You know the old saying: one person's art is another person's prohibited sexual or pornographic conduct. What, never heard that one? Well, a $1,500 fine and citation from the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission can be a great teacher. It certainly seems to have gotten the attention of one local bar, which was slapped with the hefty fine after hosting a risqué burlesque show in late June.
On July 5, according to an official violation report, ABC agent Brad Allison was perusing the Nashville Scene when he came across a photo of local burlesque dancer Kicky La Rue "wearing red panties and red pasties covering her nipples. (See attached article)." She was performing at the Cannery Row Revival, a local outdoor 21-and-up concert series hosted by the Mercy Lounge (and co-sponsored by the Scene), along with several other local burlesque dancers.
The problem? La Rue was baring too much breasta violation of a state law that makes it illegal for someone at an establishment with a liquor license "to expose to view any portion of the female breast below the top of the areola." (Same goes for "any portion of the pubic hair, anus, cleft of the buttocks, vulva or genitals.") Kicky, it seems, got too kinky.
"That picture didn't tell the whole story," says La Rue, noting that her act is about costumes and sensual body movement, and furthermore that she is clad in only pasties for a very small part of her routine prior to running offstage. She says burlesque is all about flirtation. "We're cheeky and cute and sexy, but it's not all about sex.... It's suggestive, hopefully, in a fun sort of way."
Burlesque, which flourished in the 1940s and '50s, was vaudeville's naughty cousin; it interspersed striptease with hokey comedy and song to create enough scandal for titillation without overstimulation. But burlesque's sly sensuality made way for the sexual '60s and in-your-face excesses of the '70s. Somewhere along the way, porn became king; explicit sex sold.
In recent years, though, coquettish seduction and flirtatious sensuality have made something of a comeback in the form of a neo-burlesque movement. No one knows that better than its Nashville godmother, Katy K, a 12 South clothier and woman-about-town who organized the city's first known neo-burlesque show in February 2003. "It was hilarious," she remembers of the Exit/In show, noting that Too Slim from Riders in the Sky performed in a bad toupee and ill-fitting suit. She brought in burlesque dancers from New York with stage names like Dirty Martini and the World Famous BOByes, pasties were involvedand before long, a small-city movement was born.
For Katy K, and many women of the diverse neo-burlesque movement, it's all about empowerment. "Here's these women, they don't look like Barbie dolls and they're not all the same," says Katy K. "Some of them are hefty, some of them are skinny, some of them are flat. And they all have these routines. It's wonderful for women to see."
Gorgeous Greta, a local burlesque dancer who also manages Katy K's clothing shop, talks about the neo-burlesque movement almost academically. "It definitely started with women wanting to recapture that sensuality and that glamour and that celebration of womanhood that they saw in those [burlesque] pioneers, who were very daring for their time," she says, noting that the burgeoning local community is in particular supported by women. "We've had people come to the shows who didn't know what to expect, and they were very pleasantly surprised."
Surprise was among the emotions of Mercy Lounge owners and club bookers when they opened their $1,500 citation letter in mid-July. After all, their venue has hosted plenty of burlesque shows in the past. That said, they're not trying to make enemies with the powerful liquor license board. "We enjoy doing the shows, and hopefully we'll continue to," says Mercy's John Bruton. "If they can do it in a way that's within the law, we'll keep having them. But we definitely want to stay within the law."
That's why they've turned to at-large Metro Council member Adam Dread, who has appointed himself chief representative of the Nashville nightlife constituency. "It's an antiquated law, and it's certainly kind of silly," Dread says of the pasty policy. "You can actually see more risqué things in magazines available to anyone of any age." Still, he says, the club violated the law by allowing La Rue to perform, but he hopes their fine can be reduced. (Incidentally, Dread attended the Cannery Row event that night but claims to have gotten there after the lawlessness.)
Meanwhile, the ABC stands by its newspaper-photo-generated fine and says it's not personal. "The legislature's the one that lays down the rules," says Michael Cawthon, special agent in charge of the Nashville district. "We just try to enforce them. Play by the rules and you won't see us." Cawthon says that if enforcement seems spotty, it's because he's understaffed. And yes, bartenders, the ABC uses undercover agents.
To hear Dread and the dancers tell it, this is about a public policy that needs to be changed, althoughlet's face itliquor-and-skin laws aren't high on most people's legislative priority list. They could hire a lobbyist to work Capitol Hill, or better yet, they could put on a liquor-free burlesque show for legislators.
La Rue, who by day is a mother and the owner of a trendy East Nashville salon, doesn't have to think about that idea for long: "I'd be there."
In the meantime, though, expect local burlesque performers to be a little less suggestive, lest they wear out their welcome at Nashville watering holes. Katy K, who has a show scheduled for Oct. 29, says her ladies will still play it naughty, but they're also going to play it safe. "That show," she says slyly, "will be well planned."
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