Burlesque Without Striptease

In recent news, claims have been made that Prince Charles was shocked to find that burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese actually strips (this story actually isn't true); that Representative Pete Sessions was was surprised to learn that the burlesque dancers at Forty Deuce take off their clothes (although this party did happen, I suspect he was not truly all that surprised); and that pole dancing is synonymous with burlesque. Whatever you make of all this, it's interesting that the idea of burlesque without stripping is so available in popular culture that people are suggesting that it could be surprising that burlesque performers are stripping.

In a New York Times article, Dita Von Teese said the biggest misconception about burlesque is "that it’s about dancing around in hot pants with feather boas. Burlesque was about the striptease. The stars of burlesque took their clothes off, end of story, period."

People occasionally ask me if they can do burlesque without stripping; many of the classes I teach, such as fan-dancing and chair dancing, do not involve stripping within the class. I see no reason why people should not take those elements outside of the striptease and incorporate them into their own sensual or exotic dances.

However, what I love about burlesque is that it takes the element of clothing removal and incorporates it into dance and/or story-telling. It makes the everyday act of removing clothing into a theatrical event. This is part of what makes burlesque so special.

For me, the art of striptease is an art unto itself, one that ought to be revered for the effect and the connotations it has, and for its uniqueness to burlesque. I believe in striptease as an art form in its own right, outside of the variety and other elements that make modern burlesque so engrossing.

Perhaps the definition of burlesque is changing yet again, as it has several times over the centuries. Aristophanes may not have expected Lydia Thompson; Lydia may not have expected Lili St. Cyr; and Lili may not have expected Julie Atlas Muz.

As much as I hate definitions, I'm a teacher and I have to give them sometimes. Plus, I have to describe what I do for a living not only to reporters and people making documentaries, but to people who hire me.

I like lots of types of dancing and other variety entertainment in burlesque shows. But for me, if NO ONE takes anything off, it's a bit gentrified--and possibly even a bit insulting to the ladies who did burlesque in the mid 20th century.

What do you think? IS the definition of burlesque changing (or if you prefer, has it already changed)? Does burlesque now mean any sexy moves, style, or clothing that make a reference to exotic dance? And if so, does that change your level of interest in it?

Posted by Jo Weldon, Headmistress of The New York School of Burlesque, for burlesquedaily.blogspot.com.


Susan said…
If there is a definition, it has changed. It has splintered, actually.

But if I go see a show that's been billed as burlesque, and I don't see some boobies and buttcheeks, I'm going to feel like that was false advertising.
I guess what goes through my mind is that if just dancing and loving costumes were enough, we wouldn't have to be interested in burlesque in particular, it could just be any glamourous form of entertainment. It could all be MGM musicals. For me personally it's the draw to the women who were outrageous, who were outlaws, that makes burlesque interesting. It's the stripping that set them apart from other dancers, not their costumes and sexy poses.
La Divina said…

I can’t agree with you more. I am experiencing quite a few, as Dita aptly puts it, “pseudo-burlesque” troupes spew their version of “burlesque is not about striptease” history. To me, a lot like you think that it pretty much invalidates everything the legends of burlesque have worked very, very hard for. It just makes me want to throw up in my mouth a little.

Although I am fairly new to burlesque, (I didn’t have burlesque growing up in Asia) there are many, many great resources of burlesque history, right at my fingertips. I am beginning to learn the nitty-gritty of this fantastic art form. I just don’t understand why, with all the resources of factual burlesque history, even by the legends themselves, that these faux burlesquers recreate their version of burlesque to make an excuse not to strip, or just to “dance around in fishnets and hot pants”. Was it World Famous BOB that called it “McBurlesque” in Burlesque: the New Bump and Grind? (I literally finished that book in 2 hours!!)

Touché BOB, touché!!
Well, I probably have a slightly different perspective on that than you do--I usually tell my students that there are lots of different approaches to burlesque, and I don't discount any of them. What Susan said above about the definition "splintering" makes sense to me. I mean, if someone just wants to go-go, can-can, or tap dance in a burlesque show, and they are specifically interested in burlesque shows, it's fine with me if they call themselves burlesque performers. But for me it's the striptease that I'm passionate about; it's the thing that doesn't travel as well as the variety acts.

Bu it does seem to me that the definition is changing via usage--and usage IS what determines the meaning of a word.

I try not to be the burlesque version of rockist

But burlesque does have a specific meaning to me when I use it to describe what I do.
I keep saying "but." I like big buts and I cannot lie.
La Divina said…

I do understand that there are different approaches to burlesque. I am beginning to find that out from our fellow burlesquers from over the pond (via MoB). It’s the people to out-right say burlesque has nothing to do with striptease is what gets me. I don’t know, maybe I am wrong to think this way.

I am sure everyone loves a good striptease. Even I have been known to loudly scream, “TAKE IT OFF!!!”

I think you are right, the definition is changing. It’s kind of like the way I view things that are labeled “Thai”; “Thai”-styled chicken salad, or “Thai” marinated pork. I’m thinking, yeah, there’s cilantro in it and there is peanuts in it, but other than that, what the heck makes it “Thai”??? (I use this comparatively because I am Thai, born and raised, so when I see this, I get a bit defensive) I know pretty much it’s their way of marketing the dish by associating it with an exotic connotation.
No fear, I'm being as open-minded as I can be, but there are definitely times I just want to scream, "Don't just shake it, show it!"

I AM into the idea of women enjoying the sensuality of moves influenced by strippers without having to deal with the BUSINESS of stripping. I just haven't been calling it burlesque. Evidently other people have and I haven't been picking up on that.

For me it's also partly about respect for women who were not given their due--the stripteasers who were left out of the movement many comedians made to radio and television. Having worked in strip joints for ten years, I'm sensitive to ways women who take their clothes off when performing are viewed.

I also have to say, though, that having dealt so many times with people who want to completely disassociate burlesque stripping from strip joint stripping, it's going to drive me totally nuts when burlesque itself is totally disassociated from ANY kind of stripping. If it ALL becomes "striptease moves without the stripping," I'm going to be bored.
Gentry said…
Personally, I like Burlesque shows that have lots of different acts (the saucier, the better, in order to differientiate from cabaret, which sort of takes itself too seriously). But if the star of the show doesn't get naked(ish) or flip their fans away to reaveal that they're only wearing 3 cristals, a feather and two pearls...it ain't burlesque.

Your fan in Paris,
The folks in my troupe are pretty split about stripping. Almost all of our acts involve striptease, but of those acts about half go down to bra and panties and half really go for gold. Still a few others do acts that don't involve stripping at all. In defining, I consider this last group variety performers, the bra and panty gals striptease dancers, and my "golden girls" strippers. I love what everyone brings to the table, but without my core group of strippers, I would not call our show burlesque.

I love theatre dancing as much as (actually, significantly more than) the next person, but doing Big Spender in your skivvies is really just a dance recital. If your local high school could insert this act into their production of Fosse without someone getting fired, well, it just ain't burlesque.

Thanks, Lucida!

I have to admit, I'm often surprised at how willing high schools are to present Hey Big Spender.


My understanding is that "Sweet Charity (1969) http://www.fandango.com/sweetcharity_v48091/summary" is actually a version of Fellini's Academy Award Winning "Nights of Cabiria (1957 http://www.fandango.com/nightsofcabiria_v35375/summary)," with Bob Fosse as director and choreographer. I always think that Fosse's dance choreography definitely bears the imprint of his time working in burlesque houses. Anyway, I believe the female lead character was changed from a prostitute into a dance hall hostess. Not a stripper, but I can certainly understand the influence!

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