Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Burlesque Works

Evolution of a Naughty Art
This whiskey advertising label from 1870 shows two women burlesque performers.
This whiskey advertising label from 1870 shows two women burlesque performers.
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Britain's "classical burlesque" show came to America in the 1860s with a dancer named Lydia Thompson. Thompson's all-female troupe of actors cross-dressed, got all bawdy, and shockingly appeared onstage with their legs covered only in tights. Around the same time, a Broadway musical called "The Black Crook" put practically naked legs onstage, too.

Both shows were huge successes with audiences, and initially with critics, too; but the latter caved under pressure from "decent" society-types and ultimately denounced the "leg shows," which in turn made them even bigger hits [source: Kenrick].

From there, burlesque exploded and evolved. Shows took on the variety-style format of the extremely popular minstrel shows, which had always featured elements of burlesque [sources: Library of Congress]. The American burlesque show became more a revue than a play, with separate sections featuring comics, singers, dancers, magicians, and finally, a one-act musical play, parodying pop culture. It developed its own touring circuits, drawing significant attendance and profits for decades [source: Kenrick].

By the early 1920s, live entertainment acts were in danger, rapidly losing customers to film, and a group of burlesque producers known as the Minsky brothers made a change to renew the genre's appeal: They introduced a striptease [source: Kenrick].

The striptease brought the genre into the limelight, and the '20s through the '50s are considered the heyday of American burlesque [source: Schulman]. Burlesque dancers were clever about their craft – nude but not nude, titillating but not raunchy, and all the while intriguing, because this was still "burlesque," not "stripping."

Not that burlesque dancers are necessarily against the association with stripping. Denver-based Vivienne VaVoom, aka Michelle Baldwin, claims it entirely. "Burlesque is stripping. It is the history of stripping," she explains in an exclusive interview. "Modern stripping evolved from Burlesque ... but they have different styles." 

A true burlesque striptease isn't about getting naked. It tells a story, which unfolds through the tease, and the end of the story is the "reveal." It doesn't really matter whether the reveal is a naked breast or a naked leg; done well, the audience should be equally pleased with both. It's all about getting there [source: Horwitz].