Chain Dragger of Fan Dancer
by Jake Block
Today, “strippers” get on stage, rip their clothes off and inartistically writhe in a parody of sexual ecstasy to whatever music is popular within the demographic of the club in which they work. I’ve seen women “strip” to everything from Born To Be Wild by Steppenwolf, to Mama Told Me Not To Come by Three Dog Night, to one truly bizarre evening when a goth looking girl strutted her stuff on stage to Gangsta’s Paradise by Coolio. Now, the rip it and writhe type strippers are pretty common place, but once in a while you see a woman like Dita Von Teese who does her very best to bring the art of the strip back to its Burlesque best, with all of its glitz and glamor.
Now, back in the golden age of Burlesque, there were different types of strippers. The Journalist H.L. Mencken coined them “Ecdysiasts.” There were those like the famous Gypsy Rose Lee (Rose Louis Hovick), who danced from about 1928 until the late 60s as a featured exhibition dancer, who knew that the way to a audience’s heart was in a sexy smile, a feather boa and a flirtatious bump and grind. Technically, she was a “Vedette,” of a headliner, who could sing, dance, tell jokes and entertain her audience in a variety of ways.
Most of the famous “strippers” of Burlesque fell into the “Vedette” mold. Some became world famous and wealthy, and each pretty much had their own “hook” that made them stand out from the rest. For example, the black dancer, Josephine Baker who, with her famous “banana skirt,” invited her audience to pick bananas, revealing more with each banana picked. She was also a legitimately good dancer with “the fastest feet in Burlesque.”
The sultry Ann Corio (Ann Cicorria) was known as the “Swamp Woman,” because she had appeared in a movie by that name. She was considered to be a “mistress” of the “Sophisticated Strip,” where the dancer dressed in fine gowns and jewelry and proceeded to remove layer after layer to slower, evocative music like “Sleepwalk” and “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” Corio peppered her act with humorous anecdotes about her long career as a stripper in Burlesque. She eventually left the business because she was bothered by the increasing vulgarity of the art.
“Chain Draggers” prowled the stage slowly, like a panther… or someone dragging a huge ball on a chain behind them, hence the name. They moved to ploddingly slow music and seemed reluctant to remove their clothing, seldom getting to anything titillating for the audience, with an almost bored look on their face. For some reason, thinking of them I am always reminded of an old picture of the silent actress, Theda Bara sitting in the middle of a pile of dried bones. Theda Bara’s name, incidentally, was an anagram of “Arab Death.”
Then there were the “Fan Dancers.” Fan Dancers did a dance that was a cross between ballet and acrobatic, artistically positioning their elaborate fans of marabou, stork and flamingo feathers, so that their naked bodies were mostly covered for the entirety of their act, occasionally flashing a bit of breast or thigh, as they danced along the stage. These dancers were always a crowd favorite, because their skills were on display in a rhythmic and playful way that was fun to watch, with its promise of fleshly delights that were often fleeting, unless a dancer, pleased with the responses she got for her act, decided to “work strong,” and spread her fans wide as she walked off stage, or posed seductively, using her fans for a soft feathery backdrop for her lithe young body.
Most people don’t know that I had an aunt named Vada. She was my father’s youngest sister, and during the mid to late 1940s, she made her living as an Ecdysiast, and specifically a fan dancer, in St. Louis. She died not long ago, a very old woman, who had a ready smile and eyes that danced when she remembered. One of my favorite memories of her was that, at my wedding reception in 1969, she arranged to have the band play the Santo and Johnny song, “Sleep Walk” with a decidedly strip-friendly beat.
She emerged from the bar area, with her fans folded around her, covering most of her body from her shoulders to her butt, and wore only a pair of rhinestone drop earrings, a rhinestone necklace and a pair or silver stiletto heels. As the band played, the lights lowered in the hall, and she danced. The place was quiet as she moved, elegantly… gracefully… with purpose between and around the tables, weaving her way up to the bridal party table at the front of the room, which is where she was when the music ended, and she rotated slowly, fans enfolding her, and did a deep, elegant curtsy to us before stepping off to a rousing round of applause. As she exited again, through the bar area, she swung her fans behind her back momentarily and bowed, showing that even in her 40s, she took a back seat to no one.
When she emerged, fully clothed and looking again like Aunt Vada, I hugged her and said, “That was quite an exit.” She smiled and said, “Sometimes you have to give them a thrill!”
Good advice, for sure!
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