Making a Sexy Statement: Burlesque as Performance Art

Most of you may not know this, but the original purpose of burlesque, even in performance, was often to make a political statement.  In fact, if you do an internet search to find burlesque performances, don’t be surprised if you stumble upon some old texts from the 1800’s with burlesque in the title.  The word was originally used to describe literature, music, and theater and essentially referred to a style that used humor or lightheartedness to deal with an otherwise serious, “high brow,” or political topic.  Burlesque as a performance style, on the other hand, has come in and out of fashion in the U.S. over the past century and a half, and each revival has had its own signature style.  In the mid to late 1800’s, burlesque first became a novelty in the theater scene in America, where it arose as satires and parodies that made political statements, using a tongue-in-cheek tone to disarm the audience and open them up to what was being said, much in the same way shows like The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live do today.  In those days, women might have been an accessory to the action, but it wasn’t yet the naked lady show we think of today.  In the early 1900’s, you started to have a little more of the lady action as burlesque was often a part of vaudeville, circus, and side show acts, and the hoochie coochie girls hoping to emulate belly dancers began to appear on the scene.  Then came the glorious 30’s-60’s era, which is what people usually recall when they associate burlesque with stripping.  Although these ladies may in some ways be thought of as counterparts to our current day strippers, and that era of burlesque as merely the strip scene of the day, many of these women began to elevate stripping into an art form, using their dance and theater training to create a truly spectacular show, akin to what someone might see Dita Von Teese doing these days.  Others, like Blaze Starr, pushed the limits of the day and performed such extreme acts as having animals rip their clothes off on stage.  Finally, in the early 1990’s, burlesque was resuscitated once again, although this time it was directed into more of a “girl power” statement, where women (and some men) were using the classic striptease art form to uniquely express themselves and their independence.  This time around it wasn’t about women being corralled on stage to make a buck, but rather an opportunity for them to make their own sexy statements, and at times these expressions overlapped into performance art in their use of sexuality to make a point. 

Since its earliest incarnation, burlesque has been used to make a political or personal statement of some sort, even if those intentions have not always been obvious.  Theater is a great vehicle for making a political statement, but once burlesque transitioned to more of a striptease style, it became less obvious that something just as radical was being presented, even if the content was not overtly political.  When graceful and elegant stars such as Sally Rand and Lili St. Cyr used their dance training to elevate striptease and fan dancing to an art form in the 30’s and 40’s, even in the face of many confrontations with the law, they proved that a woman dancing naked and sensually can be beautiful and breathtaking.  Gypsy Rose Lee, possibly the most famous burlesque star of all time, used her wit and charm to seduce and tease her audience, often taking off little more than a glove but still leaving everyone entranced and proving that a “stripper” can be intelligent and self possessed.  Other “wilder” stars, like Wild Cherry and Blaze Starr, allowed their ferocious and untamed sex drives to take the stage in the 50’s and 60’s and never apologized for their desires or sex appeal. In the current DIY version of neo-burlesque, anyone and everyone is allowed to get up on stage and take off their clothes, no matter what their ethnicity, age, size, gender, sexual orientation, what have you.  This in itself is a huge statement, since burlesque is allowing everyone to have the opportunity to show a hopefully receptive audience why they’re sexy, even if it’s not the version of sexy that’s being promoted in the media.  In addition, just the act of women taking off their clothes in public can be quite politically charged.  Recently I was standing in a fully lit convention room with a crowd of other burlesquers as we all watched a fellow performer, almost completely naked, shake everything she had with furious abandon while standing on a table.  For a moment I stepped outside of myself and realized just how incredible it was that we were all giving her permission to publically perform such a taboo act, but it also struck me as sad that this is still such a revolutionary act, a naked woman dancing in public that is, considering just how beautiful, thrilling, and awe-inspiring burlesque can be.   

Of course, going beyond the simple act of getting naked in public, or better yet, being an atypical version of sexy, burlesque performances can be taken even further into true performance art territory.  This can include everything from throwing about fake feces and pulling things out of various orifices (and then including the audience in on the fun), to realistically enacting explicit sexual acts.  Of course, in this arena, there are still a couple of things that usually distinguish burlesque from performance art.  In burlesque, the acts performed are “pretend,” i.e. pretend felatio, pretend blood, pretend nakedness, as opposed to actually being performed in performance art.  The second primary difference, and the one that I think trademarks burlesque and makes it so effective, is that burlesque uses several tactics, such as sexiness, flirtiness, and humor, that performance art generally steers clear of.  A performance artist might use sex to make the audience feel uncomfortable or to make a statement, but a burlesque performance artist would use sexiness to do this, which is quite different.  With burlesque, the performer seduces the audience first, even if she will later choose to shock them into submission.  This may seem to make performance art more serious (quite literally at times) or “higher,” and therefore more legitimate, but the genius of the tactics burlesque uses is that they open the audience up more, and the revolutionary ideas being presented can sneak their way into the minds of the unsuspecting onlookers.  Just like using honey to catch more flies, disarming the audience and helping them to loosen up allows the performer’s statement to get in a little easier and possibly last longer since it seems so innocuous.  After all, think of all the homophobes you know who may have had to adjust their views about homosexuality once they discovered that a close relative, such as a sibling or child, was gay.  Suddenly this “issue” that they were so staunchly on one side of has a very human face just on the other side of the dividing line. The same can happen with a great burlesque performance when the performer charms or seduces the audience over to her side.  Someone who may have only been able to sexually categorize women in two ways, whores and wife material, has an epiphany during an act that something can be sexual and pure at the same time.  What a concept!  Creating this tension in the viewers, they may not jump fences or be able to immediately resolve the issue for themselves, but they will leave the show having enjoyed themselves, and this in and of itself will mean that everything won’t be quite so black and white for them anymore.        

For me, burlesque was what I wanted to do before I knew it existed, and I hear this from a lot of other passionate burlesque performers who also feel that their discovery of burlesque was an epiphany.  Probably about three years before I discovered burlesque, I realized that what I really wanted to do art form-wise was performance art, but I also found myself wanting to be a stripper, and I couldn’t quite see how the two would work together.  After all, if I chose to be a conventional modern day stripper, I could make a lot of money, but it wouldn’t be seen as respectable and I would possibly be putting myself into dangerous situations or ones that would eat away at my self-esteem, even as I was becoming more sexually powerful.  Performance art on the other hand was seen as respectable, even when it was controversially sexual, but it seemed to use sex in a non-sexy way, which wasn’t what I wanted either.  I wanted something where I could choose to be sexy and flirty and pretty if desired, but still confront people’s established ideas about sex, women, and spirituality.  In fact, what I ultimately wanted to do was use prettiness and sexiness to draw an audience in, especially the men, and then change the game on them and see how they responded to it.  This is why I think burlesque can be so effective at getting your point across, because many things that are usually seen as superficial or “low,” such as sexiness, humor, wit, charm, beauty, vulnerability, and exuberance, can be used to draw an audience in and disarm them from all of the preconceived notions they usually carry around with them.  Also when an act is suffused with these tactics, it can seem less like the audience is being attacked or their values confronted, so they might not be as easily offended as they would be during a performance art piece.  Another great thing about any performance art, especially a self-created one, is that it is a living art form.  The medium is an actual living, breathing, human being, and as a true artist evolves over time, the piece can evolve over time as well, and therefore the act can constantly be refined and nuanced and even updated to a more immediate political or social climate. 

Every time I witness a great burlesque performance, my mind is boggled once again at how this is still such a relatively unknown and underappreciated art form.  I should say that I don’t think one is better than the other when it comes to performance art and burlesque, but rather that burlesque can be thought of as a gateway drug, that draws people in and keeps them here until they’re ready for the hard stuff.  It’s like you’re helping the audience discover how great it can be to have at least one quirky, naked friend in their posse, and once they’ve been drawn over to this side, they can be convinced how much nicer it is over here, and let’s face it, once we’re all on the same side, how can there be any more fighting?