A lively debate in one of the Burlesque lists was recently sparked by an article about Bunny Bravo, a burlesque producer in the LA area, entitled Burlesque Is Not Stripping.
Many people responded with outrage and annoyance about the question of how burlesque is or isn’t stripping and how this comes up in the media all the time. Personally, I am glad that this is a question that is addressed in most articles that come up about burlesque in the mainstream media. Why? Because most people in the mainstream culture still don’t know the difference between pole dancing and burlesque!
For example, during a party that I recently hosted for a friend’s 11th birthday (he was born on Leap Year), the guests were people I didn’t know and who were not from the burlesque scene. People kept asking me what happened at the studio, what I do, etc. Some people heard the word “burlesque” and shut off, walking away as quickly as possible. One woman replied, “Burlesque? How interesting! So where is your pole?” I had to pull out my 30-second “This is Burlesque” explanation many times that night.
My life is centered around burlesque, so it is rare indeed these days that I find myself surrounded socially or professionally by people who have no idea what the burlesque scene is about. But the moment that I step outside of this cozy little subculture, it is quite clear to me that the general public has no idea what we are doing.
It is clear to me that although the burlesque scene is tired of being faced with this question and would love to move on to more interesting and worthier subjects, the burlesque resurgence is still very much an underground movement and the public continues to need basic education about it. Until the public is generally better informed about this artform we love, I think it is in our best interest to address these most basic of questions that the public has about our art for as long as it is necessary.
Part of the reason that this confusion continues is because many shows that are not really what we in the scene would consider “burlesque” latch onto the word for its buzz factor. For instance, most fans of the New Burlesque would not consider X Burlesque to have anything to do with burlesque performance. Maybe it falls under the catch all umbrella of “burlesque” today, but it seems like a big corporation’s way of cashing in on a popular underground trend with not a care in the world of whether they are in fact presenting a burlesque show.
I also think it’s funny how quickly many burlesque performers denounce our pole dancing sisters, calling burlesque “the good stripping” and similarly distancing themselves by calling stripclub dancers “strippers” and themselves “burlesque dancers” or “burlesque artists”, when to my way of thinking, the current strip clubs are a lot closer to the original environment and performance intention of the “original” burlesque than the neo-burlesque shows of today. In the heyday of burlesque in America, women were booked into the burlesque houses to perform sexually titilating (and according to the views of the time, lewd and indecent) acts, displaying their bodies in as little clothing as possible without getting arrested, all for the benefit of a horny male audience. These women were exotic entertainers, performing as a way to make a buck, not in the interest of furthering their feminist ideals or promoting body positive environments or challenging the status quo. I think the closest parallel to this can be found in the modern strip clubs in Western Canada, where the dancers are booked for a week at a time into a club circuit, perform for 20 minutes at a time wearing elaborate costumes, and are paid per show by the club. Patrons are not allowed to touch the performers at all and must place tips on the stage rather than giving them directly to the dancer. Of course, most clubs in the US are quite a far cry from the clubs of Western Canada, however most of them still have a lot more in common with the “Burlesque Houses” than our modern shows do, aside from the pasties and feathers.
On the other hand, what you find at a New Burlesque show is much different – and much different that what you would have seen at a burlesque show in the 1940’s or 1950’s. Women and men get dressed up in extremely extravagant costumes to perform for mixed audiences in shows at an assortment of venues – from dive bars to large theaters. Most of the performers do this as a moderatly expensive hobby, for the love of it, and few performers actually make a living at it. Many acts are as much performance art as striptease, and the focus is much more on theatricality and personality than it is on body parts. While most burlesque acts involve some stripping, not all of them do, and different performers who do strip only take off as much or as little as they want to. The feeling at these shows is usually boistrous and celebratory.
I feel that the poledancing stripper and the burlesque artist of today are equally the descendants of the classic burlesque dancer of the 1950’s, though they have evolved in very different directions. So if burlesque and club stripping are so different, why the perpetual confusion and the need to constantly differentiate ourselves to the press and the public? I think part of the problem is that burlesque is still very much an underground movement, and to those outside of the scene, it is largely invisible.
I get emails from people in cities across the US asking me how they can find a burlesque show in their area! I’ve had people tell me they can’t find burlesque shows in San Francisco and LA, two places where I know that there are thriving scenes. In fact, approximately 75% of my new students say they have never been to a burlesque show, mostly because they haven’t known where to see one. A few people have created websites to give burlesque performers and producers one place to consolidate their show listings, which would make finding a show much easier. This could lead to many more people coming to shows who were previously unfamiliar with the art, and public awareness of exactly what burlesque is would grow exponentially. Unfortunately, none of these websites are being widely used at this time, and so shows continue to be hard to find for people who aren’t “in the know.” Because of this, I welcome any and every opportunity to present burlesque to the public through the press, and I think it is important to continue to clarify in these articles what burlesque is and what it isn’t.