By Dr. Lucky
Twitter & Facebook: @DrluckyPhd
I’ve been deeply ensconced in burlesque for awhile, and I’m constantly reminded that not everyone is privy to my insular world. So I wrote this as an introduction to those who may be curious or interested or concerned. This list is in no way meant to be “definitive” or to “set the record straight” about what to expect at a burlesque show. The best way to experience burlesque is to see it in person.
Shows usually feature a host or master of ceremonies who keeps the show moving forward, introduces acts, and interacts with the audience, which may include audience participation. Performers often come from a variety of backgrounds and have an array of skill sets, and may include dancers, singers, musicians, circus performers, magicians, comedians, and, yes, striptease artists. In modern burlesque, acts are usually around five minutes, or the length of a pop song, though this can vary widely with “talking acts” or headliners who may perform to a number of songs.
Burlesque performers are not given a “script” – they come up with their stage personas and concepts for their acts; they choose their music, choreograph their numbers, and usually create their own costumes. It is this DIY spirit, and complete control of one’s image, that is so appealing to performers and audience alike. Some performers like to keep their acts in the vein of classic burlesque, bedecked in gowns, panels skirts, boas, fans, gloves, and stockings etc., while others create acts influenced by popular culture, politics, current events, and/or familiar archetypes.
Dixie Evans, the Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque and Curator of the Exotic World Museum and Competition, described her acts as “mini plays.” An act has its own narrative, story, tone, and message. The ending of a striptease act may be more about a resolution of the tension of the story, or the delivery of a punchline, then it is solely about the physical reveal. That said, the reveal and the message are often intertwined, and can be dependent on each other. Burlesque acts, like other narratives, take the audience on a journey.
You probably won’t see a parade of “girl-next-door” realness at a burlesque show. Makeup is excessive, hair is big (often a wig), and costumes are elaborate. The performance style is more like Brechtian presentation than Aristotelian representation – think clowns, buffoons, and drag queens. The burlesque condition known as “Swarovski-itis” is a serious affliction that compels performers to want to put rhinestones on EVERYTHING. Expect to be blinded by the light.
With most traditional theatre or performance genres, there’s an “invisible” four wall that divides performers from the audience. There’s no such thing in burlesque. This makes burlesque more participatory and engaging than your typical entertainment experience. In fact, the audience is an integral part of a burlesque show, and it is that carnivalesque (Bakhtin) spirit that is so much fun for the audience and performers. I can’t think of many social situations where it is not only acceptable to scream at a performer as she performs but it is expected. Audience members don’t have to sit, hands folded on lap, and wait until the end of the show to show their appreciation. They do it along the way – with claps, hoots, hollers and screams of laughter and approval. And that’s just the way the performers like it.
An audience at a burlesque show tends to be mixed, and the demographics run the gamut from grandmas to girls out for a night on the town. Although it depends on the venue, producer, and the show, burlesque shows are most often very women-friendly. Couples are frequent attendees. Heteronormativity is not the expected norm.
Some would argue that blue humor and content of burlesque is its most important and defining characteristic. But like at a burlesque show, you might have to wait for the blue content. Furthermore, blue humor does not necessarily have to be explicitly “dirty.” It can be the implication of a double entendre, the delivery of a line with a wink and a nudge. So put your thinking cap on, otherwise you might miss the joke.
Modern burlesque is the thinking person’s performance art wrapped up in a sparkly package of exuberance. You may want to be up on current events before you come to a show. Politics and social commentary are often very central to burlesque acts. And even if not overt, there’s still something political about performers doing whatever they want on stage, force feeding it to an audience, and getting the audience to beg for more. This can be terrifying to those who want to keep established gender and social roles in place, and is often a driving force behind fear or censorship of burlesque and burlesque performers.
If there’s one thing that has been consistent about burlesque since its inception, it is parody. Parody was an intrinsic part of burlesque, even before striptease emerged. In fact, “to burlesque” a thing means to poke fun at it. Nothing escapes burlesque’s parodic grip, and it is that inversion of high and low that is the delicious raison d’être of burlesque. So don’t be surprised if something you hold up as sacred is poked fun at, or something you think frivolous (or perhaps deviant) is celebrated and elevated. This is what burlesque does – it inverts social norms, pokes fun, and, ultimately, is meant to BE fun. Comedy is the central tenet to this fun.
“Wait a minute. Dr. Lucky. I just went to my first burlesque show, and it was not what you described.” Welcome to the world of burlesque! If there’s one thing I’ve learned from burlesque in the past fifteen plus years, it is that the only thing you can expect is the unexpected. As with any kind of live performance, the best way to experience it is to go to a show. Go with an open mind. And expect to be entertained.
NOTE: Wish you could include this in your next program? You can! Feel free to use “What to Expect at a Burlesque Show” for your program, your website, or to send to reporters and/or local concerned community members. If this article is reused in part or in whole, author credit is required (“Dr. Lucky”), with a note to the author (firstname.lastname@example.org) about where and when the reprint is published. All rights reserved, 2020.
Acknowledgements: Thank you to Kay Sera and Taro Baugham for feedback on an earlier draft of this essay.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Lucky has been performing, teaching, and writing about burlesque for over 2 decades. She has published articles in peer-review academic journals and popular press alike, and has lectured extensively about burlesque history, including at CUNY, MICA, University of Texas, Burlesque Hall of Fame, BurlyCon, New York School of Burlesque, Helsinki Burlesque Festival, Toronto Burlesque Festival, and at New York University where she has taught burlesque in the Drama Department since 2005. She has been featured in documentaries, including Faux Queen and Obscene Beauty, and in various media including NPR (twice!), Big Think, NY1, and in Time, The Toronto Star, The Washington Post, and many others. Her book, Neo-Burlesque as a New Sexual Revolution, is forthcoming. http://www.doctorofburlesque.com