On a recent Friday night, a crowd filled the restaurant and music venue Avogadro's Number in Fort Collins for a burlesque show called "Some Like it Hot."
The lineup featured several female performers. But it was The Brotherhood of Burlesque that brought the house down and closed the show.
The Brotherhood -- a Colorado Springs-based trio of performers who go by Mr. Valdez, Damian Wunderluv and Mustang Monroe -- came on stage dressed in dark clothes that suggested some cultish religious order as George Michael's "Faith" played over the PA system.
They started their routine at the back of the stage gravely facing the audience. But this coyness proved to be nothing but mischievous misdirection.
Soon the trio fell into a striptease dance that pulsed with humor, when, in choreographed succession, they yanked off what turned out to be tearaway pants.
Now The Brotherhood stood in tank-top undershirts, black socks and boxer shorts held up by suspenders.
They were stripping, but they weren’t strippers.
They were dancing, but they weren’t dancers.
Their physiques weren’t exactly bachelorette-party grade and their moves were imperfect, but their performance was about something else.
It had more to do with stripping inhibitions - with self-expression and with laughing at taboos - than with stripping off. After all, the word “burlesque” is derived from an Italian word for “joke.”
By the finale, the performers had stripped down to nothing but black G-strings and tassels gamely affixed to their buttocks.
Whoops and cheers erupted from the crowd as these self-described “naughty boys of burlesque” took the final bow.
Boylesque was a hit.
The trio is one of several boylesque -- that is, male burlesque -- acts from Colorado and other states scheduled to perform as part of the Colorado Burlesque Festival from July 10-13 at Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret in downtown Denver.
Men have long been part of the American burlesque scene but they usually appear on stage as comedians rather than erotic dancers.
Burlesque Hall of Fame executive director Dustin Wax says acts that feature men dancing and doing striptease emerged with the revival of burlesque that started in the 1990s.
“The male dancing performer has always been something of an oddity,” Wax says. “In the neo-burlesque scene, men got interested in burlesque and in the creative possibilities it afforded, and they didn’t have a lot of precedent to draw on.”
The expanding number of male performers prompted the Burlesque Hall of Fame, in 2006, to add a “Best of Boylesque” category to its annual competition.
“We suddenly started getting inundated with male applicants,” Wax says.
Burlesque was underground in Denver when local performer Midnite Martini, a producer of the Colorado Burlesque Festival. Martini says it was a couple of years before she saw boylesque on the Colorado scene.
“The first boy that I really saw was Charlie Champale,” Martini says.
Martini says that Champale, who at the time was based in Denver and is a past “Best of Boylesque” winner, developed a stage character who he would build a narrative around.
“Every action had a storyline,” Martini says.
In one of his routines, Champale appeared on stage as a Chaplinesque character who finds himself called upon by an imaginary audience to perform.
Through expression and gesture, Champale took his audience through his character’s response to the dilemma he faced, Martini says.
At first Champale demurs, but the unseen audience persuades him to perform and he begins by opening his vest. One side of the vest displays a collection of watches while on the other, condoms.
“The big reveal was taking his shoes off,” Martini says. “Through character and storyline, Champale turned a striptease into a form of performance art and a vehicle for self-expression.”
Character is also the essence of Mr. Gorgeous, created by New Yorker Eric Gorsuch, the 2014 “Best of Boylesque” winner and a headliner at the Colorado Burlesque Festival.
Gorsuch is a strappingly handsome, 29-year-old with a background in circus arts. He puts these assets to comedic use as the randy Mr. Gorgeous.
“I think of my character as kind of a clown,” Gorsuch says.
Gorsuch calculates his comedy carefully to allay any unease in a crowd that might be uncomfortable with boylesque. Gorsuch says that some straight men find boylesque challenging to watch.
“We have a harder challenge of winning over a mixed audience,” Gorsuch says. “My character makes it enjoyable and appreciable to all audiences.”
On the other hand, men might have an advantage in that boylesque is still a relative novelty, and conventions have yet to set in.
“The really exciting thing about boylesque is we don’t have a certain set of rules we have to follow,” Gorsuch says.
This is a common view of the fledgling artform.
“There is a lot of room for development,” Martini says, adding that boylesque has a creative energy that elevates the form above “dudes taking their clothes off.”
“I think that boylesque challenges female performers,” Martini says. “Men step up there and take it to the next level, and it inspires us women to do the same.”
Quentin Young lives in Denver and writes about arts for the Boulder Daily Camera, Longmont Times-Call and other publications.