How Burlesque Works

Natalie Wood portrays famed burlesque star Gyspy Rose Lee in the 1962 movie "Gypsy." See more movie-making pictures.
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

In a video that went viral in 2013, a woman wearing a top hat, tuxedo jacket, fishnet thigh-highs and tiny, bow-tied thong steps onto a small stage. She solemnly walks across the stage to a piano bench and sits, her back to the audience. There's a music stand in front of her holding sheet music, and she briefly adjusts some pages. She then arches her back, spreads her legs, raises the tails of her jacket to fully display her bow-tied bottom and starts, in the words of a Cosmo reporter, "twerking....some classical music" [source: Switcher].

Beethoven's Fifth, to be exact. And that, my friends, is what you call burlesque.


The three-minute performance is titled "Butthoven's Fifth Symphony," and the "twerker" (I personally would call it "conducting an invisible orchestra using one's buttocks") is Chicago burlesque dancer Michelle L'Amour. Perhaps the only aspect of the act more impressive than the level of control this woman has over her individual butt muscles is how incredibly funny it all is. At one point, L'Amour momentarily relaxes her butt, turns a page in the music, and then resumes "conducting," and the audience just cracks up.

Contrary to popular misconception, burlesque is not all about stripping. In fact, the strip-tease was a relatively late addition to the centuries-old format [source: Kenrick]. As so beautifully exemplified in "Butthoven's Fifth," the burlesque style of entertainment is about parody. Sexy parody, yes, but the parody part is the crux.

Dating back to the mid-19th century in Britain, the original burlesque shows were comic plays. The productions entertained lower- and middle-class audiences with mockery, particularly of the high-brow tastes and idiosyncrasies of Britain's upper-class elite. (The word "burlesque" means "to make fun of") [source: Kenrick]. And in an era of extreme Victorian modesty, sexiness was part of the act.


Evolution of a Naughty Art

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].


Masters of the Tease

The real Gypsy Rose Lee, circa 1938.
Frederic Lewis/Getty Images

With the burlesque striptease suddenly front and center, the performers who truly mastered the art became stars. Gypsy Rose Lee and Sally Rand are among the best known. Both began their burlesque careers in the early '30s. Rand (Helen Gould Beck) was famous for two routines that became synonymous with burlesque: the fan dance and the bubble dance. In each, she danced gracefully to classical music, apparently wearing nothing but high heels (whether she was truly naked is still a bit mysterious). In the fan dance, she hid what she had to using two massive ostrich feathers she manipulated throughout the dance; in the bubble dance, she used a 5-foot (1.5-meter) balloon [source: Gold].

Gypsy Rose Lee (Rose Louise Hovick), whose memoir "Gypsy" inspired a Broadway show and a movie, juxtaposed sex with brains [source: History Link]. Starting out in voluminous petticoats and ruffles held together by pins, Lee pulled the pins out while reciting high-brow monologues in a finishing-school accent, telling intellectual jokes, or just making generally witty comments. In the end, all that was left on her body was glued on [source: Frankel].


There was also Blaze Starr, whose trademark involved lying on a settee and triggering a stream of smoke that shot out from between her legs while fire-colored streamers blew around the stage [source: Doherty]. Lili St. Cyr writhed around in a bubble bath inside a solid silver bathtub [sources: Kenrick,American National Biography Online]. Other headliners included enormously well-endowed redhead Tempest Storm, Marilyn Monroe-dead ringer Dixie Evans, and future screen star Mae West.

Through it all, legal problems plagued the show. It was not uncommon for authorities to shut down burlesque clubs, and arrest their headliners, for violating decency laws [source: American National Biography Online]. Nonetheless, burlesque remained a force through the '40s and '50s. Its audiences were increasingly all-male, though, and what it couldn't survive was the sexual revolution: By the end of the 1960s, sex was everywhere. Hard-core pornography was easy to find. The burlesque striptease was obsolete [source: Kenrick].

Or was it? Although burlesque was deep in hiding by 1970, it was to have a sensational rebound in later decades.


Burlesque Redux

Neo-burlesque artist Dita Von Teese performs her signature act in a giant champagne glass.
ShowBizIreland/Getty Images

Burlesque began to garner some renewed attention in the late '90s, thanks to a few noteworthy acts. Within 10 years, burlesque was in full revival mode, utterly re-glamorized by stars like Dita von Teese, Angie Pontani and The World Famous *BOB* [sources: The Huffington Post, Rose City School of Burlesque].

To many, neo-burlesque, as the modern incarnation is often called, is as much a movement as an entertainment style. It often has a subversive, conceptual tone that's more in line with performance art than striptease. Make no mistake, the titillating striptease is alive and well. Von Teese, and her signature, skinny-dipping-in-a-giant-champagne-glass act, would have been perfectly at home in 1940s burlesque. Angie Pontani, too, aka "The Italian Silhouette," looks the stereotypical part, and her most popular acts channel the sequined, feather boa-ed, perfect-bodied glamour of old American burlesque [source: Del Signore].


But many neo-burlesque queens are marked departures from the classic sexpot. New York-based Dirty Martini, who likes to cover herself in nothing but balloons and then pop them one by one, is a "plus-size" woman [source: Rao]. So is the World Famous *BOB*, who famously mixes martinis using her cleavage [source: The World Famous *BOB*].

Playing with conventional notions of beauty is big (as are alcoholic beverages, apparently). So is playing with gender. The World Famous *BOB*, who used to perform as a drag queen though she is, in fact, a woman, refers to herself as a "female female impersonator." But any convention is fair game. Male performer Tigger!'s most famous striptease has a priest-courting-an-altar-boy theme. The group Brown Girls Burlesque performs an act called "Jezebel" that re-enacts historical race relations in Creole society through striptease [source: Rao].

At the same time, burlesque has gone mainstream. Dance schools and fitness studios offer burlesque classes, and Vivienne VaVoom reports teaching "a room full of librarians to bump and grind." Many U.S. cities hold annual burlesque festivals, New York's culminating in The Golden Pasties awards show [source: New York Burlesque Festival]. The Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas hosts an annual competition attended by hundreds of performers hoping to make a name for themselves in the industry [source: Horwitz].

Vivienne VaVoom attributes the speedy growth of neo-burlesque at least in part to its female-driven nature. From the outset, "Women were producing the shows, making the costumes, performing, emceeing ... and the diversity of body types, combined with sparkly costumes, smart numbers, and strong, confident women brought in a female audience starved for that kind of representation in modern popular culture and entertainment."

In 2012, Tempest Storm, still revealing her 44DDs 60 years later, took home the Golden Pastie "Long Hauler" award [source: Pin Curl].

That Michelle L'Amour has thus far escaped a Golden Pastie for butt-conducting is beyond me.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Burlesque Works

As part of my research for this article, I attended a burlesque show at a place called Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret in Denver. The performance was called "Burlesque on Broadway: Tophats and Tassels," and I brought my delighted husband with me. I had no idea what to expect, either from the performance or from me. Was I about to watch a strip show? Would I enjoy watching a strip show?

Sort of. And it probably depends.

There was definitely stripping, always down to pasties and G-strings, but to me, at least (I can't speak for my delighted husband), the atmosphere was more one of bawdy fun than of titillation. There were noisemakers on the table, and my enthusiasm for using them during each performer's finale surprised me (and my delighted husband). I didn't feel like I was watching women get naked. I felt like I was watching women dance. The evening's MC, a potty-mouthed guy with a bouffant, was hilarious. I highly recommend the experience. And I still won't be attending a strip club any time soon.

Related Articles

  • American National Biography Online. "Lili St. Cyr." (Jan. 15, 2014)
  • Baldwin, Michelle (Vivienne VaVoom), e-mail interview. Jan. 16, 2014.
  • Burlesque Hall of Fame. (Jan. 3, 2014)
  • Caldwell, Mark. "The Almost Naked City." The New York Times. May 18, 2008. (Jan. 16, 2014)
  • Dance Dynamic. "Burlesque Dance Course: Frequently Asked Questions." (Dec. 31, 2013)
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