Burlesque dancing has become more popular over the past decade due to its originality and fearlessness. But, many people still don’t understand what burlesque today really is. So, we’ll give you the breakdown of this unique style of dancing.
What is burlesque dancing?
Burlesque is a way of dancing that empowers the performers on stage through theatrical elements. It’s also a way of storytelling that touches on humor and irony.
Many people who haven’t seen a burlesque show think of it as an event where you watch female strippers dance. But burlesque is more of a cabaret-styled variety show with risqué musical acts. Unlike stripping, it leaves more to the imagination. This is due to the fact that the performers on stage aren’t ever completely nude.
How did it get its name?
The word “burlesque” originates from the Italian word “burla.” “Burla” translates to comedy or joke, which is why this dancing style has a comedic nature. In literature, it falls in the genre of satire because it mocks subjects by ironically representing them. This is why a parody is a type of burlesque.
So, when we combine the literary meaning of this word with the sensuality and empowerment of dancing, we get the American Burlesque act.
When did burlesque start?
American Burlesque dancing came onto the scene in the late 1800s. It was first seen as a variety show that included shapely and underdressed women. These women were depicted as fearless because they would mock the social behaviors of the upper class.
During this time, it didn’t always portray a cabaret style because not every show included a musical number. But, the style evolved to add musical theater elements by the 20th century. So, in the 1920s and 30s, it started looking more like what we’d see at a show today– a show filled with satire, singing, and dancing.
Once the 1940s hit, this provocative and slapstick dance began to dwindle. America was just coming out of the Great Depression and entering World War II. Needless to say, parodic cabaret performances weren’t on the forefront of peoples’ minds. Until…
In 2010, the movie “Burlesque” hit the theaters and showed the world what it had been missing. Two beloved singers and actors, Cher and Christina Aguilera starred in the film. The characters they played painted the modern understanding of what burlesque dancing truly is: an empowering, playful way for females to entertain.
Famous burlesque performers
Three of the best burlesque dancers of all time were Josephine Baker, Dita Von Teese, and Jean Idelle. These bold women helped set the stage for future female performers to come.
Among the 1920s burlesque dancers, Josephine Baker shone brightest. Her shows always sold out at the legendary cabaret venue in Paris, France, called Folies Bergère.
She symbolized the beauty of Black American culture. Through her unique style of dance, she was able to effectively reframe the image of Black entertainers during the prohibition era.
Nicknamed the “Bronze Venus,” her burlesque dancing routines were exotic and fun. She’s best remembered performing in a gold skirt that was made from prop bananas.
Dita Von Teese
Born Heather Renée Sweet, Dita Von Teese is known as the “Queen of Burlesque.” She originally wanted to be a classical ballerina. But, when she was 19, she went to a strip joint and couldn’t believe the lack of originality she witnessed. So, motivated by her desire to boost the creativity in strip clubs, she ended up revolutionizing the modern burlesque entertainer.
She began performing her routines in 1992. Known for her graceful disposition and daring choreography, she became an icon of American Burlesque. She usually wore vintage dresses, corsets, and bright red lipstick in her acts. But, she’s most known for her martini glass act. In this act, she appeared on stage in a giant martini glass wearing a sparkly little number.
Jean Idelle became a burlesque dancer in 1950 when she was discovered by a talent agency. She was the first black female fan dancer. Her burlesque dancing included feather fans and hypnotizing choreography.
She captured the hearts of many Americans while performing fearlessly at many whites-only clubs. Better known as “Sepia Sally Rand,” she was the talented and brave dancer who broke down racial barriers.
These three women paved the way for the burlesque performers we see on stage today.
Modern burlesque dancing
Today, we call these comedic, cabaret-style shows Neo-Burlesque, or New Burlesque. Thanks to the movie “Burlesque,” the traditional American burlesque has been revived to encompass a greater range of styles. These acts now include exotic choreography, musical/theatrical dramas, parodies, and political commentary.
What’s a burlesque show like?
To quote the musical group Journey, burlesque dancing shows can look a lot like “a singer in a smoky room.” But they’re so much more than that. They can include a host of different types of performances, depending on who’s on stage that night.
Let’s go over what a show today looks like.
A breakdown of a typical show
So, you’re going out for a burlesque night with your friends– what should you expect?
We’ve mentioned the huge range of talents included in a show. So, you might see singing, tap dancing, comedy, gymnastics, sketches…the list goes on. You should expect to watch a variety show with 4-6 minute acts of whatever talent or skill the performer wants to showcase.
It’s important to note that these shows can often be interactive. So, be prepared to get pulled on stage!
Who comes to the shows?
The typical audience at a burlesque dancing show is women and couples. Burlesque dances are women-empowering, so it’s common to see a large range of females at a show. You might see a few women in their 30s attending a show for a bachelorette party. Or, you could also see a grandma and granddaughter sitting in the audience for a fun girl’s night out.
It’s also important to note that these shows welcome all genders, sexual orientations, races, religions, and so forth. All walks of life come to enjoy the performance, and heteronormativity isn’t the norm.
What’s the purpose of burlesque dancing?
This dance style aims to tease nudity without actually fully stripping down. It’s also meant to be fun. After all, burlesque is derived from a comedic standpoint. The parodic, fun-loving nature of this style is portrayed in the exuberant costumes worn by the performers.
What do burlesque dancer outfits look like?
Burlesque entertainers not only express their originality through their routines but through their costumes as well. Over-the-top costumes are common at a general show. This looks like excessive makeup, wigs, and sparkly, unique outfits. You might also see different types of loungewear. The loungewear outfits are usually made with flowy, shimmery material.
Outfits may be created by professional costume designers or by the performers themselves.
Where can I see a show?
Burlesque performers aren’t seen on the stages in seedy men’s clubs. Typically, you’ll see these shows in dive bars. But, they’re becoming more common in modern speakeasy establishments. These speakeasy shows give a nice salute to the 1920s when burlesque hit its peak.
The three U.S. cities that have popular burlesque shows are Los Angeles, New Orleans, and San Francisco.
Don’t live in any of those cities? Here’s the good news– we have an amazing burlesque show with fearless dancers here in Minneapolis!
The Pourhouse is bringing Jeezy’s Juke Joint to the stage on July 9th and 10th! Come out to see this fabulous, jiving, revue as it pays homage to Black burlesque. The show includes a diverse range of acts, from classic burlesque dancing to drag comedy. Featuring the most talented brown-skinned burlesque starlights, it’s a show you don’t want to miss!