Our new series explores true tales of nude dancing in Texas, and we want to hear from you
Gypsy Rose Lee appeared nude on the front page of the Austin American on a random Monday in 1937.
The famous burlesque dancer, whose memoir inspired the Broadway musical “Gypsy,” perches on a Moroccan pouf under a headline that declares “Gypsy bares all (nearly)!” She cocks her head to one side, a hint of a smile playing on her painted lips. One white fur stole draped across her shoulders obscures her breasts while another one is arranged carefully on her lap to cover her nether regions, leaving her bare hips exposed.
In a wire story filed from L.A., a reporter contorts the English language to indulge in stripper puns. He refers to himself as a “nudespaperman” while discussing Lee’s pivot from dancing into Hollywood films.
It’s not the first time a nude dancer was featured in an Austin newspaper. A few months after Sally Rand spiced up the 1936 Frontier Centennial Celebration in Fort Worth with her “Nude Ranch,” she brought her bubble dance to the Paramount Theatre. While in town, the Austin Statesman hosted a meet and greet event that featured Rand selling classified ads.
I found these clips a day after I met with Austin artists Ruby Joule and Jolie Goodnight for what was supposed to be a quick feature on their long-running burlesque troupe, Jigglewatts. That conversation and my search for evidence of nude dancers in the archives of the two papers that would eventually become the Austin American-Statesman uncovered more than I expected.
Soon I was sending notes to my editors and mapping out a series of stories tracing the history of nude dancing in Texas from early 20th century carnivals through a ‘90s burlesque revival to the new millennium, when a relationship between strip clubs and hip-hop parallels the way early burlesque was tied to big band jazz. I'm calling the series "Tasseled, bedazzled and bawdy: True tales of nude dancing in the Lone Star State."
Through the summer we'll use audio, video and traditional storytelling to explore the deep history of Texas burlesque and the revival that sprang from Austin's rockabilly and fetish scenes around the turn of the millennium. We'll take you back to Sally Rand's ranch and follow the rise and fall of Dallas dancer Candy Barr, who tangled with mobsters and was locked up for years over a funny cigarette. When Grammy Award-winning Houston rapper Lizzo comes through town in October, we'll look at her TED talk on twerking.
Here's one of the biggest things that preoccupied me about my conversation with Joule and Goodnight: The art of undressing developed with women in the room as spectators, not just performers. Modern burlesque audiences are predominantly female, the Jiggles told me, but even in the form’s golden era from the 1920s through the early ‘60s, dancers generally performed to mixed crowds.
Who were these generations of ladies who thought watching a sassy gal strip down to her pasties was a good date night? Why was I just learning about them now?
The Austin papers treated striptease artists like Lee and Rand as mainstream celebrities, and their appeal stretched beyond the big cities. When Rand stopped by a Lion’s Club meeting in Cleburne, a small city south of Fort Worth, to promote the 1936 Centennial, so many wives crashed the meeting that a writer in the Cleburne Times-Review lamented insufficient space to work the ladies into the story’s headline.
The tension between America’s carnal prurience and puritanical moralizing around female sexuality provides a backdrop to the development of burlesque and the way we remember or don't remember it. Through the years, the art form has been considered glamorous, predatory, shameful and empowering. Burlesque is intrinsically linked with 20th century vaudeville and jazz clubs of the Roaring ‘20s, but those connections have been largely scrubbed from the history books.
The strange patchwork of blue laws and other decency statutes that sprang up to govern nude dancing around the state continue to legislate how a woman can reveal her body in public depending on where she stands. In Austin, burlesque artists can strip down to a g-string and pasties, but at a recent Jigglewatts performance in Bryan, “they wanted both butt cheeks completely covered and they were considering my side hip butt cheek,” Goodnight said.
In this series, we’ll look at how these laws have been used through the years to shut down clubs and penalize dancers.
Beyond the glitz, we’ll examine the treacherous connection between burlesque and organized crime along with some of the form’s uglier origin stories. The first burlesque shows in Austin were likely part of traveling minstrel shows and so-called “black bottom” and “Oriental” dances characterized early performances. We’ll look at the intersections between queer culture and burlesque, the overall push for greater diversity in the modern burlesque world and the ways nude dancing is tied to bodily autonomy.
"You actually can tell when you're watching someone who's newer in burlesque who hasn't experienced a lot of autonomy yet, versus when we watch the legends who are in their 70s and 80s," Goodnight said. "No one slays better than them. They are the best on the stage ... they're so practiced, and they have been through so much. And there's no one that can tell that 75-year-old woman that she doesn't get to be on the stage taking her clothes off. She is the fiercest human you'll ever see."
"Those are the role models I want," Joule said.
Did you dance or go to burlesque shows in Austin?
Did you dance at or attend live band burlesque or striptease shows in the Austin area in the 1940s-1970s? We'd love to hear from you. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Texas Burlesque Festival
This weekend, the Texas Burlesque Festival will bump and grind at the Long Center for the first time since the pandemic began. The event is headlined by Judith Stein, the "Grand Beaver" of Canadian burlesque. Stein began dancing in the early '70s and toured extensively around the world, including in Texas. To celebrate their 20th anniversary, Austin troupe Kitty Kitty Bang Bang will stage a revival of "Love Whip" choreographed by festival director Lynn Raridon, and a host of other artists from Austin and around the country will perform.
The show starts at 8 p.m. on June 4 at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive, and it is technically sold out. Information: texasburlesquefestival.com