Stripping vs. Burlesque

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.


Filed under Burlesque, In Print

11 responses to “Stripping vs. Burlesque

  1. very well said, betty!

    i think it’s important to point out that burlesque is in many ways still very much an underground thing, which is definitely a factor in all the “stripping vs. burlesque” discussions.

    i read that jo boobs is revisiting this issue at nyu, and is asking for additional input for her presentation. you may want to plunk your two cents that way, too.


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  3. I experienced both styles as a performer,
    as well as Belly dance, Afro Brazilian Samba, Jazz, Modern, Hip-Hop and Aerialist work aka Tissu.
    You’re invited to stop by and read this entry about the differences from my perspective:

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  7. I hope this isn’t repost, for some reason it did not load up for me…

    So, I just wanted to thank you for this wonderful article! I ran across it while searching for articles that expressed the difference b/w Burlesque and Stripping. I cited your article and made reference to this wonderful site for more information. Many people, as you make mention, are very unaware of what Burlesque is, especially here in NC where I live and perform. This piece was excellently written and useful!

  8. I’m a stripper and a burlesque performer from Canada.

    I started out as a dancer, then got into featuring, then fell into burlesque. There are a lot of differences between the two, but I love both and couldn’t tell you one is better than the other.

    I still tour across Canada featuring in strip clubs and frequent Western Canada a lot, it’s my favourite part of the country to dance. Bombshell Betty, Could you tell me, how you knew about the clubs in Western Canada being close to what the curriculum was back in the glory days of burlesque? Im very interested to hear how the word got to you being from the states. : ) Email me at or add me to facebook and tell me there. – Thank you!

    Ive always said that in Western Canada, the way strip clubs operate are very similar to how all the legends say they use to be in their glory days. I tell my burlesque friends all the time what it’s like out there. I love dancing in Alberta because of this. There are usually anywhere from 2 – 8 girls on a line-up for the week and all the girls have themes and costumes and dance to 20 minute sets 2 – 4 times a night. Men cant touch you, and you sell “promo” (posters) for tips along with dances when you’re off stage. It’s a lot of fun!

    When I feature the clubs in Alberta, I still perform my burlesque routines, and it’s always well received. The girls, the staff and the men stop what they are doing to watch. I think it’s because they have in most cases never seen a burlesque show before, and those who don’t know what it is are curious. There is an absolute silence in the room when Im on, they are fixated. The girls I work with love it, they are not jealous or catty with me, because they see it as entertainment, they always say that it’s “classy” which is kinda funny to me. I think a lot of the girls respect me for bringing burlesque into the clubs. I encourage girls to step it up and, well, like Electra said, “get a gimmick!”.

    My ultimate goal is to bring burlesque back to the strip clubs, and to teach modern day dancers, why they are able to do the job they do. Most have no idea there is any history to stripping, and to be honest, some really don’t care and are uninterested to hear about burlesque. The majority of dancers I talk to are motivated when they hear there is more to what they’re doing than just earning a quick buck.

    Every club I dance in, about 99% of the girls do not know what burlesque is or that stripping has any kind of history. I really enjoy spreading the word and giving these lovely ladies, a little history lesson with every bump, grind and glove peel.

    Ultimately, were all women, were all beautiful, and we all take our clothes off for money! Let’s embrace and support each other, because really, it’s all relative.

    Roxi Dlite – “The Drinkin’, Smokin’, Strippin’, Machine!”

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  10. The important differentiation to be made is not between stripping and burlesque – that is almost like trying to differentiate between rock music and a specific instrument – the line that needs to be clarified is that between ‘stripping’ and ‘striptease’ – the latter being a common convention within burlesque performance. ‘Burlesque’ is a term first coined in renaissance Europe to describe works, literary or dramatic, that mock or subvert ‘serious’ conventions and traditions, often through parody. Burlesque shows between the late 19th and early 20th centuries featured satirical music, poetry, comedy and, most famously, striptease. When people call vintage striptease burlesque, it is like me referring to all soul music as Beyonce. It is a confusion of terms. Burlesque itself is not an art form, rather a collection of forms that often sit well together in a variety showcase. What defines burlesque is a willingness to question authority through humour and subversion.

    The difference between stripping and striptease is the crux of this argument. Burlesque is way too broad and yet too specific a term to bother trying to compare with stripping. One might as well talk about the difference between ‘subversion’ and ‘filo pastry’.

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