How Burlesque will save the world

Last night I went to a Burlesque show. This is the second New Zealand Burlesque show that I have been to, and I have enjoyed them very much. There is an impression that Burlesque is a strip show. Well, it is, but it is a lot more complicated than that. I have been to Burlesque shows in the US, and they have a very different flavour, and I would like to focus on New Zealand Burlesque. Many of the performers last night were in the previous show as well, so this might all be just what Waikato Burlesque is like, but I doubt it.

When Burlesque first developed, it probably was just stripping. The clothing was contemporary, the pasties were required by law. But in this resurgence, the style has allowed some very important characteristics to shine through. The first thing that I found very different between a Burlesque show and a Strip Club is that the audience is predominantly female. Everyone that I have mentioned this to has answered with surprise that I am surprised. So apparently that is obvious, like the apparently universal appeal of the female form, according to the ubiquity of female nudity in art. That being said there was a male performer in the show last night, and he received just as much enthusiastic applause.

Compared with Stripping, there is a huge element of ‘Counter Culture’. There is a punky element to the whole thing. Several performers and audience members have extensive tattoos. The audience and supporters dress exotically. The MC’s humour is deeply vulgar. These all make it clear that what we are seeing is ‘Not Mainstream’. And we love it! This is the first of many elements that modern Burlesque shares with its strange cousin, the Drag Show. The other superficial aspects being feather boas, lip syncing, and the excessive use of glitter. But it is, of course, deeper than that. A core aspect of Drag Shows is to mock – through parody – the public’s ideas of gender identity, dressing norms, conventions of beauty, and class division. It also tries to breaks down the presumption that you can make guesses about someone based on the way that they dress. It emphasises that there is a sexual being inside every person. Burlesque does all of this too.

There is an element of transformation in the burlesque performances. Everyone starts conservatively dressed – often dressed richly, but in one performance the dancer started in drab old clothes and transformed to show the beauty within over her set. The conservative clothes suggest that the character performed is shy, coy and demure – but as the set progresses, the dancer transforms to reveal that she too is a sensual person. The second (or third) costume will often be vastly different from the costume that covered it. The risque person revealed was always there under the conservative clothes. It takes the crude idea of the existence of sluts and prudes and tells it to “Get Stuffed”.

Burlesque has a tone of power. This is not a stripper being directed to take her clothes off to expose herself. This is a dancer displaying her essential beauty. Whether the stripper wants to take her clothes off or not, whether she likes the drooling attention on men, it will always have an element of shame and guilt. This is often incorporated into the show, sometimes not, but when she is being paid to strip, nd expects to have money thrown at her for doing it, it is difficult to see it as something done for the love of it. Burlesque however is all about pride. These dancers are amature. The show was deeply reminescent of amature stage productions. None of them are being paid. Yes they are competing for a prize, but that does not diminish the obvious enjoyment that they have doing this.

When I say that a Burlesque dancer is displaying her (or his) essential beauty, I would like to elaborate on how Burlesque emphasises the universality of beauty. The performers were from a variety of ages, and a variety of body types. Screw you modern conventions of beauty! Every woman is beautiful. Every person is beautiful. In this way Burlesque not only parodies stripping, but also runway modeling, beauty contests and ballet. Ballet seems deeply conservative, but it was the Burlesque show of its time, just 300 years earlier. People seem to be just realising that ballet is sexualising and starting to freak out. Two big points – people have been sexualising young girls since before the beginning of recorded history – this is not new. It is bad, and we need to find a way to fix it, but it is not a new thing. So stop trying to find out where it came from, and instead work out how to fix it. Yeah it would be great to do that without regulations, but that is never enough on its own.

More Burlesque! WOO!!

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