May 31, 2013 at 8:51 AM ET
Break out the balloons, grab those fans and feathers and cue up the vampy trombones. This weekend, Las Vegas will put the tease in striptease during the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender (May 30–June 2).
Rest assured, tassels will be twirled.
Now in its 23rd year, the event is a four-day affair, complete with competitions, classes and Q&A/autograph sessions with some of the legends of the genre. Held at The Orleans, just off the Strip, it’s a fundraiser for the Burlesque Hall of Fame, a downtown exhibition space showcasing memorabilia and artifacts from the likes of performers Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm and Gypsy Rose Lee.
And like its namesake, this weekend’s festivities celebrate the risqué without getting raunchy. Needless to say, performers will expose ample amounts of skin but unlike their counterparts at local strip clubs, the strategic use of pasties, G-strings and other articles of “clothing” will still leave something to the audience’s imagination.
“In most strip clubs, a woman comes out not wearing a lot of clothes and removes what little she is,” said Dustin Wax, Hall of Fame executive director. “In burlesque, there’s a slow building of anticipation; a performer might take a minute to take a glove off and you’re going to sit there and be enthralled by it.”
While the uninitiated often associate burlesque with strip clubs and other X-rated entertainment, it was actually born as a form of low comedy in Europe — “The word means joke or parody,” said Wax — and reached its heyday in the U.S. during the vaudeville era of the early 20th century.
Today, the genre has evolved into “neo-burlesque,” which seeks to combine the glamour of the past with more props, fancier costumes and comedic storytelling. It’s somehow not surprising that performers sport stage names like Iva Handfull, Fanny Tastic or April O’Peel.
Ms. O’Peel, in fact, won top honors for the best comedic performance at last year’s Tournament of Tease, one of the signature events during the Las Vegas festivities. In an updated interpretation of Sally Rand’s famous balloon dance, she sported a costume made of yellow rubber gloves that she slowly removed while doing a bump-and-grind with an egg-like balloon.
“At the end, I popped the balloon with my pasties and feathers exploded everywhere,” she told NBC News.
According to Nicole Troxell, a sociology professor at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., that sort of self-designed, DIY approach helps explain the genre’s growing appeal.
“People who do burlesque find it really empowering,” she said. “One of the reasons is that they have a lot of leeway and freedom over what they do.”
No doubt there will be plenty of both on display during the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender. In addition to the Tournament of Tease, visitors can attend Icons and All Stars, featuring famous neo-burlesque performers such as Indigo Blue and Kitten de Ville, and the Titans of Tease Reunion of several dozen “vintage vixens.”
Other activities include panel discussions, sexy sketching sessions and workshops on chair dancing, glove removal and the use of feathers and other accouterments.
In fact, according to Wax, the Weekender’s “finishing school” classes are among its biggest draws.
“We’re trying to keep the traditional alive by passing knowledge on from one generation to the next,” he told NBC News. “For people who have never experienced burlesque or only seen it on video, this is a chance to sit and talk to real legends and learn from them directly.”
Day tickets for showcase events (18 and over only) start at $60; 4-day passes are $225–$500. Feathers, tassels and pasties, not included.
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.