Burlesque dancers are strippers, pure and simple. Let's stop pretending otherwise

What's with this false distinction between 'good stripping' and 'bad stripping'?

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The Independent Online

Ah, burlesque. Perusing the shows at Edinburgh Fringe over the last few days, I've been struck by its abundance and popularity. It seems that burlesque grows in popularity year on year; sometimes it's as though the whole city is waving its nipple tassels at you. And burlesque as a concept, along with its promises of female-run spaces where sexuality and eroticism are celebrated, must surely be a positive thing. It requires skill, timing and imagination, after all. It’s a place where, importantly, women can take their clothes off without being judged. And it's totally different from being “just” a stripper, right? Right?

Here is a selection of quotes that Edinburgh has suggested apply to burlesque, thus differentiating it from standard stripping:

“It's about the tease, rather than the nudity.”

“It's about a more inclusive idea of what is sexy.”

“It's empowering. The performer is the one in charge.”

“You don't actually show any pink bits.”

The problem is, most burlesque shows don't really do what they say on the tin. The majority of performers dress in a very similar aesthetic: Fifties pin-up with sequins and feathers. Basques, stockings and suspenders are bog-standard turn-ons: they hardly challenge society’s views on what’s sexy or acceptable. And it may be about concealing rather than revealing, but make no mistake, you are going to see tits - even if the nipples are safely ensconced behind Instagram-friendly pasties.

Yes, perhaps a slightly greater range of body shapes than the laser-narrow spectrum on show in magazines is on offer, but expect to see mostly women (yes, there are some men, but this is a mainly female pursuit) between the ages of 25 to 35 with a body that falls within the medically standard ‘healthy’ BMI range.

Although it's had a resurgence in recent years as the ideal slice of classy titillation for people who wouldn't dream of actually going to a strip show (goodness me, no) or who want to do something ‘edgy’ for their hen do, burlesque originally meant a theatrical parody of a serious work with the aim of rendering it ridiculous. It was used to haul the mighty from their perches and poke fun at pretension, repression or hypocrisy. It was often bawdy or risque, and grew from the Victorian music hall into the variety scene of the Thirties and Forties, with the stripping gradually replacing the songs, magic acts, comedy and all the other elements of the traditional cabaret show. 

To qualify as a burlesque, according to the original definition, a routine ought to have some elements of humour, grotesquery, satire, storytelling or transgression in it. It's an art form, dammit, and it should make you think. But all of the shows I’ve encountered seemed to have forgotten that, and focused on straightforward stripping. Perish the thought that we might conflate what they do with people who work in strip clubs, eh?


That isn't to say that there aren't acts like that out there. After all, just as the existence of hundreds of faked Nessie photos isn't proof that the monster doesn't exist, the fact that most of the stuff that calls itself burlesque isn't really doesn't mean that there is no such thing. But these actual burlesque routines will have to have something more to them than the usual sequence of gloves-off-basque-off-wave-a-fan-around. If you’re following that sort of generic routine, then fine – but don’t present it as ‘alternative’ or boundary-pushing work.

So if your routine really is just the old wave-a-fan-around malarkey, what's wrong with just calling it stripping? Many of the qualities that are held up to draw a line between burlesque and its more low-rent sister are actually about discomfort with the idea of stripping itself. There is certainly a lot wrong with the way that many strip clubs operate –  too many to go into here — but that's a criticism of the industry, not the activity. Burlesque may require skill, co-ordination and imagination, but hell, so does regular stripping. Taking your clothes off for money depends hugely on context; it’s not an inherently degrading it. If it were, it doesn't seem likely that the presence of a few sequins and a waspie would materially affect that. So let’s call a spade a spade – and if it’s an alternative art performance you’re looking for in your burlesque viewing, then you might have a hard time finding it.