Why some formally trained dancers find an outlet in burlesque
If you hear someone’s a burlesque performer, you might remember Gypsy Rose Lee’s journey from young vaudeville to posh stripper in Gypsy, or even the painted ladies of Red Mill! Burlesque, however, is neither. And for the growing number of women who have found their way to nightly performances from a dance-concert milieu, burlesque can seem quite close to a feminist utopia, where female bodies and choreographic voices are celebrated. .
Yes, stereotypes and symbolism remain a problem. But burlesque performers often find an outlet they never imagined in formal dance studios. “It really fills my cup,” says Marcy Richardson, who blends aerial dance, opera and pole dancing in her nightlife act, and also performs with the burlesque company Company XIV. “I become my most authentic self and let go of all people’s expectations.”
The history of burlesque in the United States has deeper roots than modern dance or even ballet. It was born out of the Victorian music hall, Victorian burlesque and minstrel performances of the second half of the 19th century. The current version of burlesque most closely resembles that of the early 1900s, when vaudeville reigned supreme. Form flourished during Prohibition, and, partly pushed underground, striptease took center stage. A wave of censorship shut down shows in the late 1930s, but slapstick returned in the 1940s and 1950s, thanks to trailblazers like Lili St. Cyr and Tempest Storm.
Entrepreneurship remains firmly rooted in 21st century burlesque. Like concert-dance choreographers, burlesques often wear several hats: dancer, costume designer, self-promoter, make-up artist. âUsually we’re independent artists,â says Jeez Loueez, a New Orleans-based burlesque artist who started in musical theater. “It’s up to you to look for jobs and have your own rehearsal space, edit your own music and design your own costumes.”
One of the most rewarding differences from a formal dance career is how often you perform, says burlesque Dirty Martini. Burlesque acts translate well in a myriad of venues with the ability to put on a show quickly. âWhen you rehearse for a contemporary dance piece, it takes, what, six months to put on a concert, and maybe you can play for a weekend,â says Martini. “In the nightlife, there are shows four or five times a week. You can take an idea you have, and within a week it’s on stage.”
However, the need to constantly sell yourself in order to generate a loyal following and following is just as exhausting as the hustle and bustle demanded of contemporary independent choreographers. For most of Loueez’s burlesque career, she must have had enough butts in the seats to make a profit for herself. âSay there’s a bar that wants to have a burlesque show,â she says. âYou could contact a producer who will say, ‘Fine. It will cost me $ 2,000 to produce this event. “Now you have to sell tickets and match that cost before you get a share out of the gate.” Loueez likes to joke that if she worked at Walgreens, she wouldn’t need to constantly post on social media that everything everyone should come visit her at some point. “I wish I could go to work without having to shout every day on social media.”
Despite the bustling burlesque culture, the transition to nightlife for most dancers turned burlesque performers feels like taking a deep breath of fresh air. “Before burlesque, I went to auditions, and I could see that I was a better dancer, but I didn’t get the job because I looked a certain way or was the wrong size.” says Michelle Love, known colloquially as the most naked woman. While dancing for an industrial glam-rock band, the frontman, who she was dating, asked her if she would like to create a burlesque show as the opening act. Love said yes (“even though I had no idea what it was,” she laughs). When she did her first striptease, she knew it would be her life. (And this leader is now her husband.)
For Zelia Rose, a burlesque artist who is also a swing in the Australian production of Hamilton, the lack of needing to look or perform better than someone else is a big draw. âOf course there will always be competition,â she said, âbut there is never a feeling of ‘Oh, I compare myself to this person, how my body looks.’ It’s more of a celebration to come together. â
Burlesque offers a particular performance haven for tall women, who are fed up with concert-dance companies that seem to consistently take on a very specific body type: slim. When she graduated from Purchase College – a program she says entered weight probation – Martini knew the chances of finding a contemporary dance concert were low. âI auditioned for everyone and I knew no one was going to hire me because I was a size 14 or 16,â she says.
Richard Marz, courtesy of Rose
Carving out a space for herself and helping shape New York’s burlesque burlesque scene in the 1990s was thrilling. âIt’s exciting for me to showcase a body that gets people excited,â said Martini, former winner of the burlesque version of the Olympics, the Miss Exotic World pageant. âIt’s not just the men who are turned on because it’s exciting – the majority are women who are so turned on to see a body that isn’t reflected in magazines, TV or movies. : “Oh, thank God! Someone represents the majority of women in the United States who are over size 12. ‘ “
Of course, stereotypes still exist. âWhen you look at the way the shows are presented, it could be five thin white girls, a brunette girl and a fat girl,â says Jezebel Express, a burlesque dancer who recently started performing. in a specially equipped school bus. “You always see a certain idea that people are welcome, but only if they reach a very high standard.” It’s common for tall performers to feel relegated to comedic routines, Express says: “They expect to have to hijack their sexuality.”
Burlesque, like almost all areas of performance, still has work to do to move beyond the symbolic stage and successfully integrate artists of color. âI have to always be the representation card,â says Rose. “I will often be the only POC visible on shows.”
It’s also an issue of audience diversity, Loueez says. âProducers will ask me, ‘How can I make my audience more diverse? “She said.” Well you’ve booked 10 skinny white women! If you don’t see yourself reflected on stage, you won’t go to these shows. “
Loueez, who 10 years ago founded Jeezy’s Juke Joint, a Black Burly Q magazine, to shine a light on black burlesque artists, is using her teaching career as a tool for change. âI started teaching because I was fed up with seeing ownership,â she says. âA lot of people used it for a comedic effect: ‘How hilarious that I’m white and trying to twerk!’ But if a black burlesque artist did the same act, it would be too stripper or scorching. I have to remember that burlesque is not a sparkling bubble where racism, ableism and classicism don’t exist. “
This is a space, the artists argue, that offers a wider range of self-expression than its concert dance counterpart and appears more ready to tackle problematic issues that need to be addressed. âWe live in a culture that has created a hierarchy of organs in the service of the patriarchy,â Express says. “But people are slowly getting off the train, one at a time. And I can help them get off the train – with burlesque.”