The Rise of Neo-Burlesque

Gabriella Tutino


“Let me entertain you, let me make you smile/ Let me do a few tricks, some old and then some new tricks, I’m very versatile,” are the opening lyrics to the popular Broadway song “Gypsy Strip,” from the musical, “Gypsy.” The musical, which is based off the memoirs of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, has a backdrop of the 1920s to 1940s vaudeville and burlesque scenes.


“Gypsy” has had a few Broadway revivals as well as film adaptations; similarly, the burlesque scene is currently in the midst of a revival in New York City. On almost any day of the week, citizens can catch a themed burlesque show (Star Wars, traditional, floating cabaret, freakshow) featuring one or more stars doing lowbrow or highbrow acts. The movement is known as neo-burlesque and started making its reappearance in the 1990s.


Historically, burlesque’s roots are literary and theatrical: the term referred to works and performances that were comic in nature, making light of, mocking or satirizing serious dramas in the Victorian era in England, such as Shakespeare, or Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. The American counterpart of burlesque—which was brought over in the 1840, but popularized by the visiting troupe Lydia Thompson and the British Blondes—was the “variety show” which eventually evolved (or devolved, depending on opinion) into striptease.


Neo-burlesque capitalizes on the striptease as performance art. As mentioned in the documentary “Dirty Martini and the New Burlesque” by Gary Beeber, many burlesque performers, crew members and venue hosts state that neo-burlesque is a combination of sex and comedy, as well as being all-inclusive to men, drag queens and transgender people. The documentary rounds up a handful of well-known burlesque stars—Tigger, World Famous Bob, Dirty Martini, Bambi—who talk about the roots of burlesque and how it has evolved into performance art: it can be political, comical, emotional and beautiful.


The documentary cites the Coney Island Burlesque shows of the ‘90s that really helped to cement the art form in New York City’s scene, as well as the Va Va Voom Room in the Lower East Side. Around the same time, Dita von Teese appeared in the spotlight, putting burlesque on the map of mainstream culture. Von Teese is known for her 1940s pin-up style and fetish acts, and her most famous routines feature her frolicking in a giant martini or champagne glass.


The Burlesque Hall of Fame, a museum dedicated to the ecdysiast art form, is also key to the neo-burlesque movement.  The museum was a dream of Jennie Lee, a former performer and founder of the Exotic Dancers League. Lee passed away, but her friend Dixie Evans—a legend in her own right in the ‘50s (Evans was known as “The Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque” because of her similar features)—took up the project in the ‘90s. The BHOF has a permanent collection dedicated to the timeline and history of burlesque, and its rotating exhibits focus on specific niches: women of color in burlesque, the scene in Las Vegas, etc. The BHOF is a cultural pilgrimage for performers and admirers alike.


Part of the appeal of burlesque and neo-burlesque is its promotion of female empowerment, sexuality and acceptance of women of all shapes and sizes. The average woman is not the same size as the models we see on billboards and in magazines; there’s a thrill and appreciation at seeing these performers comfortable in their own skin. Burlesque performer Grace Gotham says in an interview with Scott Schuman that burlesque allows her to celebrate and explore her sensuality in a safe space. There is also the idea that burlesque plays upon and changes ‘the male gaze:’ while women may be objectified and sexualized, it is a manner that the women find particularly sexy, not men. A burlesque star’s body is not just for sex, it is a vessel for art, culture and debate as pointed out in an article by TheVine.


With the neo-burlesque revival, there’s been the opportunity to open the doors to the average citizen.  Jo Weldon, a burlesque performer who has parlayed into the theater, founded the New York School of Burlesque and wrote The Burlesque Handbook. The school  offers classes in burlesque basics such as learning a routine and signature moves, self-confidence workshops and make-up and styling. The handbook is also the first manual to outline performance routines.


Neo-burlesque is currently sweeping the world: a quick search on the Internet found scores of reviews from London, Stockholm, Ottawa, Tokyo, Australia, Russia, and Paris, to name a few places. While most pieces are reviews, some focus on retired burlesque stars, others highlight worthy performers. 


There is a growing audience for neo-burlesque that realizes it is more than just striptease. The proof is in the numerous cultural burlesque events that have transpired: the first Miss Exotic World pageant in 1991, the founding of the museum Burlesque Hall of Fame, the documentary Exposed as well as the 2010 movie Burlesque, and the New York Burlesque Festival celebrating its 11th year. The article, “Why are women attracted to burlesque?,” drives home the point that these ecdysiasts bring positive messages on the stage in regards to self-creation, appreciation, and artistic expression.


Author Bio:

Gabriella Tutino is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photos: Dustin Wax (Flickr); Brandon Lally (Flickr).

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Dustin Was (Flickr)
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