Follow me, sin city is just down the stairs. Negotiate the steep, carpeted flight, pass the bar and the leather gentlemen's chairs, go on through the thick curtains and you are in the netherworld.
On the tiny stage of Auckland's Montecristo Room, the Hootchy Kootchy Girls are dancing across and around the stage, spinning lime green parasols as they go. MC Tony Bambini, wearing a hellishly silly fez, a goatee and aviator shades, chomps on a cigar and sits shuffling his cue cards of terrible jokes at a small table at the side of the stage. The Montecristo has the look of a supper club. Small and large tables are covered with crisp, white tablecloths and each has a candle lit.
The crowd of 100 or so sips drinks in the heat and eyeballs the stage. A few whoop and holler. Seated at the table nearest the action is chief Hootchy Kootchy girl, Erin Basta. She is bolt upright, with a smile affixed to her face. She's doing a very passable impression of a stage mum as she - and we - wait for her troupe of naughty young things to do their thing. The parasols are disposed of. And so, too, in a slow teasing dance, are the clothes.
As the swing music swings, the three Hootchy Kootchy girls shimmy and peel. There are catcalls. Gloves and dresses fly. I find myself laughing. So this is what they call burlesque - stripping. But that's not all you want to know. What you're wondering - and I make no judgment here, I wondered too - is do they, well, get their kit off entirely?
The answer to the question (which is no) actually cuts to the heart of what burlesque is - or, for that matter, what it isn't, depending on who's putting on the show. "People's first reaction is 'oh it's stripping, it's scandalous,"' says Arini Going, who dances for the Hootchy Kootchy Girls. "Some ask whether it's body art. But what I've discovered is it's more about taking on a character which, with mine, is quite comical. I make it less about what's happening - the stripping - and more about a comical act."
The word burlesque has a long history. Its first form, in Latin, was burlare, meaning to laugh or to make fun. The word survived into the Romance languages: burlesco means mockery in Italian while burlesque itself is the 17th century French variant. If the word has shifted shape, the meaning of burlesque - or rather what burlesque implies - has done something similar, moving from mockery, to tease, to full nudity. Burlesque's beginnings are somewhat muddy.
In Pretty Things, a 2006 book on the last generation of American burlesque queens, author Liz Goldwyn says the form spread to America from the French musical halls of La Belle Epoque, which opened in 1869 (and had vaudeville performers such Le Petomane - "the farter" - famous for his "musical" act), and later at the famous Moulin Rouge, which opened in 1889, and others too.
However, Michelle Baldwin, author and founder of one of the first American "neo-burlesque" troupes in the 1990s, says, in her history Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind, the modern American form begins with a British actress called Lydia Thompson who apparently conquered American stages in the late 19th century with her "British Blondes" troupe.
Burlesque did exist before Thompson, Baldwin maintains, but only as parodies of plays that mixed classical theatre with humorous commentary on the events of the day. The British Blondes wore skirts above the knee, pink tights and specialised in quick wit and cross-dressing. They scandalised New Yorkers in 1868. They did not do nudity, but instead a sort of risque variety show with witty satires of the likes of Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday.
By the turn of the 20th century burlesque was wildly popular across America, and now encompassed comedy, cabaret, vaudeville and stylised striptease. In New York, burlesque moved from the Bowery to Broadway, signalling that its mix of cabaret and naughty humour was leaving the underground for the mainstream. But even before the 20th century, burlesque's satire was making way for what would become bump 'n' grind.
The original "Hootchy Kootchy" girls had brought belly dance movements and begun shedding clothes (albeit in the manner of the "seven veils" and without nudity) and as the century moved on, this became more and more the meaning of burlesque. From the late 1920s, burlesque club owners kept pushing their comedians and dancers to bluer and bluer acts to keep punters coming back - as well as to combat the growing popularity of the flicks - eventually leading to New York City banning burlesque altogether in the late 1930s.
And so, where wit had once been the focus, flesh took centre stage from the 1940s on, with the rise of travelling "girlie shows". G-strings, pasties and the bump 'n' grind had become the norm. Artists like the famous Gypsy Rose Lee continued to bring humour and style, as well as keep the tease in striptease, during the 1940s and 50s. However, by the 1960s and 1970s, the modern strip joint was where the money was and burlesque, at least its original playful, slightly naughty cabaret incarnation, was yesterday's news.
Only history doesn't seem to have had enough of burlesque. The hootchy kootchy began bumping and grinding its way back toward the limelight as something called "neo-burlesque" in the United States about a decade ago.
The second coming of the "peeling art" has since flourished in Los Angeles and New York, as well as in London, though perhaps the only modern burlesque babe to have broached mainstream consciousness is American model Dita Von Teese, an astonishing facsimile of a 1940s pin-up girl-cum-movie star. In Auckland, however, burlesque has been a spluttering flame for only a few years.
The city has almost no history of the hootchy kootchy, though Frida Stark - who performed at the mighty Civic during World War II in just gold body paint and a G-string - is possibly the closest thing to it Auckland has seen before now. Stark was, for the period of the war, a sensation and became known as the "Fever of the Fleet" to American troops stationed in the city.
There was perhaps an echo of burlesque in Debbie Dorday's semi-famous, long-running "Burgundys of Parnell" cabaret club in the 1980s and 1990s, and certainly Auckland has had its share of joints offering burlesque's downmarket successors - pole and lap dancing - for many years. Burlesque acts have appeared in Auckland now and then, usually at one-off nightclub events, over the last few years, including by a group calling themselves the Lady Luck Club.
However, two women have recently and independently set themselves the task of bringing a burlesque scene to Auckland: Basta, who started the Hootchy Kootchy Girls nearly three years ago, and Victoria Grimshaw, who launched herself into burlesque dancing as Miss La Vita about a year ago and has since started her own burlesque business, Miss Chief Events. Basta, an American who has lived in New Zealand for four years, worked as a cabaret dancer in California but discovered burlesque only in her last few years in Los Angeles, particularly at a famous-in-LA club called Forty Deuce. "The club uses dancers but not pasties and G-strings. It has a very classy following, very A-list, a lot of movie stars would go. I just thought that it was an amazing concept. I'd never seen anything like it as a dancer."
Meanwhile, Grimshaw, who is English but now lives here after completing a degree in linguistics and dance at the University of Auckland, came across the form at the 2007 Auckland Festival in show by a group called La Clique, who will again perform at this year's festival. "The one burlesque girl was actually a Kiwi," Grimshaw says. "She just got up, completely naked, with only a string of pearls on. I was like 'oh my God' ... It just all made sense to me."
What doesn't make sense is that, after talking to both Grimshaw and Basta, I was still none the wiser about what actually makes burlesque. Later, having seen some of their shows (Grimshaw's on YouTube only), I'd chance it that their approaches have campiness in common. But beyond that Grimshaw and Basta have entirely different slants on burlesque.
In the nearly three years since the Hootchy Kootchy Girls performed at the long-gone Cuban eatery Descarga Cubana on Karangahape Rd, Basta - who is behind the scenes and doesn't perform - has developed a particular style for her shows. There are singers - Gilda Golden Tone and The Lemon Honeys - and a candy girl and four burlesque dancers. It is all very feathery, cute and tending toward cabaret, with costuming and retro set-ups the key component. "In our case [we're] not showing more than really conservative bathing suits," Basta says. "We have a lot of 1940s lingerie but you would probably see more on the beach than you would at Hootchy Kootchy. It's a little bit suggestive, but you're not going to see boobs."
Not so with Grimshaw. Her own act involves a G-string, pasties, a blow-up male doll called Steve, songs - and a relatively uncompromising approach. Her Misdemeanours show at the Auckland Fringe Festival will feature three other burlesque girls, a comedian, a guy juggling machetes while handcuffed and jazz musicians. Grimshaw seems to have doubts that Basta's show is actually burlesque - though she's not seen the show herself, just heard about it. "They call themselves burlesque but ... it's all feather boas. It's more cabaret than it is burlesque." Basta is more guarded about what she thinks of Grimshaw's version conceding that what Grimshaw is doing is "completely different from what we're doing, like night and day. [But] it's legitimate. People did that kind of thing back in the 1950s."
Perhaps the best way to illustrate Grimshaw and Basta's different views of what the new burlesque is supposed to be is their attitude to Dita Von Teese. Basta admires her. "She managed to take something that could be interpreted as really unclassy and really scandalous and infuse it with beauty ... I think there's a lot of intelligence behind it, it takes a lot of work, and definitely we use her as one of our role models in Hootchy Kootchy Girls.
The feisty Grimshaw, who performed her show at burlesque competitions in London last year, is rather less adoring. "Everyone reveres [Von Teese], loves her and thinks she's amazing. I called her the Starbucks of Burlesque. She has just gone down that road of making it into some commercial venture for herself." If Grimshaw and Basta disagree about what burlesque is, they agree on one thing: whatever burlesque is, Auckland needs more.
Hootchy Kootchy girl Lara Fischel-Chisholm has rather vivid memories of her first burlesque performance. "I was shit-scared actually," she says. "I was really nervous about it. But [what I do] is really conservative. I wouldn't say the underwear we wear is particularly challenging to anybody, it's pretty, but even so it was a little bit odd [stripping down to my underwear]."
Indeed, it is odd. Yet burlesque - a form you might think more attractive to men than to women - is as attractive, if not more attractive, to females. At least half the crowd at the Montecristo Room were women, some having arrived together in parties, others with their boyfriends or husbands. Montecristo Room co-owner Glen Giroux says the Hootchy Kootchy Girls have sold out their previous four shows - that's up to 250 each night - and he reckons the vast majority of those crowds were women. "[Erin will] probably hate me for saying this ... [but her show is] a lot tamer, it's a lot more commercial, it's a lot more Disney. I'd say about 80 per cent of the guests are women. And they bring their husbands along, who get a nice little show as well. I hate the term, but it's not pervy. Girls love that, seriously. They see a hot girl in panties ... and they want to be that woman. I think, to a certain degree, ego takes over."
Brigette Baker, dancing as Honey L'Amour in Grimshaw's Misdemeanours show, agrees burlesque is mainly for women. "That's why I got into it, because I really enjoyed watching that sort of stuff and I wanted to have something that other people could watch. I don't see it as anything sexual really. I know there's a bit of a tease but I don't really think it's for a male audience, which is how a lot of people do see it." Perhaps then, that is what burlesque is.
In a culture now saturated in sexual imagery and in-your-face flesh, a bit of good-humoured tease might just be, well, a little more sexy. With feather boas, pasties, bad jokes, parasols and nudity optional.
* Misdemeanours performs at The Classic as part of the Auckland Fringe Festival from February 26-28. The Hootchy Kootchy Girls perform at the Montecristo Room on May 22-23, July 24-25 and October 16-17. La Clique is at the Spiegeltent for the Auckland Festival, March 5 to 15.