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Eva D’Luscious knows how to make an entrance.

The statuesque queen of the North Bay burlesque scene slides across the stage of a Sebastopol nightclub in a floor-length, python-patterned dress and fishnet stockings. In her hands, she carries a provocative prop — a giant, shiny, red satin apple.

Over the next several minutes, to the throbbing, bluesy beat and plaintive wails of Led Zeppelin’s “You Shook Me,” D’Luscious gives the enraptured audience a taste of temptation.

And they eat it up.

By the time she sheds the last of her snake-skin outfit and emerges reborn, wearing little more than shiny pasties, the crowd at Sebastopol’s 755 After Dark club roars in approval.

While her outfit doesn’t leave much to the imagination, D’Luscious says after the show that she hopes her Garden of Eden-themed act leaves the audience with something deeper to think about.

“That whole act is my statement about patriarchy demonizing women’s sexuality,” she said, using by her stage name for privacy. “It’s good, natural, normal, healthy and important for women to feel comfortable in their own sexuality and be able to express that in a safe way.”

After fading from the scene in the 1970s, the century-old art of burlesque dancing has steadily found a new audience in the past two decades.

Participation in burlesque competitions in Las Vegas, the strip tease mecca, has doubled in the last four years. New venues are opening all the time, and burlesque festivals are appearing in every corner of the country, said Dustin Wax, executive director of the Burlesque Hall of Fame.

“There’s been a huge explosion in the last five years in places you’d never think of, like Davenport, Iowa, Birmingham, Alabama and Kansas City,” Wax said.

Multi-day burlesque festivals are now held in 39 of the 50 states, and 900 burlesque organizers sell more than $1 million worth of tickets each year, according to the online ticket broker Brown Paper Tickets.

Reject conformity

Interest in what is often referred to as the neo-burlesque movement is being driven largely by educated, middle class women who reject the notion that they must conform to the images of female beauty that dominate mainstream media, Wax said.

“Burlesque gives women the opportunity to kind of imagine and present themselves in a way that is sexual, that is desirable, that is powerful,” he said.

The result is a proliferation of burlesque and pole dancing classes, workshops and performance opportunities for average women — and to a lesser degree, men — who are attracted to the art form as a way to stay fit and build their sexual self-confidence.

D’Luscious and her husband, also a burlesque performer who goes by the stage name of Will Longfellow, have been involved in several aspects of the growing industry. They own Cabaret de Caliente, a production company, and D’Luscious teaches dance classes in Rohnert Park. Until recently, they co-owned GlitterTix, a Sebastopol-based ticketing provider that specialized in burlesque events.

They started the company as way to help raise money for the Burlesque Hall of Fame Fund, and sold it in January to the Seattle-based Brown Paper Tickets, which continues to raise money for the fund.

Cabaret de Caliente produces regular events at Sebastopol’s 755 After Dark (formerly Aubergine), and occasional performances at HopMonk Tavern and Christy’s on the Square, but it’s not the only bawdy game in town.

Dozens of performers

The North Bay boasts dozens of active burlesque performers who showcase their creativity with names like Pearl E. Gates, Dangerous Dollie, Bella Dukessa, Raspberry Tart, Violet Streak and Carrie Bare.

Local promoter Jake Ward also produces North Bay Cabaret, a series of variety shows at Whiskey Tip in Santa Rosa that include poetry, music, stand-up comedy, performance art and, usually at the end, a burlesque dancer or two. “There is always a contingent that is sort of waiting for the burlesque part of the show,” Ward said. “It does seem to have a growing following.”

D’Luscious takes some of the credit for the local resurgence. The 41-year-old mother of two young boys met her husband in San Francisco, where they reveled in the city’s performance art scene, including trips to Burning Man. They married about 10 years ago and, about the time she was expecting her second son, attended a burlesque show in the city called Tease-O-Rama. D’Luscious was captivated.

“These women were up there being sassy and sexy and having a joke, and I said, ‘When I’m done nursing and being so tied down in the way you are when you have really young children, I’m totally going to do this,’” she said.

Burlesque classes

She started taking burlesque classes about five years ago and was hooked, especially by one in North Beach that was “like taking a class with your grandma’s raunchiest friends.” She moved to Sebastopol four years ago, about the time the town’s only cabaret folded.

She set about trying to start a new show to give herself and other performers a local place to practice their craft. Interest has grown steadily ever since, she said.

In addition to the new venues, D’Luscious attributes the pent up demand among women who, despite the sexual revolution, have yet to take full control of their power.

“Clearly, women want a place to feel empowered and safe and comfortable in our own sexuality, and to have a good time,” she said.

Sebastian Edmonds, 21, said he was impressed by the confidence exuded by performers at the Valentine’s Day Cabaret de Caliente performance at 755. He described it as nothing like a strip club atmosphere.

“You respect them because you feel that sense of power they have,” Edmonds said. “It’s cool to see women coming out of the restrictive box that our society tries to put them in, and it’s cool to see it in our area.”

There’s also something to be said for “sexy women taking their clothes off,” he said.

These performers come in a wide range of ages, body sizes and skill levels, but all are amateurs who earn modest sums that vary by venue, D’Luscious said. Most of their earnings go right back into their costumes or classes.

Justin Neuroth, co-owner of Whiskey Tip, said there is “definitely a shock and awe factor” when plus-sized burlesque performers take the stage, adding that they invariably win the crowd over with their confidence, stage presence and engaging performances. “By the end of the show,” he said, “there’s always a standing ovation.”

A more robust burlesque era flourished between 1860 and 1940, but there are clear and important differences between the strip clubs that followed and the most current iteration. Burlesque performers focus more on the tease than the strip, D’Luscious said.

“It’s not just going and taking your clothes off. Honestly, that’s not super exciting for an audience.”

Many burlesque revues also feature male performers. The recent Led Zeppelin themed show at 755 included an act by Bobby Barnaby, a San Francisco dancer in the Boylesque scene who stripped while, inexplicably, assembling a stool.

The mixing of female and male performers is purposeful, Ward said, because it sends a message to audience members.

“It’s good for them to know this is not about objectifying women,” he said. “This is an art form for male and female performers.”

Social messages

Burlesque performers also often infuse their acts with comedic or political or social messages, and Ward said he enjoys putting on shows that push boundaries. During the irreverent holiday themed North Bay Cabaret performance titled “Happy Birthday Jesus,” for example, a performer named Bob Exothermal dressed as Jesus and did a pole dance on a cross.

“A lot of people left the room,” said Ward.

D’Luscious, who used to tour but now stays closer to home, plans to expand her own boundaries. On May 30, she is performing in a dinner theater production at The Big Easy in Petaluma. She also has plans to add BurlyFit, a fitness-based burlesque class, to her “Burlesque Basics for the Bedroom” and higher level classes for performers wanting to perfect their solo acts.

How long the neo-burlesque boom lasts and what it becomes remain to be seen.

Traditional Las Vegas strip clubs already are trying to tap into the trend with comedy nights and more elaborate costumes, Wax said. And mainstream burlesque clubs are likely to co-exist alongside edgier versions.

“These are big sweeping issues that are not quite settled yet,” Wax said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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