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what is burlesque

Modern day burlesque is composed of many different genres of entertainment but none as famous as the slow sensual strip-tease. When most individuals are asked to describe what burlesque is today they will probably answer with something along the lines of ‘strip-tease’. Burlesque is considered a classy performance by 21st century standards, due to the lack of revealing anything considered truly indecent. Women strip down to a tiny g-string and wear nothing on top except for playful nipple tassels or nipple pasties. This is all people generally and honestly know about the world of burlesque, some even thinking that the seductive performance is all there is.

Catherine D’Lish at Sublime Boudoir 2012

The word burlesque is an adjective, noun and verb. The origins of ‘burlesque’ is actually dated back to the late 17th century in Europe. The big kicker here is that a burlesque show didn’t consist of any strip-teasing. Burlesque literally means “to imitate, parody or send up” and it became a well known term. Being defined by spectators as grotesque imitations of already existing performances and social and economical statuses. Examples of burlesque performances are “The Rape of the Lock”, “Hudibras” and the scene from Shakespeare’s “Mid-Summer Nights Dream” where his characters, Pyramus and Thisbe, are mocking a romance from another play titled: “The Knight of the Burning Pestle.” Eventually burlesque split up into two types of humor: high and low. High burlesque was imitations of literature and other performances while low made a mockery of serious subjects.

Modern Comparisons

Plays that were considered burlesque could be compared to parodies today. Comedy movies such as “Scary Movie”, “Meet The Spartans” and “Vampires Suck” are all spoofs of other movies. Televisions shows such as “Family Guy” and “Robot Chicken” would be lumped into this category of burlesque as well. Through comedy these productions poke fun at world wide social issues and problems found in society. That’s what late burlesque did as well, making statements of the social and economical classes though crude humor and entertainment.

Burlesque is probably sounding less and less classy as the history unfolds itself, especially after being compared to such blunt, and even vulgar, movie films and television sitcoms. That was exactly how the people of the 17th and 18th centuries felt but at the same time, just like today, they also loved it.

Through the 1830s to 1890s, burlesque turned musical with Victorian burlesque. Taking well known plays, operas and ballets and turning them into musical comedies. Often creating them to be risque and absurd.

armitage shanks burlesque host
Armitage Shanks, cabaret singer and burlesque host

American Burlesque

American burlesque, which is the most popular form, took certain elements of Victorian burlesque and morphed into a whole new entertaining epidemic. The crude entertainment of the burlesque scene began to simmer down in England but thanks to New York City, it was revived. The American style was mostly centered around exotic performances and female nudity and thus the birth of the burlesque strip tease was officially born. Besides scandalous scenes, American burlesque also incorporated singing, circus stunts and tricks and low comedians to bring back the boorish humor of the original burlesque. The 1920s through 1940s, otherwise known as the ‘Golden Age’ of burlesque, flourished with new burlesque starlets such as: Gypsy Rose Lee and Sally Rand.

Talulah Blue burlesque
Talulah Blue, burlesque perfomer

Burlesque today has expanded even more and added different and exciting elements to it’s shows. Once a mockery and unsavory form of the arts is now one of the most dazzling display of talents in the world. Each show can be so vastly different in themes and props, such as Dita Von Teese’s strip routine in a giant martini glass. Some performers bring a little special something to their acts from aerial circus stunts to ballet and singing solos. Burlesque is even including the men, crafting another way to enjoy burlesque or as it’s called: boylesque.

Neo Burlesque

Modern day burlesque is sometimes referred to as neo burlesque. Some famous performers these days are: Ginger Valentine, Lou Lou D’vill, Perle Noir and Dita Von Teese. Each bring tantalizing bits of sex appeal with every graceful movement and flirtatious smile. Using plush boas, large fluffy feathered fans and spontaneous props to keep the minutes of their strip-tease lingering, they playfully re-cover what they just revealed. Always keeping the audience wanting more, burlesque dancers often interact with the crowd. Throwing removed gloves and stockings to the eager gentlemen. Ginger Valentine is a straight A tease when it comes to titillating the men. She offers them a glove and when one reaches for it excitedly, she pulls back. Repeating this process until she throws the glove to the side of the stage.

This art form has so much to offer and is never dull or shy. Stripping is an art, no matter what the critics say. Slowly removing only a few articles of clothing while taking up a time frame of three to five minutes. Its a lot more challenging than one may imagine.

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stage door johnnies burlesque

Boylesque performers are transforming the classic act of strip-teasing into a whole new and exciting genre of entertainment. Keeping the performances comparable with regular burlesque, men also wear ostentatious outfits consisting of glitter, thongs, nipple tassels and themed costumes such as sailors and school boys. The most enjoyable element of boylesque is the ability to make people laugh until their sides split.

Throughout history women have mastered the arts of manipulation, seduction and sex-appeal. They have also typically dominated the stage in the sultry and flirtatious world of burlesque, strip-teasing their way into the hearts of gentlemen since the Victorian era. Burlesque has expanded into a creative outlet for dance and imaginative performances. Another add on to the ultimate sport for ladies involves…well…not being a lady.

Boylesque mainly focuses on spoofs and ‘acting’ totally and unforgettably silly and coy. Boylesque performer, Tom Delish, created a scrumptious performance where he dances, strips then proceeds to spray canned whip cream all over his chest and nipples. While shimmying the audiences gets flecks and globs of whip cream all over them. Definitely a show worth seeing but if being covered in a man’s cream isn’t on your agenda, you may just want to stay in the back of the crowd.

Just like the ladies of burlesque, the men of boylesque are facing crude obstacles of judgment and rude slander. Boylesque isn’t just about stripping, dancing suggestively, being considered un-manly and flamboyant or dressing up their manhood in sparkly silver streamers and making it twirl like a helicopter. However boylesque performances can be elaborate and even visually stunning without the help of silver streamers. Boylesque incorporates more than just bumping and grinding into their routines, some performers perform aerial circus tricks, puppetry, unicycle riding, pole dancing, plate spinning, female impersonation, dressing and acting like mimes or clowns, musical theater and so much more.

One burlesque performer, Mark “Captain Kidd” WinMill, creates a feast for the eyes when he strips while hula-hooping with multiple hula-hoops. A tricky and daring routine that involves immense dexterity and training.

Where To See Boylesque

Raoulala boylesque
Raoulala, Holland’s premier boylesque performer


Interested in Boylesque now? Some great performers to see are: Go-Go Harder, Raoulala, Misty Meaner, Cherry Loco, Stormy Leather, Tigger!, The World Famous Bob, British Heart and I Kenny Believe it! There are also all-male boylesque groups such as the adorable Stage Door Johnnies.

Many burlesque clubs now offer boylesque performances such as the Wam-Bam in London. There is now also an annual boylesque festival that takes place in New York every year. Other festivals such as The London Burlesque Festival, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver International Burlesque Festivals and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe now offer the nipple-tassel seduction of strip-teasing men.

Energetic and playfully provocative, boylesque shows are definitely worth indulging in.

Top photo: Stage Door Johnnies
Bottom photo: Raoulala

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beeby burlesque

The first burlesque performance I ever saw was by Beeby Rose in the Supper Club, Amsterdam a few years back.

It was an enjoyable evening out with friends in the trendy restaurant club in the center of Amsterdam. We’d just been reclining on beach like sofas to enjoy dinner, and were now standing around chatting noisily.  The usual ambient sounds floating from the Supper Club DJ decks were an eclectic mix of atmospheric drum n bass and ambient, delightfully different tunes.

Suddenly the heady sound of a 40s jazz trumpet cleared the noise and demanded everyone’s immediate attention. In an instant I was whisked back to a smokey 1940’s nightclub full of gangsters and sassy dames. The audience’s gaze was drawn to an amazing sight: a delightfully curvy, dark haired beauty emerged, stepping and shimmying in time to the upbeat vintage tune. Apparently this was a ‘burlesque performer’ and she was laced into the most exquisitely feminine, pink corset which was adorned with satin ribbons and draped strings of pearls, and she wore sheer stockings with dainty vintage shoes. I was totally transfixed by what appeared to be a real life version of my childhood heroin, Betty Boop! This was Miss Beeby Rose (pictured above) and I would end up attending her fun filled burlesque workshop just a few months later.

This first performance that I saw was an elegant but cheeky semi striptease in time to an upbeat vintage tune of a bygone era. I say semi striptease because a burlesque performer will never normally go completely nude. Ones modesty is always covered by those little tasseled discs or hearts known as nipple tassels, which are often cheekily spun around to the delighted amusement of the encouraging audience.

Dita von Tease burlesque
Dita von Tease

As with any form of art there are many different types of burlesque and here I have described just one, which is often called ‘neo burlesque’ or ‘classic burlesque’ (also the favourite of popular burlesque performer Dita von Teese, pictured above). For me a burlesque performance can be a mixture of theatre, dance, striptease and comedy. I have seen incredibly talented burlesque performers whose routines consist of a clever anecdote or scenario: stage props and costumes are created in theme with the idea, and the story is acted and choreographed across the stage.

Burlesque first appeared in the latter half of the 1800’s in England and America. The idea back then was to perform a rather tongue-in-cheek show which poked fun at events/people in the politics and economics of the day. Among performers back then were scantily clad women who invariably did a striptease during the act. Due to strict rules of society at the time women were not allowed to show their breasts completely and so the idea of the nipple tassel was born, in order to get around that particular restriction!

I’m not entirely sure what caused the current revival of the art of burlesque. Maybe it never really went away and it just gained popularity again in the last decade, who knows? In any case it is an art form which has entertained audiences for the last 150 years so it’s not going away any time soon. Personally I love the old fashioned glamour and glitz of burlesque, I love that the performers are so creatively imaginative and entertaining, and I love the people who make up the enthusiastic audiences. This has been a world I have felt comfortable in and have found a real connection with the friendly, creative and fun loving community that is burlesque.


To read a more in-depth look at the history of burlesque and modern burlesque, read our burlesque article here: burlesque

Photo credits:
Top photo: Beeby Rose
Middle photo: Dita von Teese

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what is burlesque

This website was created in January 2013 and is currently being updated to create a comprehensive A to Z of all burlesque performers worldwide. This website project is meant to be a community project with most performers writing their own profiles and keeping their pages, albums and events up to date. Longer term we will provide assistance with this but for now we need a lot of help to get all the information we can in this website.

Please get in touch if you are a burlesque performer and you would like a profile here. Alternatively if you just love burlesque and  you’d like to help out with getting information into this website please contact me: contact Nina

Photo credits:
Photograph copyright of Kate Robson
Models Jessy Riot and Bethany Parker
Clothing/accessories by Nina Young, Bite Me Couture