Burlesque. A word reminiscent of an earlier time evoking taboo imaginings of women performing seductive acts in a small, concealed bar while donned in scantily-clad lingerie with hints of lace, glitter, and feathers. The image makes us nostalgic for those years when most of us weren’t even born yet and the times before we had cell phones, internet, and social media accounts. A time when everything was word of mouth and it was still possible to stumble into some unknown gem of an underground bar and experience something that felt so wrong, yet you couldn’t help but feel tantalized and intrigued at the same time.
It may be impossible to completely get that experience back, but in New York City you can get pretty damn close.
It was a Wednesday and I was feeling restless and antsy all day at work. I had no particular plans for that evening as I’m a creature of habit and like to go home straight after work and binge watch whatever terrible TV show obsession I’m indulging in at the moment (currently The Vampire Diaries. Don’t judge – I’m trying to relive my Buffy days).
I don’t know what was so different about that Wednesday (blame it on those summer nights) but I didn’t want routine. I didn’t want ‘normal’. I wanted a taste of the days of New York old. So, I went out to find it.
My roommate’s typically down for any sort of adventure so she came along and we ended up on the J train headed towards the Lower East Side to a bar called Nurse Bettie.
I immediately fell in love when I walked in. We had gotten there around 7:30 and it was mostly empty but for a smattering of local patrons who you could tell frequented the bar often as they knew the bartender as well as each other. You could feel the sense of community which can be hard to find in NYC.
The bar was small (I don’t see how it could hold more than 40 people) and they were hosting happy hour before a free live burlesque show starting at 9:45. So we settled in with a couple of $4 seasonal brews for a girls’ night out.
It’s amazing how once the sun goes down the atmosphere of a place can completely transform. As dusk turned to full blown night and the doors were shut, velvet curtains were drawn, and the lights dimmed, I found myself suddenly transported back to early 1930’s New York.
The place was full yet not overcrowded. The brick walls showcased artwork with classic pinup girl images, regulars lounged in leather settee seating areas, vintage stools lined the bar, bartenders were mixing fancy cocktails, and the only light illuminated from chandeliers and candles.
Everyone’s attention was drawn to the foot-high stage at the back of the bar as a voice beckoned our attention. It was time for the show to start.
Shelly ‘The Singing Siren’ Watson
Now, I really knew nothing about burlesque. I never saw any of the old movies nor had I been to any performances. I may have seen some snippet of a dance from an episode of Gossip Girl once(there I go again with my bad TV habits). I didn’t know what to expect and I must say I was quite surprised.
Yes, burlesque does bring about some saucy stripteases and half-naked women but it’s so much more than that. Other elements such as music and comedy are woven into the performances. In fact, the word ‘burlesque’ quite literally translates to ‘mockery’ or ‘joke’ and the unique blend of all three of the above elements make for one great show.
The glue that successfully joined this combination together last night at Nurse Bettie was our host for the evening, Shelly ‘The Singing Siren’ Watson. Boy was she fantastic. Her ingenious mix of musical talents(she actually studied opera at Juilliard and we were lucky enough to hear her sing) combined with her impeccably timed jokes and improvisational capabilities truly made our whole experience well worth the trek out on a Wednesday night.
She had this powerful magnetism and knew how to work the crowd so that we were roaring with laughter. Her jokes were at times quite raunchy but never inappropriate. In between sets she mingled with every patron in the bar with a genuine interest in making sure we were having a great time.
One of the advantages(or disadvantages depending on how you look at it) of this small bar is that there’s a good chance you’ll get picked on or even end up participating in the show. Just ask poor Eduardo who not only had to endure the embarrassment of being called out for hitting on an attractive girl at the bar but was also forced to shake his ass on stage on more than one occasion.
No one was safe. At one point the local British expat standing next to me asked if I wanted him to hide me as Shelly was picking out her next group of victims. I was torn. On one hand I was thinking ‘Yes, please hide me’ but on the other hand (a mostly repressed exhibitionist side of me) I was dying to get called on stage.
I was luckily (or unluckily – I can’t decide how I truly felt) passed up for three others who were involuntarily made to have a dance off. Weirdly enough my roommate knew one of them as he was the roommate of the guy she had been seeing. For a city filled with 8 million residents, it sure is a small island.
The Burlesque Dancers
Shelly introduced several dancers throughout the evening, each with their own unique burlesque dance. It was surprisingly enticing to watch as they tastefully started their provocative stripteases and slowly began removing their signature gloves and ended their dance dressed down to their nipple tassels and knickers (sorry I just feel weird saying ‘panties’). One performer even incorporated a cookie monster theme into her routine(I think it’s safe to say I’ll never look at an Oreo the same way again).
Burlesque is certainly an art form and none of the performances felt vulgar or tasteless. It was a show for everyone as was evident when looking around the bar. There were all types of groups there including couples on dates, a 30th birthday party, groups of coworkers, and even some Italian tourists.
It was an intoxicating venue full of character and undoubtedly had an alluring appeal. I would recommend it to any tourist or Manhattanite. This burlesque show is not to be missed and is a true gem in the soul of New York City.
Please click here for the upcoming schedule of Nurse Bettie’s burlesque shows.
Have you ever been to a burlesque show? Tell me about it below. I’d love to hear from you!
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Taking on the classic “round-the-world” route, the next Travel Dispatch journey kicks off Nov 15 as I travel east to west, looping the globe over a period of 12 months with $25,000. Now’s your chance to get in on it from the very beginning!