When burlesque comes to mind, many of us can’t help but think of the 1950s cherry-pop style burlesque where cheeky winks and quick flashes were at the height of the tease. Burlesque, however, began much earlier than this – over 100 years earlier in fact – and its origins are far flung from the pin-up style burlesque we’ve come to know and love.
THE BEGINNINGS OF BURLESQUE
Burlesque has been a word used since the 17th century, deriving from the Italian word ‘burlesco’, itself from ‘burla’ meaning a joke or mockery. It was used to describe this type of theatre during the Victorian era which entertained the masses by putting on burlesque shows referred to as ‘travesty’ and ‘extravaganza’.
In other words, burlesque during this time focused on imitation and parody, as opposed to striptease. In this manner, from 1830s to the 1890s performances would parody the likes of Shakespeare as well as popular operas by using the original music or popular music of the time and rewriting it for comic effect.
INTRODUCING AMERICAN BURLESQUE
The Americanisation of burlesque took place in New York in the 1840s and was popularised later in 1868 by Lydia Thompson’s visiting dance troupe, the British Blondes. Performed by an all-female cast, the burlesque shows still retained their parody-esque elements, but this time featured the performers in revealing tights which were considered risqué for the Victorian era.
Following on from the success of these shows, New York burlesque shows soon took on more elements from the minstrel shows which included songs, sketches and comedians before male acrobats, magicians and solo singers took to the stage as the showcase performances. Closing the show, would be a chorus number, led by female performers, much to the delight of the audience.
Mabel Santley, the first American-born burlesque star, soon found fame in this format and was acclaimed for feminising the minstrel genre with her part in Mme. Rintz’s Female Minstrels. In addition to this, the tradition of all male performances within the minstrel shows was soon reshaped to include female cast members. Giving female performers the chance to take to the stage in elegant outfits and the opportunity to show a little skin.
20TH CENTURY BURLESQUE
They say that any press is good press and the same can be said for burlesque as it entered the 20th century. The growing popularity of burlesque had much to do with its transformation into striptease which, incidentally, brought with it moral outrage as many disagreed with the format of these shows. The most memorable first sighting was Little Egypt who introduced the ‘hootchie-kooch’ at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Little Egypt, however, wasn’t the first burlesque star – the title of ‘The First Real Queen of American Burlesque’, is given to ‘The Girl in Blue’, Millie DeLeon who was made famous by her stunning costumes and the moves during her ‘cooch’ dancing. Millie was also arrested during her height of fame by ‘accidentally’ forgetting her tights – unthinkable these days.
The 1920s and 30s saw the popularity of striptease grow when film and radio began to outshine Vaudeville theatre as a means of entertainment. Rival performance troupes including The Ziegfeld Follies, Minsky’s and Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) for black performers became well-loved staples for entertainment, and the free-flowing alcohol certainly added to the revelry of it all.
Striptease burlesque featuring a solo female performer, is claimed to have been ‘created’ by both Hinda Wassau and Mae Dix at Minsky’s who both believe that their ‘accidental’ stripteases (accidental as they began changing out of their costumes before they had left the stage – much to the delight of the audience!) were the defining moments for the beginning of burlesque. The birth of burlesque as we know it has since seen stars such as Josephine Baker, Sally Rand and, of course, Gypsy Rose Lee finesse the burlesque form into the art of the tease. Unfortunately, this success wasn’t to last long as American censorship put a dampener on this kind of performance.
But as any performer knows… the show must go on.
BORN AGAIN BURLESQUE
The 1990s brought with it shell-suits, silver eye-shadow and hair crimped to within an inch of its life… but it also saw a resurgence in the world of burlesque with the launch of Jennie Lee and Dixie Evans’ brain child, the Miss Exotic World Pageant. This annual competition brought burlesque stars from across the globe together to compete including the likes of Catherine D’Lish who, so intimidating to a young Dita Von Teese, put her off entering!
NAUGHTY NOUGHTIES BURLESQUE
The naughty noughties saw the likes of Dita Von Teese, Miss Dirty Martini, Perle Noire and Immodesty Blaize revive burlesque across the globe and by 2001 Lorelei Fuller had set up the first Tease-O-Rama in New Orleans which unquestionably led to burlesque being viewed as an art form.
New York welcomed the first New York Burlesque Festival in 2002, Dirty Martini was the final woman to be crowned Miss Exotic World in 2004 and, 2005 saw the annual Burlesque Hall of Fame event move to Las Vegas. The London Burlesque Festival was created in 2007, as well as the Toronto and Helsinki Burlesque Festivals being launched. Closing the decade, Miss Burlesque Australia was founded and crowned winners from across the country began to compete for the ultimate title.
Since its beginnings over 180 years ago, the popularity of burlesque has dipped and then flourished and, as you know by attending Love You Burlesque’s dance classes, the art form is as popular as ever.
Here’s to the next generation of burlesque performers, forever keeping the art alive…