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Bringing Back Burlesque

April 14, 2003

Mark Miester

mark@tulane.edu

Nina Bozak had a secret. By day, she worked as a technician in Howard-Tilton library, but by night the Omaha, Neb., native pursued a more exotic avocation: burlesque queen. Bozak was a dancer and choreographer with the Shim Shamettes, a dance company that recreated the racy, irreverent routines of burlesque.

"I really didn't want anybody to know what I did," recalls Bozak, who now works in the rare books department. "It was funny, because in December 2000 I was on the cover of OffBeat, but I looked completely different. No one knew it was me. Everybody would go to PJ's and pick up a copy of OffBeat. I would be standing right there and they wouldn't notice. It was great."

Bozak has come a long way. Last month a new show choreographed by Bozak premiered at the Shim Sham Club, and Bozak delivered a presentation on the history of burlesque at the Tulane Educational Conference. Later this month she travels to Lafayette to present a program to the Louisiana Historical Association.

"I think some people have misconceptions about burlesque," says Bozak, who now limits her dancing to the occasional fill-in role. Like jazz, film noir and pulp fiction, burlesque is a uniquely American art form, and one, Bozak argues, deserving of respect. Far from seedy entertainment, burlesque shows of the 1950s attracted sophisticated audiences with performances featuring live music, elaborate costumes, exotic themes and, most importantly, a sense of humor.

New Orleans in particular was a mecca of burlesque, with dozens of clubs and stars such as Lilly Christine the Cat Girl and Evangeline the Oyster Girl, who would emerge from an enormous oyster shell to dance with an oversized pearl. The art of burlesque was to tease rather than titillate. By today's standards, the old routines were strictly PG-13. That's a style Bozak seeks to replicate with her dances, some of which are faithful replications of the classic routines.

Since she began working on the Shim Sham Revue, Bozak has had the chance to meet and work with several of the former stars of Bourbon Street, including Wild Cherry, who danced from 1958 through the early '70s, and Kitty West, the aforementioned Evangeline the Oyster Girl.

A lifelong dancer, Bozak graduated from Loyola University with a degree in history and was performing with the Komenka Ethnic Dance Ensemble in 1999 when a friend asked her to dance a cancan for the retro burlesque troupe being organized by the Shim Sham Club. The show was initially intended to be a one-night offering, but became a regular feature at the club. Bozak, one of the few dancers with formal training, became the choreographer.

"It was great because I could do the musical comedy and musical theater stuff I had been taught that there was no outlet for," Bozak says.

While the Shim Shamettes were made up primarily of Bourbon Street exotic dancers, the Southern Jezebelles, the burlesque troupe Bozak now works with, feature almost exclusively trained dancers. "I've found from experience that it's easier to teach dancers how to strip than to teach strippers how to dance," Bozak says.

The Shim Sham Revue was one of a handful of retro burlesque groups to pop up around he counry in the 1990s. Since then, the revue has been mentioned in Time, Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal and on National Public Radio, "Entertainment Tonight" and the Arts and Entertainment Network special

"It's Burlesque." "I like doing the striptease stuff because there's always an element of surprise," Bozak says. "A dancer might have big flower pasties on underneath her costume or almost nothing. Or she might have another bra on."

The Shim Sham Revue runs Sundays through June 1 at the Shim Sham Club. For more information, call 299-0666. Mark Miester can be reached at mark@tulane.edu.

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