League of Exotique Dancers adds moxie to the pasties

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      A documentary by Rama Rau

      Whether it’s nostalgia, pure camp, or the ongoing body-proud revival, the fan-dancing side of Vaudeville called burlesque is being celebrated while some of its pluckiest exponents are still with us.

      That’s good, because Canadian filmmaker Rama Rau depends almost entirely on well-salted testimony to tell the story of strip-tease then and now. Now is when eight or so of these grand dames—with names like Gina Bon Bon and Lovey Goldmine—prepare to be inducted into the Burlesque Hall of Fame, in Las Vegas, where they’ll perform for the first time in as many as 40 years.

      Some spectacular archival footage and stills shows each in her prime, within a red-lit world that grew ever more licentious before being swallowed whole by the voracious pornucopia of the 1970s. But that’s all the context we get. Leave that to some other movie, I guess, because these battle-hardened broads have enough life experience, and storytelling moxie, to make up for any absent sexology.

      The most touching stuff comes from the eldest participant; Detroit’s Toni Elling started dancing in 1960, when she was already 32 and hardly any clubs would hire black women. (Duke Ellington nicknamed her Satin Doll.) And the most amusing is courtesy of Kitten Natividad, a beyond-zaftig cult figure best known for her work with girlie-flick auteur Russ Meyer. (Beyond the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens is just one of her masterworks.) She still does phone sex on the side.

      The most relatable is Judith Stein, who lives in Nelson, B.C., and comes across like a Canadian Gena Rowlands, with added cigarillos. But even the most outlandish, oak-aged figures here reward the time spent with them as they ponder various stages of the sometimes sexy pantomime called life.