Burlesque: Freedom, Femininity and the Filipino psyche

The voluptuous Lady Mabuhay has been doing burlesque for about three years.

The voluptuous Lady Mabuhay has been doing burlesque for about three years.

By Elizabeth Cueva

I have always been a fan of the beautiful Dita Von Teese, whose burlesque shows exuded glamour, grace and glitter. To me, she had elevated the art of the tease. I had pored through a coffee table book of hers and was enticed by all those luxurious lingerie and accoutrements that made women — and men — go to shops called Agent Provocateur and La Perla.

I had always been curious to see this sensuous performance art in New York as I have never seen an actual show in the city until last week’s mildly rainy Tuesday night. In the past, I have seen some burlesque extravaganza shows at the Moulin Rouge in Paris and in the former Flamingo in Las Vegas. However, these shows were geared for a larger touristy audience, but never in an intimate setting.

Sid’s Gold’s Request Room is a cozy spot for an introductory foray on burlesque. The place was nondescript that my friend and I almost missed it. The front part consisted of a vintage-y bar that’s almost like a speakeasy. The stage and alcove where the show was held were hidden behind dark curtains at the back room of the bar.

The ushers and servers were congenial. There was a cover charge of a sliding scale of $5 to $20 and the food and drinks were reasonably priced and tasty. We were directed to a pink-lit alcove booth with a good view of the piano bar and the stage. On the dot, at 8 p.m., the show started with the gracious hostess — and producer — named Trinity Starlight introducing the diminutive and voluptuous Filipina-American, Lady Mabuhay, to open the show. At first, the emcee called her “May Buhay” and promptly corrected her pronunciation to “Mah-boo-hay!” How apt her stage name is because she filled that floor with her exuberance and vitality as she gyrated and slowly peeled off her clothes.

Then, came the zaftig all-American beauty named Madame Brassiere. Then, the soulful and smoldering Nina Josephine to be followed by the tall and slim Cleopatra Jones-looking Rain Supreme. One by one, the performers floated around the room in their perfumed feathered costumes as they slithered gracefully and teasingly took off their garments piece by piece — mask first, then one glove, then the other glove, robe, corset, brassiere, girdle then other accoutrements until they were down to their itty-bitty garments of nipple tassles and g-strings. No, there was no full nudity, only a gradual disrobing so that there was always something left to tease the imagination.

The women at curtain call. Photos by The FilAm and Elizabeth Cueva

The women at curtain call with Lady Mabuhay at far left. Photos by The FilAm and Elizabeth Cueva

In this intimate venue, burlesque was participatory as they encouraged the viewers to signify their appreciation by clapping, hooting and howling. The mixed audience looked respectable and were initially reserved and shy. The dancers approached the audience members as they performed. Though fun-loving and game, the audience were well-mannered as they knew not to touch the performers and to respect them as artists. There was also what they called a “kitty pick-up” such that if one chose to pick up the garments left behind by the dancers, one had to do so provocatively.

During the intermission, there was an auction where the audience could bid on anything from intimate toys to special gifts from the performers. The producer and hostess of the show called Essence Revealed, Tiffany Starlight, and the performer Lady Mabuhay, managed to visit our alcove to say hello and made us “feel at home” as we were neophytes in such shows. Talking with them, these performers revealed themselves as intelligent and self-possessed women who see burlesque as an empowering form of expression and entertainment

The finale was reserved for the East Harlem Goddess of Burlesque, no other than the lovely hostess herself, Tiffany Starlight. The women came in all shapes and sizes, all races, colors and ethnicity — all exhibiting confidence and gracefulness. The performers surely felt comfortable in their own skins. They all displayed strength in their softness, beauty and mystery — the power of Femininity.

For the Filipino and Filipino-American community, views about burlesque are evolving. Lots may think of it as controversial, voyeuristic and sexually titillating. Personally, I found the show not at all raunchy. Surely, it was erotic and sensuous, but the ladies with their beautiful costumes and graceful moves gave a classy performance. Burlesque is not tantamount to bawdy. It is a form of theatrical performance art. Burlesque is an all-inclusive art form for women of all shapes and sizes expressing themselves freely and celebrating beauty and femininity. It can be both appealing and empowering for both the performers and the audience.

How liberating!

M. Elizabeth Cueva, Esq. is a public sector human rights lawyer who advocates gender equality and equal access and opportunity for all. She also believes in feminism without losing femininity.

Lady Mabuhay: Burlesque is an empowering form of expression and entertainment.

Lady Mabuhay: Burlesque is an empowering form of expression and entertainment.

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