Burlesque: Creativity through Sexual Expression
At first, I was nervous about doing a burlesque workshop because I was among those who weren’t sure what burlesque is and stands for. After all, when people hear the word “burlesque,” the consensus is to think “stripping,” or maybe to have no clue whatsoever. There were so many speculations. Would I be regarded as a stripper? What would this say about my character? I didn’t think I had the right look, either, and I was painfully reminded that childbirth left stretch marks on my body.
What I learned in the workshop not only changed my perception of burlesquers, but it also changed my perception of myself as a sexual human being and led to my development as a burlesque performer. Women have embraced their sexuality as an art form for centuries, and burlesque follows in this grand tradition. It is a form of creative expression that focuses on utilizing the human body as a moving work of art, and it has evolved through the years from its thespian origins, appearing not only in the art form itself, but also in a number of other mediums in the modern entertainment industry. Burlesque has also played a subtle role in the fight for women’s empowerment as professional performers. Of course, it’s also great entertainment.
Burlesque has taken on many shapes and forms over the course of its existence. It started with Victorian Vaudeville and has evolved into modern neo-burlesque. The form has overcome some damaging alterations along the way, nearly to the point of extinction, but today it has made a vengeful comeback. A common misconception is that stripping and burlesque dancing are the same thing. In fact, burlesque remains a unique art form that has stood on its own two feet for well over a century. Accepted as a theatrical art form in the mid-1880s, it was originally defined as an absurd imitation or comedic exaggeration or parody spawned from vaudevillian backgrounds. Designed to provoke laughter by caricaturing the style or spirit of serious works, the performers create their own renditions. The majority of burlesque is theatrical. Performers often create refined sets with rampant and parti-colored attires, mood-corresponding music, and spectacular lighting. Routines range from humorous travesty to elocution to striptease. In the traditions of groundling theaters, burlesque was directed towards the lower and middle classes, making fun of the plays, operas, and social habits of the upper class. These shows utilized comedy and music in order to challenge the established way of observing everyday things. Everything, starting from Shakespearean drama to the mode for Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, could imbue a full-length burlesque travesty. Burlesque also gave women the opportunity to interpret and perform early Greek comedy, roles previously sanctioned solely for men.
Clearly, burlesque’s history alone indicates a subversive and liberating quality tied to revolutionary intentions. The art form was essentially feminist in its nature from the very beginning. Women were breaking fresh ground with the help of acting, producing, and general creation. This activity encompassed the performances of male roles, as women had to wear such shape-revealing male costumes as Greek togas. Imagine the outrage! Women found not only a creative outlet for their time periods, but also a political voice in public arenas. Their confidence to get up in front of a crowd and pursue their rights and passions regardless of consequence or ridicule is regarded as one of the first major stands in the women’s rights movement. Thus, in this instance, the modern empowerment of women was birthed from artistic expression. Burlesque in its youth was full of mystery, and as subtlety was a legal requirement at the time, the power of suggestion was itself quickly becoming an art form. Due to the fact that carnal drollery and insufficient costumes have always been at the burlesque’s core, it was obvious that the art started more liberally thanks to the general liberation of society.
Burlesque performers had to be very clever in order to deliver their message and maintain relatively clean legal backgrounds. Artists such as Gypsy Rose Lee, Tempest Storm, Sally Rand, and Lili St. Cyr were among the forerunners of the industry. Far more than just striptease artists or dancers, these women were geniuses. They combined feminine sagacity with the seductiveness of suggestion and had a strong determination to demonstrate as much of the feminine forms as local laws permitted. Burlesque performers had to balance between titillation and blatancy and were at risk of being arrested. As a result, they used cunning, creativity, and the power of suggestion to keep the police at bay.
The “Golden Age” of burlesque that began in the 1920s breathed its last breath in the 1960s when striptease gave way to full-blown nudity on stage, but the memory and message of the Golden Age still inspire the current generation. Today, burlesque continues to empower women all over the world. Though modern burlesque artists derive much of their style from the Golden Age, the turn of the century has provided us with new social issues, music, and artistic demonstrations to interpret. Women, and now even men, take classes in burlesque for multiple reasons. Some participate for fun while others want to improve their body confidence. Burlesque doesn’t discriminate with its performers. As a burlesque performer, I love how my beauty and personality are reflected in my performances. I’ve always had a passion for music and dance, and it has been a huge part of my life from as far back as I can remember. I know many men and women in my burlesque troupe who would agree with that sentiment. Moreover, a full 60% of burlesque show audiences are women, which is a phenomenon worthy of its own extended analysis.
Indeed, burlesque’s legacy is very much alive and evident in the modern entertainment industry. Every time a comedian does a “spit take” or comes out with a joke, which has a double meaning, it is burlesque in action. Even Saturday Night Live performers demonstrate burlesque as an art form in a real sense. Jokes are typically geared towards the common people and frequently make fun of the rich in order to equalize different social classes. Broadway musicals, comedic skits, and even a number of spoof movies take on the traditional form of a burlesque performance. In fact, an ever-growing number of entertainment forms are clearly pursuing the early burlesque tradition in the attempt to satirize well-known cultural assumptions and social mores.
My personal experience with burlesque has been life changing. I am in charge of myself and my surroundings when I perform. I take great care in choosing all elements of my routine. I start with my concept and then decide who or what I want to interpret on stage before I begin working on my costume. My performance is designed around the character, as well as the flow of every movement of the routine. What do I want to remove? How can I make the audience laugh? Every single detail is thought out. Even though my initial concept takes merely a few weeks to put together, it can take years to perfect a single routine! My burlesque routines are reflections of myself. I pour my heart and soul into my craft, and I make sure others enjoy it. I am no longer self-conscious of my physical imperfections, and I am more confident in myself and my decisions. Burlesque is glamorous, hilarious, sexy, and brilliant in equal measure. As veteran burlesque performer Bunny Bee says, “There is no discrimination to the female form in the community of Burlesque. It empowers our souls and the body follows. It is perfection at best for all types of women no matter what society tells us is their perfection. We empower each other with acceptance.”