(WOMENSENEWS)–The music thumps. The men and women in the crowd whoop and clap. And the woman on stage slowly peels off a piece of her glittering costume.
It’s burlesque and it’s back.
Over the last 10 years, women have dusted off pasties and tassels in a rediscovery of classic burlesque, which ended its heyday in the early 1960s with the sexual revolution and increase of sex and nudity in other venues. Now, an over-sexed public is cheering for the sexy glamour of burlesque, which offers a glimpse but doesn’t bare it all.
The strip tease, which evolved as the big attraction, still grabs the spotlight. But the performance genre also incorporates comedy, skits and variety-style performance. Steps above the unadulterated strip club, neo-burlesque bumps the tease back into the strip. As burlesque becomes increasingly popular, showing up in clubs across the country, online, and in exercise classes, some performers are claiming the acts as part of a new feminism. Some scholars argue, however, that burlesque can still be interpreted as a form of exploitation of women’s bodies.
"The revival is a reaction to the MTV, HBO, sex-is-everywhere attitude," says Michelle Baldwin, who performs as Vivienne VaVoom in the Denver-based troupe Burlesque As It Was. "Burlesque takes that step back, where it’s not just about flesh and parts. It’s about foreplay and sensuality and costumes and glitter. It’s not so harsh."
Online and Everywhere Else
Since it began coming back in the mid-1990s, burlesque now seems to be everywhere: on television, on screen, on stage and online. The 2003 movie, "Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle," served up burlesque in a life-size martini glass, performed by Cameron Diaz. Troupes across the country, from Los Angeles to Madison, Wis., are attracting crowds to downtown clubs.
Thousands of Web sites offer online fan clubs and videos of burlesque performers led by stars such as Carmen Electra, who offers up a sizzling cardio striptease and the The Pontani Sisters, who get your heart rate pumping with Go Go Robics.
While neo-burlesque glances back over its bare shoulder to the era of striptease that danced through the nightclubs of the Jazz Age, it offers significant differences.
"Women who became strippers in the earlier era were mostly doing it because they needed money," says Rachel Shteir, author of "Striptease:The Untold History of the Girlie Show," a recounting of the entertainment’s history. "A lot of the women became striptease performers to escape rural poverty, abusive families and they were quite young. The women of the neo-burlesque movement are older. They’re in their 20s and 30s. And they’re mostly middle-class or upper-middle class. They’re not doing it for financial reasons. They’re doing it to explore an erotic presentation outside of pornography."
The audience today is also different, says Shteir. In decades past the audience was mostly male and working class and the genre was considered low-brow and naughty. Today–amid the powerful influence of the multi-billion-dollar-a-year porn industry–the audience is more middle-class, urban and female.
Claiming a Place in Feminism
Many performers are working to make a statement and claiming burlesque as part of a new feminism. They argue that by taking control of their acts, their bodies and how much or how little is shown, they are empowering themselves and their female audience.
"Our performances, persona, costumes, all of it comes from us," says Baldwin. "Before, women were given their persona and even their stage names by men. This time women are in control of their own image and that’s empowering. It gives us a voice women didn’t have before."
But not everyone’s convinced of neo-burlesque’s feminist spin.
"I think that’s an incomplete argument," says Shteir. "Is that really what feminism is about?" She added that many women’s rights activists from previous eras would not see this type of entertainment as positive.
"I think the important thing to consider is that there’s no one feminist view on a subject like this," says Allison Kimmich, executive director of the College Park, M.D.-based National Women’s Studies Association. "You’re going to find people in the field who absolutely agree with these performers and other people who would say it’s reinforcing women’s oppression. I think that there’s a certain historicism to this type of reclaiming something that was formerly viewed as exploitative of women. You certainly saw this same kind of movement around pornography in the 1970s and early 1980s."
While some performers, like Dita Von Teese, recreate classic burlesque acts, other performers meld burlesque with punk rock, 1960s culture or whatever else inspires them including politics.
"A lot of women are doing politically-edged performance," says Baldwin, referring to performers such as Chicago-based troupe Lickity Split. They use their dances, lyrics and comedy to speak out on reproductive rights, the war and gay and lesbian issues. "It’s almost like sugar-coating something. You’re taking a heavy political point, but it’s wrapped in rhinestones and music and a pretty girl."
"Feminism is not just about sex and sexual politics," says Shteir. "It’s about more than that. But I do think a powerful female performer who’s drawing on these archetypal striptease images can wield a lot of power by compelling all eyes to be on her. Is it a feminist thing? It’s not like 67 cents on the dollar or re-imagining the power structure or getting a woman into the White House. I don’t think there’s any confusion about that. But still there’s something very interesting going on there. The idea that the female body can command is powerful."
Baldwin adds that today’s burlesque challenges the stereotypes of what is sexy and beautiful. She points to troupes like the California-based Fat-Bottom Revue that feature plus-sized performers. "Burlesque celebrates women of every shape, size and color. It empowers women who are watching because they see an audience appreciating the sexiness of someone who looks a lot like them," says Baldwin.
"Anything that works to expand the range of body types that are reflected in American popular culture is certainly a plus for women," says Kimmich. "In mainstream media culture there’s far too much homogeneity."
Rummaging in History
Today’s performers admit they rummage through burlesque history and pick and choose what they want to keep.
"There was the down-and-dirty, Tijuana clubs," says Baldwin, referring to the carnival shows and grind houses where dancers were expected to bare more and do it quickly.
"But there were also women like Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr who took off their clothes with a mind to art," says Baldwin. "We’re much more interested in Lili St. Cyr than the underground, carnival, backroom burlesque. We’re definitely interested in what those women went through sociologically–and the darker side of burlesque–but as performers we’re interested in the high-glam, artier side."
Kelly DiNardo is a freelance writer and is working on a biography of burlesque legend Lili St. Cyr for Billboard Books.
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Golden Days of Burlesque Historical Society:
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