It's Not The Strip But The Tease
It is all about inspiration. Or having a gimmick. Or inhabiting a character. Or telling your audience a story. Or maybe it’s just all about taking your clothes off.
The line between stripping and burlesque is thinner than a G-string.
I asked numerous exotic and burlesque dancers what the difference is between the two. After hearing that it’s like the difference between spandex and rhinestones, or that asking a burlesque performer to try and define stripping is like asking a butcher to cut hair, I knew there was a little further to go.
“There is a different level of involvement between the two, creatively, emotionally and physically,” says a New Orleanian who performs in both worlds and asked to keep her anonymity. “Although there are plenty of exotic dancers that really do try to add an element of performance art entertainment into their stage sets, the purpose of exotic dancing is to make as much money as possible, whereas burlesque typically has a lot less to do with money. It’s important that burlesque dancers are compensated, but (burlesque) is much more about fulfilling our creative niches and putting on a show for a show’s sake. Physically, there’s a lot less physical contact with our audiences.” She continues, “for example, it would be inappropriate to ask a burlesque dancer, after her performance, for some ‘private time.’ Although at a strip club, by golly, we would love to hang out with you one on one in the safety of the club.”
In addition, there are business differences, such as that most exotic dancers have to pay the club a fee up front, much like many salon stylists, which means their focus is on making money through tips, whereas a burlesque artist is paid to perform his or her act on a stage.
But even defining burlesque on its own can be problematic. When you look up the term in dictionaries you find things like “a kind of entertainment that was popular in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that included funny performances, singing, dancing, etc., and sometimes performances in which women take off their clothes.” Which really doesn’t tell you much.
So What Is Burlesque?
Performer Trixie Minx says that while burlesque means many things to many people, it’s simply the art of tease. “Whether playing peekaboob with a boa or a flirtatious wink, it’s the live interaction between performer an audience that defines it.”
“It’s like a cross between Vegas showgirls, Broadway dancers and insatiable flirts,” says Ginger Licious. “It may or may not involve clothing removal, rarely involves touching the audience and may be satirical, comical, storytelling or classically beautiful.”
“It’s not just taking off your clothes,” says Ruby Rage. “It’s removing something as simple as a stocking or a glove, but doing it in a long, drawn out fashion that makes you think, ‘Wow, that was clever.’ I believe that burlesque allows an audience to loose themselves from reality to come in and see a theatrical act, or an act of humor, that allows them to let go and laugh and even cry.”
With aspects of drag, circus, acrobatics, vaudeville and sideshow just to name a few, “I would end the explanation,” says performer GoGo McGregor, “by telling them, ‘It’s a good f—ing time and you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced it.”
“I mainly do nerdlesque and neo-burlesque. I’m a big nerd at heart, and prior to burlesque I was a cosplayer. When I found out I could incorporate my love of comics and manga with burlesque, I jumped into it head first.” – May Hemmer
The History of The Tease
Derived from the Italian word burls, which means joke, ridicule or mockery, burlesque has been in use in the English language since the 17th century (though some would say that Salome’s veil dance as recorded in the Bible was the first appearance in print). During the Victorian era it referred to satirical, comedic plays that parodied the upper class.
Burlesque as we know it originated in the United Kingdom and was brought to New York City in 1868 by Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes. This racy form of vaudevillian theater quickly became a success and spread throughout the United States. Seen primarily as part of variety shows, vaudeville producers hurried to add the stripteases as a way to keep audiences in their seats.
New Orleans in particular saw burlesque’s popularity. Jazz has been reputed to have risen out of Storyville at the turn of the 20th century, and many a bump and grind was performed to the sultry sounds of the burgeoning music, inextricably linking the two. Bourbon Street at the time was lined on both sides by dancers, comics, risqué singers and contortionists, all backed by live music. Men and women dressed in their finest garb to visit Leon Prima’s 500 Club, the Sho Bar and the Casino Royale to see Lilly Christine the Cat Girl, Blaze Starr, Evangeline the Oyster Girl and many others (see box).
But as stripping as we know it today began to be the norm, burlesque faded into the background across the country. Starting with New York City’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia outlawing it in the 1940s and followed by the sexual revolution of the ’60s and the creation of the porn industry, even New Orleans’ own District Attorney Jim Garrison began to “clean up” Bourbon Street in August ’62, raiding clubs and arresting girls for obscenity. As club owners replaced live music with records, and go-go dancers and strippers replaced the aging burlesque performers, the art form faded into obscurity.
“I most commonly perform in a classic or rockabilly style, but I’m also well known to throw in some classic sideshow in with my performances.
I don’t have a favorite type of burlesque to perform. Every show is different and every audience is different, so every outcome is different. I just love making the audience happy, whether it’s classic, neo, circus or comedic. But, I will say, I love to emcee and be the big mouth with the mic, leading everyone on their journey of burlesque!” – GoGo McGregor
The Rise of neo-Burlesque
People have become nostalgic for titillation, and burlesque is on the rise again. As stripping pushed out burlesque, so too did the Internet and the porn industry begin to make stripping less popular. Audiences began to, as Trixie Minx puts it, “crave less flesh and more perfume.”
In 1994, the first agreed upon “neo-burlesque” on record was performed by the Royal Angel Cabaret in New York City. In New Orleans we had the Shim Shamettes. Though curiously enough when they began in ’99, “a fair number of Shim Shamettes made a living stripping on Bourbon Street,” says Bethany Lemanski, owner of Gwendolyn Entertainment, who performed as Mimi Amour, “so in a way I think that enveloping its history and honoring the founders of this craft actually gave dancers an artistic validation to the work being done in the modern day clubs. I think that performing burlesque was like taking continuing education classes for those dancers on this history of their art.”
Though all new, even their location was steeped in history. The Shim Sham Club was originally Leon Prima’s 500 Club on Bourbon Street, and in the late 1990s, according to the Utne Reader, it was reopened on Toulouse Street as a jazz club.
“When we performed the first Shim Shamette shows,” she says, “there was a focus on bringing back the historic dances of the burlesque from the late 19th century and early to mid-20th century. We performed the historic French can-can dance in period costumes, and many of our dance numbers emulated the classic burlesque stars of the ’40s and ’50s by honoring their craft and their signature numbers.”
Celebrating these historical performances included new takes on old shows. “Lorelei Fuller did a finale performance that paid homage to Evangeline the Oyster Girl; she burst out of a giant oyster shell and danced onstage with a humongous pearl.”
“I think that the burlesque created by Lorelei Fuller, Nina Bozak and Sarah Lavine was one of those types of performances originally aimed at the creative New Orleans community,” she continues, “but instead ended up being so popular and engaging that the burlesque performances of the Shim Shamettes morphed into a worldwide renaissance.”
When the Shim Shamettes downsized to become the Southern Jeze-Belles (2002-2005), The Shim Sham Revue (2001-2003) were followed by the Storyville Starletts (2003-present), then Bustout Burlesque (2005-present) and then Fleur De Tease (2006-present), followed by Rev. Spooky LeStrange & the Billion Dollar Babydolls, Slow Burn Burlesque, The Roux and many more.
“I love to perform all types of burlesque. I like to make people laugh and I love to make people stare in awe. For those three minutes on that stage (the length of a typical performance) it’s about me and my connection with the audience. No matter if it’s a sexy tease or if it’s a silly act that has an incredible pun at the end of it, I really like to capture an audience. In the past six years I have performed everything from rock ‘n’ roll acts, neo-burlesque, humor burlesque, classic burlesque, fan dances and I’ve even been a ninja. It’s an amazing time to really show case your art and your creativity.” – Ruby Rage
What It Means Today
With this resurgence, the idea of burlesque has also changed. Once primarily entertainment, today burlesque also incorporates feminism, sexuality and sexual expression. Today’s performers speak of bodily acceptance and using their craft as a means of speaking out on sexual, social and even political issues. “One word,” defines performing burlesque says May Hemmer, “empowerment.”
In addition, New Orleans’ burlesque stands out among the crowd not only for the amount of performers who have made the city their home (three moved here from across the United States in May alone) but because almost all of the troupes are produced by the performers themselves.
“As a burlesque performer you’re typically responsible for your own costume design, choreography and music selection to create a solo routine, but as a producer you’re able to expand on that process to build an entire show,” says Minx. “This role isn’t necessarily glamorous, but it’s incredibly rewarding to construct whatever you can imagine on a larger scale, especially when you can do it with other talented artists you respect and admire.”
“As a producer, it’s quite literally your job to make sure every person involved in the production has their needs met, meaning the other performers, the venue and their staff and of course the audience are happy with the way the show is going,” says performer and producer Xena Zeit-Geist, who’s also the Founder and Artistic Director of The Society of Sin Burlesque & Variety troupe, which specializes in nerdlesque. “You have your hand in nearly every aspect of the production, and the show’s success is riding on you and how much time and effort you put into it in a way that it’s not when you’re just performing.
Individual performers can make or break a show with a phenomenal performance or a subpar one, but it’s the producer’s responsibility to curate the whole production, so the success or failure of the individual performers you’ve hired reflects back on you. … It takes a lot of the pressure off you as the producer when you know you’ve got a group of dedicated people on board who have your back and who you trust to add their creative energy to the mix.”
“I’m not an expert on how each troupe works across the nation,” Bethany says, “but I don’t think that it can hurt that tourists add burlesque shows to their list of things to do on their trip to New Orleans. Having a demand for shows keeps troupes energized.” She continues, “New Orleans is an independent creative city, it doesn’t surprise me that performers design their costumes and choreograph their own numbers. It’s another way the city nurtures creative expression. And if you haven’t noticed, the women of New Orleans are strong willed and resilient. I can’t imagine them doing it any other way.”
“I always strive to be a versatile performer and never want the audience to feel that I’m being predictable – that’s such a gross word. I perform both classic and neo-burlesque as well as comedic roles. Everything ranging from vintage 1940s powder puffs, feather fans and pointe shoe acts to New Orleans bounce rap to the macabre. I love it all. I refuse to dance in a box.” – Roxie Le Rouge
What the Future May Hold
As the novelty of going to see a burlesque performance wears off, the future of burlesque is up for debate. Some well known performers have begun to take, as Dita Von Teese called hers, a mini-retirement, and Dr. Lucky, “the only Doctor with a PH(Double)D,” wrote last year that burlesque has become “an art form that has become over focused on appearance and self promotion.”
The local performers I spoke with hope that it becomes recognized as an art form, like jazz has become, that the variety of performances continues to grow and the community that has been nurtured by performers/producers such as Trixie Minx, Roxie le Rouge and Xena Zeit-Geist remains intact. To that end, they worry that the corporatization that comes along with being popular will eclipse the art of the performance.
“I think the future of burlesque is already here,” says Rev. Spooky LeStrange. “As with all forms of art it will continue growing and changing. It will attract its milquetoasts and dilettantes, it’s frauds. Every so often it will be touched by great genius. Some will use it as a stepping-stone, and some will do it just for the love and passion of it all. It isn’t going anywhere anytime soon; it will just evolve.”
Whether burlesque eclipses the clubs on Bourbon Street to reclaim its early glory, becomes the corporate world’s latest gimmick or is seen to be just another performance to see on the weekends alongside jazz, New Orleans’ love affair with the art of tease seems here to stay.
“I typically perform circus burlesque involving additional skills such as aerial arts, partner acrobatics, stilt walking or sideshow. I have a comical style, very hammy and cheese ball with lots of ridiculous facial expression. I like to be funny and sexy. Making my audience laugh is my favorite thing.” – Ginger Licious
Blaze Starr started stripping in the 1940s, found her calling and was billed as the Queen of Burlesque. She worked with dangerous cats and had love affairs with influential men, including, according to her biography, former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, John F. Kennedy and former Louisiana Governor Earl Long.
Evangeline the Oyster Girl left home at 16 and moved to New Orleans, calling herself Kitty West. As the Oyster Girl, she headlined the Casino Royale. She is also known for her feud with fellow dancer Divena, who performed an underwater tease. When Divena received high billing, Evangeline took an axe to the tank during a show – and a reporter from Life happened to be there to document it.
Known as Tajmah Jewel of the Orient, for an act of the same name, Gloria Bramande (married name Dillon) began dancing at 13 at the club where her mother, Tina Marie, was a waitress. Her most well known act, “The Spider and the Virgin,” was performed with her mother, and newspaper ads called it “the most unusual stage production ever seen.” When she headlined at the 500 Club, she invited her priest (she attended Mass regularly at St. Louis Cathedral) to approve the act, which he did.
Wild Cherry was born and raised in a circus family. As a teen, she began dancing in the girlie shows. She moved to New Orleans in 1958, got a job dancing at the Mardi Gras Lounge on Bourbon Street performing under the name Torchy, but soon took on the title Wild Cherry. She performed an “Oriental” into Afro-Cuban style, dancing in clubs across the French Quarter into her mid-40s.
“On any given week, I’m performing all the styles! However, my favorite leans more towards the neo and performance art genre. I love using this genre to challenge the audience’s idea of what they find entertaining and sexy.” – Bella Blue
Step-by-Step of an Act
From concept to creation to the final product, there’s no exact formula for creating a burlesque act. But no matter what order you use, every act should have all of the following components:
1. Inspiration: Almost always the way to start an act. It can be anything from a line of text to a simple observation, but it’s the moment when you realize “Oh! This would be an awesome act!”
2. Movement/Character: Your inspiration has to transition from an idea into something physical. There is a theme to everything; you can replicate and build upon this through movement and character development.
3. Costuming: In burlesque, the costume is the silent dance partner. Once you have a basic idea of how you want to move and act, you costume your character accordingly. This is perhaps one of the most time-consuming parts of the process. Besides the basic construction there’s also multiple hours of hand-stitching beaded fringe or gluing individual rhinestones to every surface possible, and of course there, are a zillion layers.
4. Music: Music can be the inspiration of an act, but it’s an absolutely necessary component to a strong burlesque routine. It is the beat of burlesque, the accent and melody to the movement. If the two don’t pair up like peanut butter and jelly, it’s just not right.
5. Rehearse: Practice makes perfect, especially when your act depends on working with costumes, props and other performers. You can twirl a million times, but if you can’t figure out how to keep that tassel attached to your body, it doesn’t do you much good.
6. Showtime: Burlesque is ephemeral, which is part of what makes that moment on stage so magical. Performing is the moment we share our art with the audience, and that’s ultimately the purpose of this whole process.
– Trixie Minx