Burlesque In Cleveland Blossoms With Bella Sin

Burlesque performer Bella Sin in on stage in elaborate feathered costume
Cleveland's resident burlesque queen Bella Sin is the production director as well as one of the headliners for the International Ohio Burlesque Festival at the Beachland Ballroom this week. [Bob Perkoski]
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Burlesque may sound old-timey to some, but it's alive in Cleveland.

The 9th annual International Ohio Burlesque Festival brings attention to the art this week at the Beachland Ballroom.

It's also the kickoff for the release of the new book, "Rust Belt Burlesque: The Softer Side of a Heavy Metal Town," by photographer Bob Perkoski and writer Erin O'Brien.

[Ohio University Press]

At the center of the book and this festival is a Cleveland Burlesque performer and producer who goes by Bella Sin.

When Sin was in high school, she discovered a book in her local library about the history of burlesque. 

Burlesque performer Ann Corio in undated photo [Murray Korman]

From the moment she saw the scantily clad yet confident women in the pages of "A Pictorial History of Burlesque" by Bernard Sobel, she was hooked.

"I was just like, 'whoa, that's what I want to be,'" Sin said.

Bella Sin [Bob Perkoski]

Sin soon took a class on burlesque (lying about her age), and years later she's become the pied piper of Cleveland's resurgent burlesque scene.

In 2004, Sin's troupe, La Femme Mystique Burlesque, made its stage debut, and for almost a decade she's been the production director of the Ohio Burlesque Festival.

Perkoski became the troupe's official photographer after doing a photo essay about the local scene.

"The visuals are so amazing. The girls are always creative with their costumes and their performances," Perkoski said.

Lushes Lamoan [Bob Perkoski]

"He gained a nickname: Bob 'Never Misses the Shot' Perkoski," Sin said.

Coco Lectric [Bob Perkoski]

O'Brien was brought on to write the book's narrative and immediately she was amazed.

"I went to a few shows not having any idea what to expect. It was just this 'glam-gasm' of people and diversity," O'Brien said. "It was a celebration of life."

O'Brien dug into the history of burlesque in Northeast Ohio, which led her to the old Roxy once located at Chester Avenue and East 9th Street in Cleveland.

The Roxy c.1960 [Cleveland Public Library/Photograph Collection]

"Everybody that I spoke to who went there was embarrassed. They were like, 'we didn't want to be seen going into the Roxy,'" O'Brien said.

The Roxy House Band in 1964 [Special Collections, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland Sate University, Cleveland Press collection]

O'Brien is quick to point out that the naughty nature of the old burlesque days is long gone.

"That feeling is completely absent from today's shows. It's not seedy," she said. "It's loud and proud and everyone is happy to be there."

Ms. Fever Blister [Bob Perkoski]

The current burlesque scene also promotes body positivity, and O'Brien sees a change in attitude towards plus-size women.

"Eroticism has nothing to do with size on that stage," O'Brien said.

Eliza Sidecar [Bob Perkoski]

O'Brien also said that Perkoski's photos upstage her writing in the book.

"If you don't want to read the book, don't read the book. Just look at the pictures," she said.

Bon Bon Voyage [Bob Perkoski]

The 9th Annual International Ohio Burlesque Festival is August 1-3 at the Beachland Ballroom.

"Rust Belt Burlesque: The Softer Side of a Heavy Metal Town" is published by Ohio University Press.

Writer Erin O'Brien, ideastream senior arts reporter David C. Barnett, performer and producer Bella Sin and photographer Bob Perkoski [ideastream]

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