Being Modern: Burlesque


Burlesque is all about the tease. It involves a joke, a knowing wink. It's about celebrating the natural female form. It's a theatrical performance, naughty but nice, subversive but saucy...

It's anything but stripping, basically. Or so we're meant to insist, as we hand over our ticket-money.

The dictionary definition of this art-form/artful form of titillation is: "theatrical entertainment involving humorous sketches, songs and usually striptease". Which was probably true back in burlesque's heady heyday in America in the 1920s and 1930s, when it was a subversive, playful, taboo-busting entertainment with edge. Performers had a trick or gimmick, and a comic, even grotesque, character.

Burlesque enjoyed a revival in the 1990s. Sadly, this coincided with the sort of post-feminist nonsense that equates getting your tits out with empowerment. So while "the scene" is now varied, the burlesque of 2012 probably owes more to the "strip" than to the "tease".

And it's everywhere, from seedy club nights and happy hen nights to student unions and fringe theatres to West End shows and a death-knell of a movie starring Christina Aguilera. But for many audience members, the only obvious differences between strippers and burlesque artistes may be coiffed retro hairdos and sequined nipple tassles.

Not to say that burlesque can't be a lot of fun. There are plenty of performers who do wriggle back to its wittier origins – or who are just extremely good at whipping off their stockings. There's an undeniable element of skill, and – as is often shrilly pointed out – burlesque has an inclusive, girls-having-fun and loving-their-curves celebratory quality. Women usually make up the majority of the audience, too.

The bottom line? There's nothing wrong with enjoying taking your clothes off with whatever accompanying flair and fanfare you choose to add – or with enjoying watching someone else doing so. But let's acknowledge that's basically all that most burlesque is: tittering titillation, with tassles.