This is the era of in-your-face instant gratification. America has no patience for anticipation — we want it now and we want it five minutes ago. Film and TV have become so blatantly graphic, so caught up in gory gross-outs and million-dollar special effects that Hitchcock’s artful suspense only elicits a dull yawn from today’s audience. Sex is everywhere, full-frontals splattered across flashy “high-end” magazines, real-live fornication available to you with just a click of a mouse or an evening with HBO.
But with oversaturation comes boredom, numbness … and eventually a backlash, and a return to square one. And thus, burlesque is back, baby, in a big way.
Since the late 1990s, women across the country have combined forces to resurrect the art of the tease, by breathing new life into the lost art of burlesque. Originally a blend of comedy, variety acts and modest stripping, burlesque is racy, campy and funny, but never explicit. Burlesque arose at the turn of the 20th century in vaudeville houses — originally regarded as lowbrow entertainment for the masses — and experienced many transformations until it eventually died out in the ’70s, due to the advent of modern, all-nude, adult entertainment.
With the mantra of “less is more,” burlesque revival troupes have exploded across the country, grabbing media attention by the fistful, and recently eliciting their own convention, the annual burlesque meeting-of-the-minds known as “Tease-o-rama.”
The World Famous Pontani Sisters are key players in the burlesque revival movement, and have trotted the globe with their patented brand of MGM musical flashiness fused with the suggestive but subtle sassiness of burlesque. Three pint-sized, perky gals from New Jersey, Angie, Tara and Helen Pontani have danced since preschool, starting with elaborate numbers performed on a picnic table at family functions. The World Famous Pontani Sisters were inadvertently formed in 1998 when Angie, the youngest sister, coerced her siblings into performing what was supposed to be a one-time gig where they combined choreographed dance numbers with a dash of golden-age movie glamour.
“People responded to it so well,” says Angie Pontani. “From there, it just sort of caught on.”
The Pontanis have toured the nation numerous times, been featured in major magazines and appeared on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.” Thanks to a constant demand for their performances, the sisters were able to quit their day jobs two years ago, and now have the rare privilege of claiming “professional entertainer” as their occupation.
At the second annual “Tease-o-rama” convention last month in San Francisco, the Pontanis were the buzz of the weekend. Although their act focuses more on dancing and much less on stripping (they may occasionally whip off a shirt to reveal a glimmering sequined bra), Angie still firmly believes the Pontanis fit within the realm of burlesque.
“I’ve always leaned towards the more glamorous styles of entertainment, and that is burlesque to me,” says Angie. “The dictionary definition of burlesque is something that’s satirical, and I think we have a flair of obnoxiousness to us, and that puts us under the burlesque umbrella.”
The Pontanis have a magnetic stage presence; their opulent costumes and flawless sync certainly hark back to the days of chorus-girl extravaganzas. From the time they enter the stage until the last move of the evening, the Pontanis wear concrete grins so huge they could shame the Cheshire cat.
The Pontanis have mastered the seemingly contradictory blend of G-rated sex appeal, the kind of wholesome sexiness to be found in your typical female Disney cartoon character. Like the other girls of today’s burlesque, they have a kind of attainability that’s been lost in modern stripping. They’re not perfectly plastic sex goddesses straight off the sticky pages of a magazine; they’re real girls, and that’s what makes them so enticing.
Onstage, the sisters combine their impossibly huge grins and girl-next-door good looks with skimpy costumes and a blur of hip gyrations, leaving the slightly confused male audience member wondering which set of cheeks to pinch. Above all, the Pontanis are committed to resurrecting the legendary glamour of Hollywood’s heyday, along with the cheeky campiness of burlesque.
Or as Angie puts it: “It’s all about over-the-top entertainment.”
The World Famous Pontani Sisters perform (with Los Straightjackets), Friday, Nov. 1 at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit). Call 313-833-9700.Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]