Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What's Behind the Naked Towel Dance

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Photo: Marie-Ève Kingsley

Sure, you've all seen the "Naked Towel Dance" video that's gone viral on YouTube, but do you know what's behind it? Probably not, which is why you come to this here blogopedia for the full monty.

But first, for those of you who have better things to do with your life than hang out on Facebook clicking links and haven't yet seen the video, here it is. For the record, they are "Les Beaux Frères" as seen on the French television show, Le Plus Grand Cabaret du Monde. The official title is "La Serviette" (the towel), but it's showing up on YouTube as "Naked Towel Dance."

Now a towel dance is a mildly naughty form of strip-tease that I'm sure you've all tried in the privacy of your own home in front of a mildly amused partner or three, but it also has its own, ahem, distinguished  performance history.

Back in BYT (before YouTube) days — yes, children, some of us are old enough to dimly recall that primitive era — back even before pole dancing...  there was burlesque, a naughtier vaudeville featuring baggy pants comics alongside erotic female dancers; originally kootchie dancers but, starting in the 20s, strippers. Not surprisingly, there was some artistic crossover, with strippers putting humor into their act. The tease part of stripping was always intrinsically a bit comic, but some strippers went further with the comedy.

Today's neo-burlesque is more ironic than erotic. "What they do, mainly, is comedy," writes Joan Acocella in the New Yorker (5-13-13). "They pour Martinis out of shakers lodged in their cleavages; they sprout extra hands, which then feel them up. They don't have naughty names; they have dirty names-Lucy Fur, Creamy Stevens, Fanny Fromage." Here, for example, is Dirty Martini using striptease to parody a sappy American patriotic song:

But burlesque strippers, old and neo, deliver some or all of the goods, whereas the towel dancers and their immediate predecessors are playing with the embarrassment of being exposed, an extension of the old pants-drop schtick.

 Before the naked towel dance there was the legendary naked balloon dance performed by the sketch group "The Greatest Show on Legs" (Malcolm Hardee, Paul Wiseman, and Martin Soan) on the edgy British tv show Over the Top on January 2, 1982. Though not jugglers, all the same elements are here: the false modesty, struggling with objects that don't always cooperate, the every-man-for-himself desperation.

There were still enough staid Brits in those days to provoke a bit of an outrage over this, but that didn't prevent a sequel from being aired that same year:

If you think about it, the naked balloon piece is actually naughtier than the towel number — the baring of asses, the phallic balloons. One of the balloon masterminds was Malcolm Hardee, the British petty thief turned comedian and "amateur sensationalist" whose autobiography I Stole Freddy Mercury's Birthday Cake chronicles a lifetime of outlandish pranks. Here's one from his Wikipedia entry:

"When performing at The Circuit venue at the Edinburgh Fringe – a series of three adjoining tents in a construction site with a different show in each tent – he became annoyed by what he regarded as excessive noise emanating nightly from Eric Bogosian's neighbouring performance tent. Hardee obtained a nearby tractor and, entirely naked, drove it across Bogosian's stage during his performance."

But I digress...

If you do a YouTube search for "naked balloon dance" you'll find plenty of imitators using balloons, guitars, you name it. And then there's the running gag in the Austin Powers movies.. for example...

There's another piece of classic schtick in play here, the gag of two characters being stuck together, used here with so much urgency. For a nice (and fully clothed) example of this, here's Betty Hutton, Walter Darewahl, and Johnnie Trama from the movie Star Spangled Rhythm  (1943):

So if it sounds like I'm criticizing the naked towel dances for being unoriginal, I'm not!

Oh contraire, mes beaux frères, I find their piece superior and funnier than this earlier stuff because... no drum roll needed..... of the strong physical comedy elements. They built on an old idea and made it better. They brought to it a higher skill level in object manipulation and split-second timing. There's more danger and it's more exciting to watch. They also have the good sense to be able to stop for specific comedy moments so we can savor the characters trapped in their predicament. Sure it's perhaps more cutesy than naughty, but in this era of Puppetry of the Penis and web porn, the "shock" of full nudity is anything but.

Whether or not it's "clown" or even very good comedy was the topic of a somewhat heated discussion in the "Clown Power" Facebook group, a topic that has elicited well over 100 comments to date, with such clown performer/teachers as Jef Johnson and  Jon Davison weighing in. For example, Jon writes "You can use bodies and props comically, interact well, be physical, construct a number precisely in order to elicit maximum effect, which they do here, but that has nothing at all to do with whether you infuse that action with humility or vulnerability or self-ridicule or the pleasure to play the stupid idiot, which is what they don't do here."

I'd say that of course it's not a clown piece and that to criticize it for not being one is kind of silly. But Jon has a point. We're not truly worried about the situation these characters find themselves in. (Why are they only wearing towels to start with?) It's a presentational dance piece that winks at the audience, and if anything makes more fun of our voyeurism than their modesty. But it's very well done, tightly choreographed, and hits some nice moments. I like.

You can see more work by Les Beaux Frères by visiting their web site, which is located right behind this towel.... ooops, no....  right behind this towel.

UPDATE: (a day later) This just in via Kenny Raskin via Skip Mendler... Naked Lunch (apologies to William Burroughs, I hope), a variation on the theme. Not sure which one came first. Though I'd rate Les Beaux Frères higher, this does build nicely and incorporates some basic partner acrobatic moves. The signage is in French, but not sure who the performers are. Here are two versions worth comparing. The second has more of a set-up and has young kids hanging over the edge of the stage! Vive la France. UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: This just in via a comment by Kenito: The short one is Kevin Brooking, a wonderful American clown who has been living in Brussels and has a company called Zirk Theatre. His partner is named Colm... Vive la Belgique!


Kenito said...

The short one is Kevin Brooking, a wonderful American clown who has been living in Brussels and has a company called Zirk Theatre.
His partner is named Colm...

David Carlyon said...

Now THIS is what a physical (comedy) blog should have, lots of stories about naked people.

Elmo Gibb said...

I worked with Kevin back in '79, '80, '81 when he was starting out on the Beatty show. He has always been very inventive and is one of my favorite non-Ringling clowns. After leaving Beatty-Cole, he went to Circus Tivoli, and onto many other things. He blew me away with his ability to converse in rhymed iambic pentameter!

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know what this kind of act is called? Is there a general name or title?