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Lascivious licensing: Toronto burlesque community says bylaw is vague

May 31st, 2010 · No Comments

By Sandra Ferrari

A scantily defined Toronto bylaw has raised concerns in the local burlesque community after bylaw officers were called in to investigate an event held at Revival nightclub (783 College St.) last month.

Because of the vague wording, it is unclear whether the performances violated the law. Only verbal warnings were issued and no charges were laid.

Under article XXXII of the bylaw, a burlesque entertainer is defined as an attendant whose services appeal to, or are designed to appeal to, erotic or sexual appetites or inclinations.

According to long-time promoter in the burlesque community Chris Mysterion, the wording is extremely vague and could potentially apply to number of different performances and events held and supported by the City of Toronto.

“If the authorities were to follow this bylaw, they would also have to go after CHIN picnic organizers because of the bikini contest; Gay Pride because of dancers on any given float; or the number of theatre dance groups that use any form of seductive dance in their routines.”

The Ridiculesque event on April 11 went from salacious to solemn in tone as some performers left the venue out of fear that they may be fined under accordance with the bylaw.

“A lot of us have other jobs during the day,” said Sauci Calla Horra, who performed that evening and is also a mental heath worker in the city. “I don’t have a problem with what I do, but some performers have concerns around applying for work and having this show up in a background check.”

For some performers, it is not only a question of the protecting the rights of those involved in the community, but also about maintaining the integrity of the art form.

“Years ago erotic dancers were considered burlesque dancers. Fifty years later the word burlesque has a different meaning. The wording is outdated as it is used in the bylaw, just like the word ‘gay’ used to mean being happy,” said Mysterion.

Not only is the wording outdated, but the bylaw blurs the lines between definitions of adult entertainers and modern day burlesque performers.

“Burlesque often tries to challenge social mores and social codes. There is real confusion between what a stripper is and what burlesque is. There are still pasties and g-strings in burlesque, but more attention is paid to the theatrics,” said Calla Horra.

According to Bruce Robertson, director of Licensing Services for the city, there is no real cause for concern on the part of the burlesque community. However he does acknowledge that fines may be up to the discretion of the bylaw officers called in to investigate a particular event.

“It’s certainly possible that people could get charged. It’s not outside the realm of possibility, but if that happens it would be up to the courts to decide what to do.”

The prospect of potential arrests remains unsettling for some members of the burlesque community.

“What this does is raise a red flag. When there is a red flag you have to be aware of your rights,” said Mysterion.

Though some performers were worried, this is the first known bust of its kind according to both Calla Horra and Mysterion, leaving no real sense of panic among burlesque performers in the city.

Both of these prominent members of the burlesque community note that what the situation has done is opened the door to issues of fickle bylaw enforcement, threat to artistic license, and the potential for negative impact on the burlesque community of Toronto—especially in light of the upcoming Toronto Burlesque Festival, a high-profile event featuring international performers.

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