Janet McAllister: Burlesque vs strip clubs

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Karangahape's gentrification has reached high tide and is slipping back again. Photo / Thinkstock
Karangahape's gentrification has reached high tide and is slipping back again. Photo / Thinkstock

So, sleaze is back on K Rd again. A strip club recently set up two new venues on the ridge.

But it's not what you think. It's not because Karangahape's gentrification has reached high tide and is slipping back again. It's not because the address is so dodgy but - ironically, amusingly, depressingly - because it's so respectable. It's more than 10 years since the Pink Pussycat was pushed out of the back door at the seedy western end of the strip - as if sleaze was on a disposal conveyor belt to the suburbs - to make way for art galleries and designer fashion. Now these recent strip club arrivals have stalked unsmilingly through the eastern gateway, planting themselves near Queen St on a relatively rich and prominent block.

How come? Unfortunately K Rd's move toward the mainstream coincided with sleaze's move in the same direction (exhibit A: the White House on Queen St). Sleaze is now so accepted that the new establishments are advertised on Radio Hauraki. The road that is a hangout for creative, alternative and queer types, and a welcome reprieve from heteronormativity, now has straight, commercial, crass sexism thrust into its face.

Not that all K Rd's denizens realised this from the start. Apparently, some in the femme-led amateur burlesque scene hoped that the more "exclusive" of the two venues would be a new outlet for their art.

Bless - but er, no. Although they may look similar - burlesque can include striptease and pole-dancing - one is a celebration of various sexualities, the other is a tawdry, cold, calculating power game, where odds on, some participants are not there to enjoy themselves.

Some of the differences between strip clubs ("the bastard child of misogyny and commerce") and burlesque ("lap-dancing's older, darker, cleverer sister") are well spelled out in last year's How to be a Woman by British columnist Caitlin Moran (godawful title; funny, opinionated, clever memoir).

As Moran tells it, the performer holds the power in burlesque, and their act is about their personality and humour - about "freaky, late-night, libertine self-expression" with a "campy, tranny, fetish element to it".

"Burlesque artists treat their own sexuality as something fabulous and enjoyable," she writes; they sing, talk, laugh and tell jokes.

In contrast, strip clubs have an "oddly aggressive humourless air," she says.

Strip clubs are for people who wish the performers were holograms on the Star Trek holographic deck; fantasy robots with no feelings of their own. Burlesque - such as Mary Jane O'Reilly's In Flagrante at Toto's last weekend - is for people who want to enjoy a performer's enjoyment.

There are structural reasons for this difference. Strippers have to hustle their patrons directly for money. In contrast, if burlesque performers are professional - and there are many who do it purely for the love of it - they are paid an agreed amount for a performance upfront. They're there to have fun with their audience - who are mostly women. They're there to interact with them as people. Very K Rd.

- NZ Herald

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