Artists in the raw

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In the small Canadian town where I grew up in the Seventies, the single night-club that featured strippers was considered so notorious that patrons used a back exit rather than risk being seen. But according to Stripping in Time (Pandora, pounds 12.99), Lucinda Jarrett's new history of "peeling", a dancer who takes off her clothes is an artist walking a tightrope between dance and pornography. When the men ogle her, she looks right back, daring them to take control of her erotic performance.

Jarrett traces the stripper from her humble European beginnings in Montmartre, where women such as Louise Weber, nicknamed La Goulue (the glutton), danced "uncorseted" and even exposed her breasts during street festivals. Famous for her can-can, a high-kicking dance which saucily showed off her bloomers, she was immortalised by Toulouse Lautrec in his famous poster of the Moulin Rouge.

The dancers of the fin de siecle were greatly influenced by the success of the Egyptian belly dance at the Paris Exhibition of 1889. The novelty of ladies moving their stomach muscles to a rhythm was soon transported across the Atlantic to the Chicago World's Fair, where it was declared an outrage. America still clung to its puritanical roots during the Thirties, the golden age of burlesque. The Minsky brothers' theatre of sexual comedy and striptease packed in audiences, but became a regular vice-squad target.

Jarrett argues that, although stripping's popularity has waxed and waned, erotic dancers have always been more than simple objects of frustrated male desire. But while Stripping offers glimpses into the background of the bump 'n' grind, its author never fully fleshes out her argument. This book on a fascinating subject needed a skilful editor and more interviews with the real thing.