 21+.
Monthly: Big Top Bottoms Up
A true variety show, organized by Miss Frankie Tease, this month featuring performers Hai Fleisch and Itty Bitty Bang Bang (quoth Sadie LaGuerre: "Good things come in small packages—or is it because of?"), live music from Mars Needs Women, and ever-entertaining emcee Zora Phoenix. First Wednesday of every month at Kelly's Olympian, 426 SW Washington St., 228-3669. 8 pm. $5. 21+.
Hosted by Sadie LaGuerre and her be-testicled counterpart, Werner Fincke, kicking off its first show of the year with Seattleites Fuchsia FoXXX and the Shanghai Pearl, as well as LaGuerre's fellow PDX burlesque vet Sahara Dunes. First Thursday of every month at the Fez Ballroom, 316 SW 11th Ave., 221-7262. 9 pm. $5. 21+.
The Retro Roundup
Meghan Mayhem! Dottie Diamond! Nina Nightshade! A lotta alliteration! And live cabaret life drawing courtesy of Dr. Sketchy's! Held Thursday, Feb. 5 and 12 only, at the Hawthorne Theatre Lounge, 1507 SE 39th Ave., 233-7100. 9 pm. $10. 21+.
For information on Professor Sahara's University of Burlesque, visit professorsahara.blogspot.com.