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How Burlesque Works

Burlesque Redux

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

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.

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