Burlesque legends still got it

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Marie Baronnet's book documents some of the legends of burlesque dancing

The women in the book, all of whom are 65 or older, represent a bygone era

But even today, they've still got plenty of sensuality and charisma

CNN  — 

They might be over 65, but these former burlesque dancers haven’t lost the charisma that made them so desirable in their heyday.

Whether it’s a seductive, sensual pose or something more fun and playful, it’s clear they aren’t afraid to be bold in front of the camera.

“I really enjoyed being around those women,” said photographer Marie Baronnet, who documented them in her book “Legends: The Living Art of Risque.” “I found that they had a real knowledge of life but also of this work. They were very self-sufficient.”

All of the women featured in Baronnet’s book used to dance in burlesque theaters, enticing the audience with a strip show.

Photographer Marie Baronnet

But burlesque is about more than just skin.

“Burlesque is interesting because it’s a space where women of all kinds, physically speaking, can actually go onstage,” Baronnet said. “They have to have personality and rhythm, they have to know how to dance, and they have to also be an artist because they have to do all those costumes and create a choreography.”

Burlesque was also empowering for many of the women, especially Americans who performed before the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

“Striptease for them was a passport to discover their own country and to travel abroad. … They would have agents, they would get contracts,” Baronnet said.

Over time, however, burlesque theaters lost their popularity in the United States as strip clubs became more prominent.

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    “The ’80s were really the era where all the glamour kind of disappeared and what the audience wanted was more flesh always,” Baronnet said. “All of those women always described in the interview how it was difficult to transition between the ‘70s and the ‘80s, where the glamour was no longer there and the bosses of the clubs were asking them to get rid of the costumes and actually show more.”

    “And those women arrived at an age where they were 40, 45 sometimes 50 years old. They were still very beautiful, but it was also an age issue where they saw that maybe they should stop and start to do something else. Also, the money was not the same. They used to make a lot of money, and suddenly it wasn’t that good.”

    Baronnet became interested in burlesque during a trip to Las Vegas in 2011, where she met legendary dancer Dixie Evans. She later photographed an annual burlesque festival in the city.

    Through the contacts she made there, she reached out to former burlesque dancers across the country and asked if she could come to their homes and photograph them.

    “The idea was to go to them and not to do something in a neutral place, because I wanted to feel the atmosphere of where they live,” Baronnet said.

    All of the women in the book are at least 65 years old, and some are even in their 90s.

    “We would put on the costumes and makeup, we’d do the hair and the lights, and then suddenly they would just know how to move,” Baronnet said. “And they like that. I think there is a part of them where they are very exhibitionist. They like to show off and just dance and move and seduce men.”

    The poses were a collaborative effort, but Baronnet had a certain vision, too.

    “I didn’t want to do something that was too close (to what) they were used to doing for so many years – and that men photographers especially ask – which is to be like a pinup like the typical Bettie Page picture,” Baronnet said. “Sometimes they would give that, and I would always kind of like twist it and say, ‘Let’s try something else, because this has been seen over and over again.’ “

    Although burlesque isn’t dead – it’s even enjoying a bit of a renaissance today – these women represent a bygone era, and Baronnet gives them the spotlight one more time.

    “They witnessed a time that completely disappeared, and they mastered the art of striptease in a very special way, and they never really were recognized for that,” she said.

    Marie Baronnet is a French photographer based in Los Angeles. Her book “Legends: The Living Art of Risque” can be purchased through Idea Books. You can also like it on Facebook.