Hot Docs Review: 'The League of Exotique Dancers'

The League of Exotique Dancers
(Canada, 90 min.)
Dir. Rama Rau
Programme: Special Presentations (World Premiere)

Canadian legend Judith Stein on stage at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend.
Courtesy of Hot Docs
Hot Docs puts on its best tassels and gets the party started with the saucy Opening Night premiere The League of Exotique Dancers. Boobs may sag and faces may wrinkle, but beauty never ages as the confident veteran burlesque dancers of this doc reveal. The women in this talking heads piece illuminate how they owned their bodies by shaking a leg for the masses and The League of Exotique Dancers friskily explains how feminism won its own battle against the male gaze by subverting it one tasselled breast at a time. This fun and sexy doc from Rama Rau (No Place to Hide: The Rehtaeh Parsons Story) starts the festival on an upbeat note.

The League of Exotique Dancers is much lighter than most festival openers tend to be, but it’s as smart as it is sexy and a whole lotta fun. While it might not emerge as the strongest film at Hot Docs this year, it’s better than most of the fest’s recent openers and it’s a doc that everyone should enjoy and appreciate. It sets the right tone for the festival by offering an inclusive film with merits.

It helps that Rau amasses a cast of very colourful subjects as the doc chronicles the successes of nine mature dancers as they ready for a celebratory show and their induction into the burlesque hall of fame. Women like Judith Stein, dubbed the Great Canadian Beaver, flirtatiously recall the days of shedding clothes simply to make a living. Sex sells.

On the other hand, Toni Elling relates that her experience becoming a burlesque dancer wasn’t as easy for her as it was for others. As the lone black voice among the chorus, Elling tells how women of colour had an even harder time making ends meet in the market. White meat simply nets a better asking price in the (largely white male) managers’ eyes.

Holiday O’Hara, on the other hand, looks outside the business and shares a story of personal empowerment. A full figured dancer with frizzy hair and an awkward adolescence, O’Hara speaks of finding herself through her body. Strutting her stuff to crowds of onlookers, she says, creates confidence where there was none before. Burlesque is more than just a saucy number: it’s a role reversal of authority, for the stories the women present all tell of dancers turning gender roles on their heels and of twirling them like tassels.

There’s a difference between whipping ’em out, though, and using sex for something beyond male pleasure. One can be a sex object by riding a pole, but transforming a striptease into performance art lets feminism do its dance in the ultimate camouflage. The dancers ultimately convey how the finely tailored art of burlesque enables women of all shapes, sizes, colours, and, finally, ages to be sexy through the confident display of sensuality. Similarly, the women cheekily—and sharply—distinguish between burlesque and mere stripping by noting that the performance, the dance, and the show hold a lot more currency than do boobs and boxes.

“Just because I pack a pussy doesn’t mean I’m stupid,” adds Kitten Natividad as The League of Exotique Dancers inevitably gets serious at its midpoint. Rau builds the highs and pleasures of burlesque to convey to the audience what the women are up against every time they take the stage. The dancers tell skin-crawling stories of leering pervs who pay a pretty dime for used G-strings or feel privileged to get whatever they want. Some dancers say forget it, while others, like Marinka, drolly shrug it off and describe memories of outsmarting male desire by stocking up on gently used G-strings to make quick cash. Stein adds an especially troubling story of narrowly escaping a scene that sounds ripped from The Accused, but she proudly adds that the police who came to her aid sought her advice for the aggressors’ punishment. Her answer? Women’s studies classes and public notice of the men’s enrolment.

Rau uses the stories within The League of Exotique Dancers to create a striptease of her own as the doc peels back audiences’ preconceptions of burlesque. This bubbly film makes a strong case for feminism in an act that one might easily dismiss as empty debauchery, and it helps that the dancers don’t make any excuses for the choices they made in their careers. They expose themselves frankly and use the wisdom of their experience and the maturity of their bodies to show that the power of burlesque doesn’t simply shine in the surface-layer titillation. The film is a celebration of women of all kinds.

The League of Exotique Dancers screens:
-Thursday, April 28 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema at 9:45 PM
-Friday, April 29 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 1:30 PM            

Hot Docs runs April 28 – May 8. Visit www.hotdocs.ca for more information.

The League of Exotique Dancers opens theatrically at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on May 20.