What is Burlesque?

Tassel twirling, fan dancing, or just plain old striptease? Cher’s new movie, Burlesque, has left us all asking: what exactly is burlesque?

The word ‘burlesque’ isn’t one you see or hear used very often. It’s one of those words that everyone thinks they know the meaning of, but actually struggle to define when asked to do so. Is it cabaret? Vaudeville? Pole dancing? Striptease?

Dictionary definitions focus on two distinct meanings. Firstly, “an artistic composition, esp. literary or dramatic, that, for the sake of laughter, vulgarises lofty material or treats ordinary material with mock dignity.” But that’s not really what I think of as burlesque.

Next, burlesque is defined as “a humorous and provocative stage show featuring slapstick humour, comic skits, bawdy songs, striptease acts, and a scantily clad female chorus.” That’s much closer to what I had in mind.

Burlesque the movie

With the release of the 2010 movie, Burlesque, we’re destined to hear the word much more often. Movie reviews have been mixed, ranging from ‘campy and clichéd’ to ‘Burlesque manages what seemed impossible: it is filled with half-naked dancing girls, yet it’s still boring.’ (Rafer Guzman, Newsday)

The trailer doesn’t inspire confidence, either. Take this as an example (and you’d put the best bits in a trailer to entice people in, wouldn’t you?):

  • Sean (played by Stanley Tucci): So, is Ali short for anything?
  • Ali Rose (played by Christina Aguilera): Oh, yeah, it’s short for Alice.
  • Sean: Alice, hm? Well, welcome to Wonderland.

With dialogue like that to work with, there’s a real possibility that we’ll never find out whether or not Christina Aguilera can act.

The film’s once-upon-a-time concept is simple. A small-town girl, Ali (Aguilera), ventures to Los Angeles and finds her place in a neo-burlesque club run by a former dancer (Cher). Ali escapes a hollow past and quickly falls in love with the art of burlesque. Backed by new friends, she manages to fulfil her dreams of being on stage. And they all lived happily clichéd lives aver after.

Origins of burlesque

So much for the film; what really is burlesque? Prior to the 18th Century, the term ‘burlesque’ described humorous theatrical entertainment involving satire and parody. It appears to have evolved from the Italian ‘Comedia dell’arte’ of the 16th Century.

In America, the term became synonymous with Vaudeville style variety shows with the emphasis firmly on striptease.

The golden age of burlesque arrived in the 1920s and continued until after the Second World War. Elaborately dressed performers gave elaborate performances against elaborate sets, delivering a risqué mix of suggestive dance, songs, magic and striptease. It was OTT before anyone even knew what that meant. The public loved it and packed theatres to the rafters. Burlesque artists such as Gypsy Rose Lee and Sally Rand were celebrities of their time.

Burlesque slowly died out as new performers attempted ever more over-the-top routines and it wasn’t long before the tease had disappeared completely from the strip.

Burlesque today

Since the early 1990s, burlesque has enjoyed a mini revival, prompted by artists such as Dita von Teese and Immodesty Blaize. Clubs with magical names like The Tassel, Wam Bam Club and Boom Boom recaptured the wit and the glamour lost since the Golden Age.

You don’t have to search far to find burlesque dancing classes and workshops teaching glamorous and sassy burlesque routines. No experience is necessary and all classes are “guaranteed to make you feel gorgeous.” All shapes and sizes welcome. You’ll learn how to perfect your own routine: walking, posing, boa work, glove and stocking peel, chair work, tassel twirling and fan dancing.

Or how about a burlesque hen party?

It will certainly give yoga and Pilates a run for their money.

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