Hot Docs: League of Exotique Dancers


by Richelle Charkot

While the Hot Docs crowd was hooting and hollering during this heartfelt exploration of burlesque’s queens of yore, I definitely cried like a little baby (in between my hooting and hollering) at how profoundly badass the women in this movie are. League of Exotique Dancers, the opening night Hot Docs gala film, features interviews and archival footage with nine retired dancers; Kitten Natividad, Toni Elling, Judith Stein, Gina Bon Bon, Holiday O’Hara, Camille 2000, Marinka, Delilah Jones and Lovey Goldmine, all well into their 60s and 70s but with the love for dancing still alive and well, as they prepare for their respective live performances at the Legends of Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. 

This documentary chronicles their funny, charming and deeply feminine stories, which are often tinged with sadness and struggle due to having to face racism, sexism, violence or poverty. Through their individual hardships, one thing remains in common for the ex-dancers: how much burlesque saved and freed them. Former Russ Meyer’s muse Kitten Natividad wraps her feelings towards the bigotry she faced into a sultry morsel by saying, “‘You’re not white!’ They told me I could never be a star because of that, but hey, they didn’t stop dreaming of me, huh?” which is just one of several quotable excepts from these enigmatic and interesting women. With people as captivating as these nine, League of Exotique Dancers could have been an interesting movie if it was just one camera on them all sitting in a room, but it is masterfully directed by Toronto-based filmmaker Rama Rau, working with an all-female crew, and seamlessly edited with clips of burlesque’s heyday, a glamorous Las Vegas, and their contemporary performances at the Burlesque Hall of Fame. If you’ve ever thought burlesque was just a slow removal of a satin glove, then you owe it to yourself to look into the legends – between acts where self mutilation is imitated or kooky yet sexy comedy costumes are danced off, exotic dancing is so, so much more.