Whilst I was studying at university I dabbled in writing for the uni magazine. After going to see my first burlesque show I wrote a piece entitled ‘Burlesque, Boobs and Bawdy Humour’. Since then I’ve seen a couple more burlesque shows and even given it a go myself so I thought I’d revisit the topic and refresh my thoughts on the subject.
Before watching that first show I had no interest in watching other women take their clothes off. I had bought tickets for a friend’s birthday present and was mildly curious about this particular genre of performance due to the controversy that accompanies it. The idea of young ladies stripping on stage, not due to some harrowing back story of teenage pregnancy or drug abuse, but out of free choice and because – shock horror – they enjoy it, appears not to sit well with many. This, coupled with the feminist view that it is objectifies women and that it encourages the ever-present male gaze, has resulted in burlesque holding an unstable position in the eyes of the general public.
So when waiting in line with groups of gal pals dressed up in corsets, fascinators and fish nets I was eager to understand why on earth women enjoy performing burlesque. Getting practically naked on stage in front of thousands of people sound to me like the content of a particularly harrowing nightmare so why do they do it, who goes to watch it and ultimately – is there any harm in it? Burlesque has its origins in dramatic performances, which were designed to create humour through a ludicrous presentation of its subject. It has now mutated into the burlesque we know – the variety performance and the art of the female striptease. That first show I went to consisted of a group of girls named The Folly Mixtures who did collaborative and solo performances displaying the history and variation within burlesque. There were also fire dancers, bump and grind, great vocal performances along with the more traditional fan dances and strip tease routines. Not only this, there were also male knife throwers and acrobats. Between each act we were delighted by witty and bawdy audience interaction from our fabulous host. Her pithy and intelligent banter had me laughing harder than any stand up comedy performance I had seen for some time.
The nakedness at first was shocking but this was because it breaks down barriers that we are all accustomed to in society. It is not a usual activity (for the clear majority of us – I assume) to sit ten feet away from ladies seductively stripping down to thongs and nipple tassels for one’s entertainment. In a society littered with a new feminist discourse it is frowned upon to enjoy such a display of sexy flesh. However, this show was not crude or vulgar and this was clearly reflected in the audience it attracted. At least 80% of the audience I encountered was female, whether for hen parties, mothers with daughters (in some cases grandma too!) or just a group of mates enjoying a night out. I did not see one man in the audience who was not accompanying a woman. These shows do not encourage leering men to come and perv on the scantily clothed dancers – in fact many of the men looked rather uncomfortable. I don’t blame them. This is a subversion of their social norms too. They are usually reprimanded for looking at women and yet here are a set of beautiful ladies who are encouraging, nay insisting that they look and they enjoy.
Watching other people perform burlesque is one thing, giving it a go for yourself is an entirely different story. Kelly, the friend whose birthday had given us the excuse to go along to that first show, got married last summer and I, as bridesmaid, was responsible for masterminding her hen party and of course it just had to be! I organised for the group of ladies of all ages, from school friend’s to the bride-to-be’s Nan, to take part in a two hour burlesque dance lesson. We arrived in the bar in London’s Leicester Square fashioning the stockings, heels and long gloves we’d been instructed to wear. We were then greeted by our instructor Khandie Kisses, looking fabulous in her sparkling sky scraper heels and pink hair. It wasn’t til later I found out she’s been named the UK’s best burlesque act for the last two years!
We spent the next two hours learning the basics of how to remove gloves in a seductive manner with our teeth, pulling our stockings off over our heads and thinking of ourselves as saleswomen who are selling their audience a super sexy fridge that comes with a free ice box – no joke. I cannot say I speak for all the ladies in that room but I can say with a great confidence from the volume of laughing and the enthusiasm with which the gloves and stockings were hitting the floor, we all thoroughly enjoyed it. It makes you feel sexy and I am of the firm opinion that every woman desires to feel that way, not for a man or anyone else but for herself.
This was me getting grips with flinging my stockings off over my head and Kelly looking glam with the feather fans.
Burlesque is incredibly self aware. It knows what it is and the boundaries it crosses. It laughs at itself for its subversive behaviour and encourages you to laugh along with it. Burlesque dancers laugh in the face of the feminists who call their art form degrading by creating sphere in which men and women alike are encouraged to admire and celebrate the female form in all its naked glory and respect the woman who displays her boobs and bum to many who wish they had the confidence to do the same. Also, by drawing out the seduction and accentuating every inch of skin as it is revealed, burlesque reminds its audience that taking your clothes off is a big deal. She, being in control of her own body, is the one who decides when and how her clothes come off. It serves as a poignant reminder that ultimately being invited to observe a woman take her clothes off is privilege, not a right and that privilege should not be abused.
This brings me to the answers I have found to my earlier questions…
Why do women enjoy performing burlesque? They enjoy it because it is empowering. For a limited amount of time each night they can escape the confines of social convention which demands that to be a lady is to be covered up. In fact they prove that, down to its bare essentials, what it is to be female and they have the ability to inspire adoration for the female form through their bodies.
Who watches burlesque and why? Burlesque attracts a predominantly female audience. It takes a particular type of man to watch a burlesque show – from my experience a reluctant boyfriend or husband, whereas it appears to appeal to women from all walks of life. This I believe is because through all the bravado, humour and sexiness it has a very clear message: the importance of being comfortable in your own skin – a message every girl of any age can relate to. Burlesque performers embody this moral to its extreme, as to stand (almost) naked in front of over a thousand people is the definition of body confidence.
Lastly – is there any harm in it? I think that burlesque is largely misunderstood. From an outside perspective it is far too easy to plant it in the same category as a strip club. I am a feminist and to hear burlesque tarnished with the brush of objectifying women shows to me ignorance about its essence and its motives. Its lighthearted nature, comedy and elegance (not to mention its male performers) set burlesque apart from the strip club which are in the business of making profit through the exploitation of the female body. Therefore, if both the art form and the girls which perform it are given the respect they deserve then no, it is not harmful. In fact, I would argue that it is a force for good which celebrates womanhood and serves as a reminder to all that a woman’s body is hers control and to flaunt. If she decides to share it, that’s her prerogative and that prerogative does not disappear with her clothes. The fact that it can do all this and maintain such a pithy sense of humour is, in my opinion, is definitely deserving of a standing ovation.
What are your thoughts on burlesque? Have you or would you ever give it a try?