by Chanda VanderHart
The New York City Hot Box Girls, pet project of impresario Rebecca Greenstein, have become a New York institution in the five years since their inception, actively touring within the States alongside their regular NYC performances at Duane Park and The Cutting Room. The group, named after Adelaide’s dancing ladies from the 1950 musical Guys and Dolls, harvests professional singers and dancers from the worlds of opera and musical theatre and turns them into glamorous triple threats who sing, dance and burlesque through a variety of genres including jazz, opera, operetta and musical theatre. Using this success as a springboard, Greenstein set her sights on Vienna, Austria, bringing her Jazz Burlesque and L’Opera Burlesque formats to Europe and cultivating a parallel troupe of performers to lighten the load on the US group. Austria, like much of Europe, has a much more relaxed attitude towards nudity and sexuality than the States. This should be easy, she figured.
The group has received a largely positive reception -- with recent appearances on Austrian national television for the ORF reality show Die Grosse Chance der Chöre and performances at venues like Porgy and Bess, Vienna’s premiere jazz club -- but it has not been without its hurdles. At a recent performance, feminists from the organization EGA - frauen im Zentrum accused Greenstein of “setting women back a hundred years” by letting “these girls take off their clothes on stage." Greenstein’s response? “These women feel wonderful about themselves and are allowed to express it however they prefer. I am all about body confidence and fighting slut-shaming – how do they not get that?”
There is a lot to unpack here. First off, the tension between second-wave feminists and those of Greenstein’s bent, who belong decidedly to the third wave. “I don’t have to burn my bra or cut my hair short to be a feminist," she insists. “I am just as much a feminist as any of them in my lipstick and heels, half-naked on stage." Statements like that may rankle second-wavers who see their sacrifices, struggles and many successes marginalized by later-comers who now nonchalantly gamble through doors they worked so hard to open, yet Greenstein’s is not an isolated voice. While second-wavers have tended to reject the trappings of so-called femininity, which they argue was imposed upon them by a powerfully patriarchal society, later generations feel that they should be able to look and dress however they feel like it.
Another issue that has to be addressed is whether Austria is as fully feminist as its laws would have us believe. Austria generally legislates progressively in terms of women’s health compared to the US (extensive maternity leave, gender equality goals for the workplace, solid family planning infrastructure and protection), and is also much less prudish when it comes to sexuality and nudity (nude beaches, sex education, legalized and regulated prostitution, acceptance of public breastfeeding). A strong societal conservative streak reveals itself when we consider representation -- there is a very low percentage of women in positions of real power, particularly in the corporate world and academia. Moreover, even generally open-minded individuals have the tendency to conflate burlesque -- a provocative, overtly sexual performance often imbued with a good dollop of scathing social commentary -- with what goes on in your average strip club.
So what is exactly the difference? Like so many things, the intention is decisive: for whom, how and why it is done. Let’s look at burlesque historically. The word “burlesque” is derived from the Italian “burlesco," from “burla” meaning joke or mockery, and came into use in the 17th century. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was used to in connection with forms like pastiche, parody and extravaganza.It poked fun at both societal restrictions regarding womens’ dress, as well as at the popular operas, shows, literary works, politicians and performers of the day. It made the move over the ocean in the 1840s, and in 1868 Lydia Thompson -– a woman no less -- produced Ixion, a mythological parody which was the first burlesque show to take Broadway by storm. Thompson with her gang of “British Blondes” shocked and entranced their New York audiences by presenting gorgeous women, scantily clad in tights – and even playing “male” roles of sexual aggressors. Needless to say it was a hit grossing $370,000 in its first season. By the 1920s and 30s, the incorporation of striptease into burlesque was in full swing with over 150 strip principals engaged in the US, with shows featuring a mix of striptease, song and comedy. Enforced prohibition and aggressive legislation by New York mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia effectively extinguished such displays in the 40s.
Burlesque’s legacy, according to Robert G. Allen, author of Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture is:
“[i]ts establishment of patterns of gender representation that forever changed the role of the woman on the American stage and later influenced her role on the screen. . . The very sight of a female body not covered by the accepted costume of bourgeois respectability forcefully if playfully called attention to the entire question of the "place" of woman in American society.” (Univ. of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1991, pp. 258-259)
If burlesque’s beginnings involved a female troupe of women, led by a woman choosing to buck social norms and make a killing while looking absolutely fabulous, that sounds like a great deal of empowered fun. And however intellectual we get about burlesque, it has always been driven by sex. What we might want to be asking ourselves as a society is why people get so worked up about women reveling in their own sexuality? Female nudity and sexuality has been overtly used by men since the dawn of time, though we shrug and say, "Boys will be boys," whether it be in terms of pornography, or every television or magazine advert. We use breasts to sell everything from ice cream to terrible television shows, but the only women shamed are those who are willful participants. Jayn Griffith’s piece for The Establishment on Kim Kardashian’s nude selfie this past March hit it on the head.
The Hot Box Girls’ take on burlesque harks back to genre’s roots by combining extravaganza in the form of opulent costumes, well-known “serious” music, dance, and scantily clad performers, often incorporating striptease and comedy. The inspiration of Adelaide’s gang, whose perceived charm and innocence lies in contrast to the direct, sexual connotations of the group’s name, is also present – a mixture of open sexuality and playful charm. Greenstein is particularly proud of the range of ages and body types her groups incorporate. The women span an age range of well over 20 years, and though all of them are beautiful, most of them have heard at one point in time that they are not. The HBG stresses body positivity, their performers only disrobing to the degree to which they feel comfortable. What's not feminist about that?
The Hot Box Girls upcoming performances include September 1st and 3rd shows at Porgy and Bess and on September 13th within the concert series Mosaïque in Vienna: www.hotboxgirls.com, www.mosaique.eu.com
Chanda VanderHart is a pianist, lied accompanist and chamber musician concertizing regularly throughout Europe, Asia and America (www.chanda.biz). She reviews and writes for Bachtrack.com (www.bachtrack.com) and MET on demand and is artistic director of the innovative concert series Mosaїque (www.mosaique.eu.com) and the initiative Talespin: Musical Tales for Big and Small (www.talespin.eu). Chanda is on faculty at the Performing Center Austria (www.performingcenter.at), the Pädagogische Hochschule (http://www.phwien.ac.at/) and the Univerisity of Applied Sciences “Technikum Wien” (https://www.technikum-wien.at/en/). She looks forward to defending her PhD Dissertation, “Das Kunstlied im Wiener Konzertleben zwischen 1848 und 1897”, at the University of Music (https://www.mdw.ac.at/) in Vienna this fall.