What is Burlesque? That is the question. In one succinct blog post using my experience, research and tons of links, I’m going to try to answer that question as simple as possible for those looking for a quick answer, and as thoughtfully as possible, for those seeking a more in-depth answer.
Asking “what is burlesque?” is just like asking “what is theater?” Burlesque is a genre of art and entertainment. I want to explore the concept of theater first, so you can truly understand the scope of burlesque beyond “a woman doing a striptease.” According to Wikipedia, “Theater is a collaborative form of fine art that uses live performers to present the experience of a real or imagined event before a live audience in a specific place, often a stage.” Fine art, according to Wikipedia, “is art developed primarily for aesthetics or beauty, distinguishing it from applied art, which also has to serve some practical function, such as pottery or most metal work.”
That means to say that theater exists for beauty and pleasure. While it can have social context and change the world, its a fine art in that it acknowledges some things exist for the joy of its beauty and the sensation of its pleasure.
Let’s look at more of the definition of theater. “The performers may communicate this experience to the audience through combinations of gesture, speech, song, music, and dance. Elements of art, such as painted scenery and stagecraft such as lighting are used to enhance the physicality, presence and immediacy of the experience. The specific place of the performance is also named by the word “theatre.”
So that’s “theater,” whether it be Broadway, Shakespeare or puppet theater.
So what is burlesque? We can explore Wikipedia some more! Burlesque “is a literary, dramatic or musical work intended to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner or spirit of serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects.” Burlesque is a parody of theater. At least its origins. We haven’t gotten into what is Neo-Burlesque as a dance genre. I’m simply exploring the original definition of this art form. And by definition, its burlesque is a parody of theater, or just a parody of serious art and culture.
Here’s more from wikipedia. “The word derives from the Italian burlesco, which, in turn, is derived from the Italian burla – a joke, ridicule or mockery” Burlesque overlaps in meaning with caricature, parody and travesty, and, in its theatrical sense, with extravaganza, as presented during the Victorian era. A later use of the term, particularly in the United States, refers to performances in a variety show format. These were popular from the 1860s to the 1940s, often in cabarets and clubs, as well as theatres, and featured bawdy comedy and female striptease.”
That’s burlesque by its most basic and history definition.
- A grotesque imitation of the dignified or pathetic or serious and comic elements were juxtaposed or combined to achieve a grotesque effect.
- “Victorian burlesque, sometimes known as “travesty” or “extravaganza“, was popular in London theatres between the 1830s and the 1890s. It took the form of musical theatre parody in which a well-known opera, play or ballet was adapted into a broad comic play, usually a musical play, often risqué in style, mocking the theatrical and musical conventions and styles of the original work. The comedy often stemmed from the incongruity and absurdity of the classical subjects, with realistic historical dress and settings, being juxtaposed with the modern activities portrayed by the actors.” This is why you see the costume silhouettes within burlesque, they were traditional to their specific era in time. They wore the dress of who they were mocking.
- “American burlesque shows were originally an offshoot of Victorian burlesque. The English genre had been successfully staged in New York from the 1840s, and it was popularised by a visiting British burlesque troupe, Lydia Thompson and the “British Blondes”, beginning in 1868. New York burlesque shows soon incorporated elements and the structure of the popular minstrel shows. They consisted of three parts: first, songs and ribald comic sketches by low comedians; second, assorted olios and male acts, such as acrobats, magicians and solo singers; and third, chorus numbers and sometimes a burlesque in the English style on politics or a current play. The entertainment was usually concluded by an exotic dancer or a wrestling or boxing match. By the 1880s, the four distinguishing characteristics of American burlesque had evolved: 1. Minimal costuming, often focusing on the female form. 2. Sexually suggestive dialogue, dance, plotlines and staging. 3. Quick-witted humor laced with puns, but lacking complexity. 4. Short routines or sketches with minimal plot cohesion across a show.”
You can really get a quick trip down the rabbits hole by exploring Burlesque, Neo-Burlesque, Victorian Burlesque, Striptease, Minstrel Shows, and Can-Can on Wikipedia. If you want to explore the websites that share the history and culture of Burlesque, click here. I curated a list for you. All That Glitters Dance and Academy has a post titled, “Burlesque History” that I found helpful.
Knowing its historical definition and bringing it into modern day context, Burlesque is extreme parody, emotional storytelling and extravagant striptease. Its theatrical (dramatic), political and entertaining. Its naughty and taboo. Its fun and humorous too. Also within Burlesque, there are genres from Classic Burlesque to Nerdlesque to Cheesecake or Neo-Burlesque.
As Burlesque is a form of entertainment, just like Theater, that means people (the audience) go to see it. Thus “Burlesque Shows.” People go to see Burlesque Shows. In the US, as far as I know, Burlesque Shows have manifested in a few ways…
- Variety Show – a curated night of entertainment featuring all sorts of art forms including poets, singers, comedians, musicians, aerial artists, burlesque dancers and a host.
- Curated Burlesque Show – a curated night of entertainment featuring individual burlesque dancers/acts and a host.
- Theatrical Burlesque Show – a theatrically produced night of entertainment featuring burlesque dancers such as House of Perle.
You can experience a burlesque show in a theater, entertainment venue or at a supper club like Duane Park or at an immersive event created by Production companies like Sublime Boudoir. Burlesque may come in the form of Shanghai Mermaid, The Fly Honeys or The Box.
In order for people to experience Burlesque Shows in any genre, covering any theme, that means there need to be Burlesque Performers. Thus the need for Burlesque Dancers, Burlesque Schools, Burlesque Classes and Burlesque Dance Troupes. As the genre gained popularity, those classes were also being taken by the general public as a form of fitness, nostalgia or new fun hobby. And as the industry continued to grow, Burlesque has its own conferences, competitions and more.