Defending burlesque

Image from the Time for Tease high res downloads, here

I would call myself a fan of burlesque. The glitter and glamour, the tassles and tease, the corsetry and coquettishness – and in particular the celebration of women’s bodies, are all elements that appeal to me. My main line of defence has always been the inclusiveness of the art, the way that women are able to view, even scrutinise other women’s bodies of all shapes and sizes and in all their glorious detail and without judgement. As far as I’m concerned, women’s level of general  self-loathing being as it is, the transparent and all-embracing nature of this particular art form can only be a good thing.

But as burlesque becomes more and more mainstream and accepted, I feel more and more embarrassed to admit my allegiance. The timelessness, the class, the very art of tease are increasingly obscurred by drag-queen styling and an “any-excuse-to-get-the-girls-out” attitude. The burlesque I subscribed to was tied to vaudeville and dance hall roots, tiptoed along that fine line between art and titilation, but fell well short of crude. It was practised and precise, with the emphasis firmly on the idea that what was underneath was well worth waiting for. The slow peeling of layers and cheeky peep-show styling tied into the vintage appeal, a major part of the allure being linked into the staid values of past generations, of those trusses and trimmings that made the slightest glimpse of flesh all the more exciting.

In the past few months I’ve seen a few events featuring burlesque performers that have made me squirm. Most memorably, perhaps, on Heston Blumenthal’s Gothic Horror Feast I was excited to spot the divine Amber Topaz (whom I saw perform at Sarah’s hen do last year) along with some other girls from the Time for Tease troupe. The footage had obviously been cut to fit the slot available, but portrayed the girls (who I’m certain were misrepresented!) as cackling and common, as a naughty take on afternoon tea quickly descended into licking cream and icing off one another’s breasts and prancing suggestively around the room in their tassled tips. It felt more fitting to an episode of Ladette to Lady than the behaviour of burlesque perfomers. It made me feel embarrassed and disappointed.

I suppose the overall experience of burlesque performance differs for each of us. The whole point from my viewpoint has always been in the power these women have on stage, the way they can make the audience wait, the control they have over how much of themselves they display and when. The attitude harks back to a time when a woman’s body was the only element of her life she had any degree of ownership or control over – her sexuality (or virginity) was her only bargaining chip. And sex and nudity were not so readily available, nor so readily accepted by society. They were far more valuable commodities.

I suppose, when you get down to it, this all ties in once again with my old-soul and traditional values. I buy into that old idea that holding a little back is more powerful than giving it all away, that a bit of suspense and expectation can be thrilling. In the words of the legendary Walt Disney:

Always leave them wanting more.

I can’t help but be disappointed when I see burlesque portrayed as nothing more than stripping with pretty knickers. Because from my perspective, and much like many of the girls who perpetuate its cruder image, it has the potential to achieve so much more.

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3 thoughts on “Defending burlesque

  1. I love burlesque & regularly used to go to the candy box in birmingham which was very Vaudeville, comedic and full of talent. Not least because the glorious Imelda May used to sing at it. Also it used to attract a very distinctive vintage loving crowd. I think you are right though that the standards seem to be falling. I visited a different show in birmingham for my birthday last year and it didn’t feel so Vaudeville or comedic, at the risk of sounding Snobby there seemed to be less intelligence behind it. Burlesque is a wonderful art form & I just hope this isn’t the way It’s going to go.

    • Exactly! The comedy element is vital to the overall atmosphere – in fact, it was originally a spin off from the comedic revues of the Victorian era. The intelligence that you mention is exactly where the individuality of successful acts lies – it has to offer a pinch of irony and self-awareness to really work.

      Also, I heard of several clubs that ran a women-friendly policy, where men were only permitted entry as a lady’s particular guest. It was designed to cut back on letches and worked really well.

      I also don’t see why women shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy the beauty of other women’s bodies without it being seen as a sexual act – women’s bodies are, after all, far prettier naked than men’s are!! 😀

      If you find another decent burlesque night nearby do let me know – I’d be up for a trip!

  2. maybe it should just be called stripping with pretty nickers

    I for one am tired of the tell all show all I’m subjected to without even trying to find it

    wish more people knew that principle you quote about leaving them wanting more!

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