League of Exotique Dancers (Hot Docs Review)
Regardless of industry—sports, music, journalism, etc.—a Hall of Fame is the last stop for anyone who has had an impact on, or is a legend within, their field. And what usually accompanies an induction into a Hall of Fame is a retrospective of that person’s life and/or career. Burlesque is no different, and director Rama Rau uses the Burlesque Hall of Fame induction weekend as the backdrop to her new documentary League of Exotique Dancers.
The film looks at the lives and careers of golden-age burlesque dancers, as recounted by the dancers themselves. The women, with sensational names like Gina Bon Bon, Kitten Natividad, and Lovey Goldmine, are as brash, sassy, and unfiltered as one would hope retired burlesque dancers would be. These “titans of tease” are also quite eager to capture one more moment in the spotlight, and they get their chance when asked to perform in front of a live audience as part of the induction weekend. The revisiting of their professional paths and personal perils within their vocation is positioned to offer a unique and thorough perspective on the history of burlesque dancing and the lives of its dancers.
In addition to the women’s tales, there are plenty of greater stories to be told in League of Exotique Dancers, including the history of burlesque (or at least its golden age), the impact—good or bad—the burlesque trade had on women (and not just the women featured here), and in the case of the dancer Toni Elling, how being an African-American burlesque dancer affected her in a racially-charged time in our country.
By the end of the film, none of these larger themes are ever explored. The perspectives of the dancers are certainly unique, but the thoroughness of their stories is the film’s ultimate weakness. This doesn’t happen in spite of the fact Rau has the shared experiences of these dancers in front of her, it happens because of it. Rather than pluck stories from each dancer’s life and use them to build any kind of greater narrative, Rau offers a hailstorm of experiences presented in such a staccato fashion that the film leaves the impression that each of the dancers filled out the same questionnaire and filmed their answers.
A few ladies talk about bad relationships. A few ladies talk about addiction. A few ladies talk about their current professions, and so on. It’s an attempt to tell history by way of list-making, and it fails to resonate. To its benefit, League of Exotique Dancers offers a terrific collection of vintage imagery, including still photos, old reels, etc., but these become nothing more than slideshow images accompanying a collection of verbal bullet points. There’s a story to be told about the golden age of burlesque. This film isn’t that story.