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Burlesque: A History Lesson

The art of burlesque has long been a source of intrigue and continues to draw in a diverse and expanding audience. The word’s meaning has transformed greatly since its origins in literary history dating back about 700 years when it gained popularity with its inclusion in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. While today burlesque in the United States is often associated with a particular genre of performance dance involving elaborate costumes and striptease, in Europe during the 1600s it connoted a wild exaggeration or satire. The latter definition helped shape burlesque as a dance form and propelled it into modernity where it has made a lasting impact.

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Bettie Page, photo courtesy of frombetsywithlove.com

During the 1600s, burlesque came to mean the musical pairing of opposing elements as a stylistic effect to achieve a comical purpose. It is from this combination of humor and seriousness that gave way to burlesque dance. Throughout the 1700s and 1800s burlesque performances were characterized by a lewd stage act accompanied by classical music not suiting the routine. The image of a scantily-clad woman dancing suggestively to a serious piece of music poked fun at traditional dance routines of the time. Burlesque was largely a European movement until the 1900s at which point the United States adopted striptease as a vital component of a burlesque performance. Burlesque in the United States was markedly different from the earlier European form in that the music accompanying dancers matched the feel of the performance rather that contrasting the two for a satirical effect. Early American burlesque also involved skimpy and sexy costumes, sensual dancing and acts filled with sexual innuendo and double entendres. This tradition is still very much honored today by burlesque performers around the country.

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Dita Von Teese, photo courtesy of ditasdomain.com

Though American burlesque had been around since the early 1900s, the 1950s was a key decade in its history. In 1952, Bettie Page grew to prominence as a burlesque star, perhaps the most famous of all time. Page brought burlesque into the spotlight and remained a prominent pinup model throughout the 50s. While her career as a burlesque model did not last very long, her influence on fashion, photography and future burlesque models is remarkable. Page’s iconic look – jet black hair, blunt bangs and retro lingerie – has inspired many current stars who have successfully moved burlesque into the mainstream.

Starting in the 1990s, a few clubs across the United States launched a revival of 1950s burlesque, giving way to a new generation of performers including Dita Von Teese. Her career began at a strip club she worked at as a teenager. Disillusioned and bored with current strip conventions, she invented a 1950s-inspired dance routine complete with a vintage looking hairstyle and lingerie, which began her career as one of the most famous contemporary burlesque stars. Von Teese and other modern burlesque dancers exemplify the differentiation of burlesque from ordinary striptease; burlesque involves classiness, wit, classic glamour, and is an empowering movement for women. Decades later, people are still emulating the style of burlesque stars; Cameron Diaz paid homage to Von Teese’s famous routine involving a giant martini glass in the second Charlie’s Angels movie, singer Beyoncé sported a Bettie Page-style hairdo in Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” music video, and a broad range of other celebrities model themselves after burlesque dancers.

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Zen Arts burlesque performers, photo courtesy of Zen Arts La, zenartsla.com

The genre of burlesque in the United States has expanded since its inception in the 20th century. Not all burlesque dancers dress like Bettie Page, nor do they all wear 1950s reproduction corsets and stockings. Burlesque dancing is a historical, yet decidedly modern art and the women who engage in it are talented, sharp-witted and adhere to the basic guidelines of minimal clothing, entertaining and innovative dance routines. Burlesque is deeply rooted in America’s entertainment heritage and continues to be a source of pleasure for performers and audiences alike.

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One response to “Burlesque: A History Lesson”

  1. woody allan says:

    I’ve been working in the burlesque industry for a good few years now but I loved this history lesson in burlesque. So much so I’d like to ask a favour – could I borrow it for my site – I’ll credit your of course. Keep the articles coming and more pictures of Dita always a bonus 🙂

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