Girl Show: Into the Canvas World of Bump and Grind
By A. W. Stencell
ECW Press, 2000
This is one of my favorite books about exotic dancing. It isn't strictly about burlesque--remember, both Little Egypt and Sally Rand started out a fairs!--but there is plenty of burlesque in it. Stencell describes the evolution of traveling carnivals from World Fairs and circuses. You'll love the photos and stories of Blaze Fury and Ricki Covette, and you'll get to see Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, and Carrie Finnell in this fabulous carnival environment. You'll get to see the hoochie choochie girls of the early 20th century, as well as the graphic chooch dancers of the late twentieth century. You'll be dazzled by Tirza, the Wine Bath Girl, whose act is still tributed in Coney Island. You'll get the inside scoop on girl show female impersonators from Jaydee Easton. You'll fall in love with Bambi Lane, "The Last of the Tassel Twirlers," who says, "I was the last dancer on the Strates' girl show. As soon as I left the stage they started taking down the show for the last time."
There are also lots of descriptions of candy butchers, comedians, producers, and other folks involved in the shows. One of the most valuable aspects of the book is way it details every aspect of the business functioning behind the glamour, charm, and occasional sleaze of the traveling shows.
A.W. Stencell has served as the president of the Circus Historical Society, and I have to say, the circus has been a huge part of my development as a burlesque performer. When I was a teenager I was hanging out with jugglers and magicians and drag queens, and when I moved to New York I was thrilled to get to know the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. A lot of the New York burlesque scene was distilled out of the independent circus and sideshow world as well as the fetish and drag communities. Being a burlesque performer, I constantly feel as if I've run away with the circus!
I have to add that while Stencell's is a book that warms my heart, I always think of it as a companion piece to the more sobering Carnival Strippers by Susan Meiselas, another one of my must-read recommendations, which paints a very unpretty picture of the experiences many of the girl show performers were having in the late 20th century. As a performer who loves every bit of the history of my stripper sisters and wants to support the soul of every lady who ever flashed for cash, I can never think of the glamour without remembering the grit. A great part of my passion for all these dancers comes from knowing they managed difficult circumstances, that being a naked lady on a stage has a lot of different meanings. I don't know if I would love them quite so fiercely if I thought they'd had it easy.
See excerpts on Google!
Posted by Jo Weldon, Headmistress of The New York School of Burlesque, for burlesquedaily.blogspot.com.