A good striptease requires a surprising amount of clothes. The frilly panties with scalloped lace that winks like false eyelashes when hips sway to Tito Puente songs. The extra-strength push-up bra that can make even an A-cup girl look like she's nursing two bald men. The tasseled pasties swirling like Blackhawk propellers. The silky nylons that slip easily to the ankles. The artillery of underthings that harness and tuck and buttress their way to pinup proportions. Ophelia Flame's got 'em all. Only problem is, she can't put on her dress.
"Can somebody help me zip up this zipper?" the curvy siren calls out to the singers, dancers, and musicians scattered backstage at Le Cirque Rouge de Gus, a retro burlesque club in the Warehouse District. Three sharply dressed men rush to her aid; the fastest (and luckiest) gets to finish the task. As he pulls the shiny teeth together, an inch of Ms. Flame's skin disappears behind fabric. She watches it vanish, gazing into a nearby vanity table mirror where, just below her reflection, there's an antique drawing of a blonde bombshell whose open robe would make Gypsy Rose Lee blush. The caption reads, "I never go out with married men... so won't you please come in?"
Amy Buchanan, Le Cirque's creative director and emcee, looks up from the same mirror, where she's adjusting a flower on her lapel. "No one's allowed to go completely topless here," she explains, turning her hot-roller curls toward tonight's set list. "We also have a rule: No fake boobs and no stripper moves. On amateur night, these two girls from the audience got up and started going like this"--she gyrates like a porn tape on fast-forward--"and I had to run up there with my clipboard to cover their coochies."
She lowers her voice for the c-word, whispering with a well-manicured hand aside her mouth. Buchanan may be the grande dame of this place, but she's no Hollywood madam. At times, the Sistine Chapel's ceiling shows more flesh than her club. Since Le Cirque opened last August, the dancers have never been caught with their Calvins down. And the vaudeville chanteuses wear all their clothes when they sing.
As Buchanan pulls back the sheer brown curtains that separate the dressing room from the main stage, the customers seated before her are primarily female; many came to see their friends perform or to secretly plan their own Moulin Rouge routines. The men in attendance have all brought dates. Short red candles illuminate their glasses. No one orders drinks with names that would shock their mothers. Wine is the poison of choice--if only because the wealthy man in the corner has bought a bottle for every woman in the room. One wonders why there aren't more Y chromosomes here. Maybe the theatrical tone at Le Cirque rings too playful for your average male voyeur. With the vintage costumes, the vampy dance moves, and the occasionally campy songs, the entertainers' underlying message to their customers seems clear: We may have come-hither eyes, but this is all an act.
When it's time for a Le Cirque lady to perform, Buchanan trusts that she'll put more emphasis on the tease than the stripping. She'll cover herself in balloons, then plunge a stickpin through each one. She'll dance around a washing machine, playfully dropping her dress inside. She'll perform a "Minnesota striptease," removing everything from her hat, scarf, and coat down to her skivvies. Or she'll hide demurely behind a sheet to disrobe in profile, making a shadow puppet of her hourglass shape.
"We have these things you can wear to make your ass look rounder," Buchanan says. "One of our girls went out on stage, and I told her, 'Your ass looks so good with that [padding]!' And she said, 'Um, I'm not wearing any.' Oops."
Ophelia Flame isn't wearing any either, though her little black dress still sculpts her body into a perfect figure 8. Peeking out from behind the curtain, she waits for Buchanan to introduce her, then she shimmies toward the spotlight. As David Rose and his orchestra's saucy burlesque classic "The Stripper" oozes from the speakers, she raises her hem on one side, all the way up to her thigh, then lowers it slooooowly. When she switches to the other leg, someone whistles. Bending down so low that the only thing preventing her from spilling out of her dress is the foldout fan that flutters just beneath her clavicle, she cups her hand to her ear. The crowd cheers. She grabs that troublesome zipper. It goes down easy.