Recently, attendees from around the globe gathered at the Orleans Hotel in Las Vegas for the annual Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender.
The event spans four days, highlighting the movers, shakers, and legends of the burlesque world. Each night, the Orleans’ theater was packed with fans of the art form – most of whom are also performers themselves- cheering wildly through four and even five-hour long shows. It’s a marathon flurry of glitter and skin, organized as a fundraiser for the Burlesque Hall of Fame (BHoF) Museum, also headquartered in Las Vegas.
Kitten Natividad, a 70-year-old Mexican-American actress, porn star and renowned burlesque performer, was honored as Living Legend of the Year at the event. She says the museum and Weekender are incredibly meaningful.
“It means my life; I have been at it for 50 years,” she told PW. “To tell you the truth, there [were] a lot of sacrifices...but I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is my life and I love burlesque.”
With a re-emergence from near extinction and continuing to push further into the mainstream, the revival of burlesque has prompted many questions about where it belongs now, culturally. What differentiates it from its sister activity – club stripping – and what does this delineation tell us about sexuality, entertainment and economics today?
To understand that, we must look to the origins of the art form.
Burlesque itself descends from an Italian word meaning “to joke” or “to mock. The performance style started as a parody of haute couture and aristocracy. At its heart, burlesque is a working-class art form rooted in comedy, that has always existed in contrast to lofty, socially acceptable forms of entertainment.
It was also one of the only ways to see sexy ladies. It’s difficult for modern audiences to comprehend the excitement and taboo that burlesque evoked a hundred or even 50 years ago. Long before it was possible to watch TV at home – much less access free porn – burlesque was a decadent, raunchy and affordable entertainment option.
“Keep in mind stage actresses in the 19th century were all thought of as prostitutes/courtesans/sex workers and no respectable woman ‘took the stage’” says “Veronica,” a local artist who works both in burlesque and club stripping. “The burlesque dancer isn’t a club stripper, the club stripper isn’t an escort. However, historically speaking burlesque performers and club strippers always go down in history together.”
Burlesque largely separated from comedy with the death of vaudeville, and government crackdowns drove burlesque out of numerous American theaters in the 1940s. Many believed the art form would soon die out, but photography and video technology kept it alive.
As tastes among audiences changed, the performers who were able to adapt their style could remain successful in the industry for decades. After establishing herself as a glamorous traditional feature, Camille 2000 noticed audiences were more interested in seeing live nude dancing. She dropped her feather fans and rhinestones for a new performance art style she dubbed “aggressive art,” paying homage to Marquis de Sade. She worked in burlesque for 20 years and translated her notoriety into film and television work.
An exhibit at BHof details how the rise of modern strip clubs and porn once again nearly spelled the end of burlesque in the 1970s and 80s. But by the 1990s, the artform was revived by a neo-classical movement imitating the aesthetics of earlier eras. Its growth was also aided by the emergence of nerdlesque, a sub-genre of burlesque that pays homage to pop culture references like comic book characters or sci-fi movies. Since then, burlesque has expanded steadily throughout the country, though it looks dramatically different to those who remember it from before its near-death experience.
“When I got started it was really, really happening,” says Natividad of the contrast between burlesque of her era and today, “The girls carrying the torch now, they’re very, very talented, but it’s a different burlesque. It’ll never be what it was.”
She attributes this to the striking change in audience demographics, now that burlesque shows are most heavily attended by women. “We were more sexual, we performed for strictly men. When you perform for women, you focus on putting on a very talented, beautiful show; you forget about putting on the turn on, getting the wet on.”
Kay Sera, performer and head of communications at BHoF, noted the art form has grown dramatically in recent years.
“There is a bigger scene and more cities have a burlesque presence in them than they did a few years ago.” Yet, she says, there are some elements that stay the same. “Burlesque has always been an art form that was populated by marginalized people: the LGBTQIA community, women in general, sex workers.”
Ironically, the heavily feminist and queer influence that drives modern burlesque’s re-emergence has also driven a wedge between the often socially justice-oriented current performers and the living legends, many of whom are far from politically correct. While modern performers consider burlesque a feminist form of empowerment, the performers from decades ago recall the second wave feminist protesters who tried to close their clubs.
With every incarnation of the art form, there have been critics who object to its presence philosophically. The BHoF museum tour describes how protests were often some of the most effective marketing strategies. The taboo nature of the striptease was a major component of its popularity in the 19th and 20th century, and protests built up hype about specific acts and performers. While early feminists protested the exploitative nature of stripping, the performers of the classic era were among very few women at the time who were able to make hundreds or even thousands of dollars a week and live comfortably without being married.
Today, the landscape has changed in both entertainment and feminism, but some critics still question how burlesque can be considered an form of empowerment.
Others emphasize the distinction between the glamorous, respectable performance of burlesque and the degradation of club stripping. While some burlesque performers proudly call themselves strippers or even sex workers, others recoil from what they consider a devaluation of their art.
Philadelphia-area dancer DJ Alice, who will celebrate her 10-year “stripaversary” in December, looks on this debate with some amusement. “Gogo came from old burlesque shows. It was a constant stage show, more about individual performers and costuming and it mostly tip based. That is where stripping in its modern connotation started.”
The main difference today?
“The level of emotional labor involved,” Alice continued. “Not to say that burlesque performers don’t have to do emotional labor, they do- they have time interacting with customers and promoting online and in person, but when people are paying to see burlesque, they aren’t necessarily thinking they’re going to get five minutes talking to performer they like.”
This sentiment is echoed by James “Tigger!” Ferguson, a performer with three decades of stage experience, dubbed “Godfather of Neo-Boylesque,” who says, “Strip-joint strippers often work for one-on-one connections, making an individual spectator feel special. Burlesque performers are generally trying to do that to the entire room at once. Oh, and strip-joint strippers tend to make a lot more money. But they earn it!”
Money seems to be the other major distinction. DJ Alice says, “A lot of the girls who do both, use their stripping to pay for their burlesque habit. The level of compensation is part of people’s problem – it’s art as long as you’re not being properly compensated.”
Ultimately, Tigger! says, “The two art forms themselves are close kin, learning and borrowing from one another throughout their histories. It’s problematic when anyone tries to impose a caste system, treating burlesque performers as exceptions to the “dirty work” of being a stripper because they are ironic artists who are supposedly somehow above it. Burlesque is a proudly working-class art form, and we betray its roots and its purpose when we get elitist about it. We are ALL strippers.”