words & photography: Candice Pye

From its golden age in the 1940s and ’50s, when stars like Lili St-Cyr performed to packed houses, to its revival as “neo-burlesque” in the 1990s, Montreal has always been the epicentre of Canada’s popular burlesque scene.

Formerly a portion of the city’s red light district, Saint Laurent Boulevard is still home to a variety of entertainment hot spots. Situated behind an unassuming black door on The Main is The Wiggle Room—the nation’s go-to club for taking in a burlesque show.

“We are the only city in Canada with a dedicated burlesque club,” says Jeremy Hechtman, owner of The Wiggle Room. “Performing here is considered a ‘must’ for Canadian and international performers.” According to Hechtman, the Montreal burlesque scene is on fire. He says Montreal performers often win titles at major burlesque festivals, as well as international awards.

Currently, one of Montreal’s most popular burlesque artists is Sugar Vixen. When she isn’t touring, Vixen regularly performs, teaches, and produces at The Wiggle Room. She defines burlesque as “an interactive and immersive live-entertainment experience” that incorporates “an element of striptease, as well as elements of dance, theatre, and music.”

Vixen was introduced to the art of burlesque when she met performer and feminist activist Sasha Van Bon Bon, who put on many of the revival shows in Montreal in the 1990s. Van Bon Bon was a guest speaker in one of Vixen’s classes while she was a student at Dawson College.

“I just fell in love with her and her attitude, outlook and political views,” says Vixen. “I began my burlesque journey around the same time I started understanding myself as an intersectional feminist, so naturally the two have always been intertwined.”

Sugar Vixen looks out at the crowd during a performance at The Wiggle Room in Montreal in November 2018.

Vixen is also drawn to the intersection of the creative and political aspects of burlesque, which is a form of self-expression conveyed through dance, song, acting, and costume that can sometimes involve making political statements through the subversion of gender norms.

“It can involve disrupting the concept of the male gaze, or it can be an act of sexual liberation and freedom,” says Vixen. “It’s a type of performance art in which I can express myself and make social commentary. The boundaries are limitless and that is so very exciting to me!”

Vixen says Montreal’s burlesque community is special for many reasons aside from its rich history: the pay rate is high, there’s a dedicated burlesque venue, and everyone is respectful and supportive of each other. The scene’s only shortcomings, according to Vixen, lie in a lack of diversity among burlesque performers in the city, such as people of colour or those in the LGBTQ+ community.

“There is still an overrepresentation of thin and ‘traditionally’ beautiful women on stage,” says Vixen. “That is something I’d like to see change.”

Sugar Vixen performs a go-go dance routine during the show’s intermission at The Wiggle Room in Montreal in November 2018.

Being an art form in which people of all genders, body types, sexual orientations, races, and ages are celebrated is part of what makes burlesque special, according to Vixen. This is the one area in which burlesque has seemed to develop the most since its early days. After performers like St-Cyr graced Montreal’s stages in the 1940s, the city saw a decline in burlesque shows beginning in the 1960s.

“This could be due to the sexual revolution or second-wave feminism, and the sentiment that burlesque objectified the female body,” says Vixen. “It could also be due to the fact that many families owned televisions and no longer sought out live entertainment.”

When burlesque re-emerged in the 1990s, its traditional form began to evolve. The neo-burlesque style that emerged has continued into modern-day performance. According to Vixen, many performers still practice the classic striptease that was celebrated in the early 1900s, but others continue to opt for unique sub-genres such as boylesque, gorelesque, and nerdlesque.

“To put it simply,” says Hechtman, “the biggest change over the years is that burlesque has gone from a novelty to a legitimate art form.”

A performer’s shoes sit on a matching chair during a rehearsal at The Wiggle Room.

Despite this modernization of an art form, Vixen says Montreal’s rich burlesque history is still very present.

“There is definitely a vibe and energy on The Main,” says Vixen. “I would have loved to gallivant around Montreal during the 1940s to see the bright lights and catch Lili St-Cyr live in action. A lot of my older friends tell me that all the best live music venues have shut down over the years, and that saddens me. Regardless of that, however, Montreal is definitely a magical place.”