Documentaries about subcultures are usually fun because they give the viewer a glimpse into a world that they might otherwise have never even known existed. The new film from Jon Manning, Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe does just that, and does it in a way that is both informative and entertaining.
Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe introduces its audience to a handful of burlesque show dancers – both female and male – in the Portland, Oregon area who are part of a troupe called, appropriately enough, The Glitter Tribe. These colorful characters – people with names like Angelique DeVil, Violet Ohmigod, and Isaiah Esquire – open up about their lives, their art, and the surrogate family that they have found within the burlesque community.
Outwardly, the world that Manning presents in Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe is one of tassels and pasties, sequins and feathers. But the real story is the performers themselves. In between fly-on-the-wall footage of the public events, both onstage and backstage, the film is chocked full of honest interviews with the dancers themselves. Some are light-hearted, like Angelique DeVil’s excited description of her invention of “Assels.” Some are heavier, such as Isaiah Esquire’s candid account of his own troubled adolescence. The one common thread in all of the dancer’s stories is the camaraderie and kinship they feel with the clan, their “Burli-Family.”
The dancer who really steals the movie is a gal named Babs Jamboree, a girl-next-door type (her “real” job is brandishing a chainsaw as an arborist) who, recognizing the fact that she’s not as buxom or voluptuous as the other ladies in the Tribe, made a conscious decision as a newbie to make comedy her gimmick in her dance routines. Using elaborate costumes and whimsical choreography, Babs struts her stuff in segments that manage to be both hysterical and sensual, dressing herself up like a stripping burrito or a reverse mermaid (fish on top, sexy legs on the bottom). All of the ladies in the movie are quirky and fun, but Babs is the one that you want to hang out with on the regular.
And then there are the guys. It’s a little surprising to see male burlesque dancers, and its even more shocking to learn that they are able to get away with a lot more. As one male performer puts it, the only thing the guys can’t show is an erect penis, so they push the boundaries. Even still, the men realize that the ladies are the draw and they are the padding. The women sell the service, while the men just get to be goofy and kill time between the gals’ numbers.
Finally, there’s the dancing. The performances in Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe are risqué, but they’ve got more artistic flair than just your average, run-of-the-mill striptease. The routines are a very different kind of sexy, more flirty than carnal. The dancing also looks technically demanding – one of the dancers describes the style as “torturous.” For the dance performances alone, Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe is worth seeing.
But the movie is more than just the dancing. Much more. It’s a peek behind the curtain of a complete subculture that is built around making people – both the audience and the performers – happy. In that way, Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe is a very empowering and uplifting movie. Not bad, considering many people don’t even know that burlesque is still a thing.