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Burlesque’s “Red-Headed Ball of Fire”

Betty Rowland in the documentary Behind the Burly Q (2010)

When Betty Rowland danced in her first burlesque show, she was so engrossed in the music that she forgot to take off any clothes, says Penelope Green in The New York Times. The American dancer, who died recently aged 106, was a headliner at the racy strip shows in the 1930s and 40s. On the burlesque circuit she was known as the “Red-Headed Ball of Fire” – partly for her stature (“she was a diminutive 5’1”) and partly for her mop of fiery hair.

Burlesque back then was a risky business. In 1938, the mayor of Los Angeles put all dance houses out of business for “corrupting the morals of the city”. And in 1939, Rowland was fined $250 for “lewdness”. (At her trial, a “burly cop” imitated her strip tease on the witness stand, leaving the court weak with laughter.) But that was nothing compared to 1952, when she was jailed for three weeks after two undercover policemen busted her performing. Still, Rowland never saw anything wrong with her dancing. “People whisper, for heaven’s sake, they say, ‘Do you know what she used to do?’,” she said in 2006. “Well, they shouldn’t whisper – I was a dancer. It was the only thing I knew how to do, and I was a success at it.”