Sunday, July 8, 2007

What is burlesque?

What better way to start off a discussion on burlesque than to define the term itself? According to the American Heritage Dictionary, burlesque is:

1. A literary or dramatic work that ridicules a subject either by presenting a solemn subject in an undignified style or an inconsequential subject in a dignified style.

2. A ludicrous or mocking imitation; a travesty: The antics of the defense attorneys turned the trial into a burlesque of justice.

3. A variety show characterized by broad ribald comedy, dancing, and striptease.

It can be argued, however, that the neo-burlesque movement has changed the definition of what burlesque is and what it includes. Perhaps it has evolved into something more than just a variety show? Beyond just parody and mockery?

What is your definition of burlesque?


Anonymous said...

good question, you seem to have covered most of it as far as I am concerned. It is great to see a new burlesque blog on the block and I look forward to reading more. thank you.

Zeugma said...

Hey... I'm also thrilled. :)

I don't have a comprehensive definition of burlesque, but I tell reporters it's striptease with the emphasis on teaassee.

A soundbyte, i know, but i thought i'd throw it out there.

Scarlett said...

I tend to tell people it is Theatrical stripping

Burlesque Forum said...

Do we limit ourselves when we define burlesque as just stripping, however? That removes the rest of what happens on our stages from our definition of burlesque... and I think that forms an incomplete definition.

For example, I'd argue that men - in the form of emcees, comedians, novelty acts - are just as much a part of what makes burley-q burley-q. Isn't someone like Scratch an important component of a burlesque show? Or a Tyler Fyre? They don't strip. So how do they fit into the definition of burlesque? Are they purely there due to the variety format, or is there something in their style - just as it's stripping with tease - that makes what they do burlesque and not just comedy? Or singing?

I realize I just keep asking questions. It's meant to keep discussion going not to be contrary...

Jack Midnight said...

Burlesque started as (and should continue to be, imho) an off-shoot of vaudeville. As such, I view it as a big salad that should comprise the following vegetables...

1) girls doing striptease
2) a chorus line
3) an emcee
4) comedians
5) singers
6) a variety of other acts, such as magicians, escape artists, plate-spinners, fire-eaters and the like.

In fact, I have a page from Variety from the '20's that actually lists all those elements as part of a burlesque show.

Somehow, in these days of "neo-burlesque", we've forgotten the variety aspect of the show. Is going to a Suicide Girls burlesque show really seeing burlesque if you're just watching a bunch of goth-grrrrls stripping? Or is that just a variation on going to a strip-club?

I know my response is long, and perhaps this is another topic, but it seems to me that somewhere along the line in recent years, a fairly powerful segment of our community decided to politicize our artform, and in doing so, decided that penises were a bad thing, both on the stage and in the audience. And in doing so, they almost conciously destroyed the "variety" aspect of burlesque. To me, that makes what they do less burlesque than performance-art.

If I had to guess, I think that this is in part a conscious step away from some of the darker aspects of burlesque history, which was very clearly exploitative of women... from Minsky's through the Mob run of well into the '60's. Was prostitution, rape and porn part of the game? Were drugs and beatings? Yep.

But we never TALK about these darker times, and what they mean to the current movement. So instead, you see most of the big conventions and competitions (like Exotic World and the New York Burlesque Festival) forcing men into very small, non-traditional roles in the burlesque world. If there's a new Burlesque Hall of Fame, will Lenny Bruce, Abbott and Costello and Don Rickles be part of it? They all got their start in burlesque houses, after all. Are they less of a "legend" then Tempest Storm? How about the crooners like Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jr.? Will ANY emcees get in?

Get my point? Burlesque ain't all ladies stripping. Let's invite some men (who aren't boylesque) to the table every now and then.

Jack Midnight said...

also, btw, if you define burlesque as "stripteases with the emphasis on teaassee", you may be referring to burlesque now, but you neglect that burlesque, in the beginning, didn't even have THAT. There were scantily clad women, sure, but "stripping" came along later... after a mistake. It wasn't planned, it just happened.

Zeugma said...

Hey Jack-

I'm aware. I taught burlesque and dance history for over two years. That's why I qualified the statement. I'm not going to launch into a diatribe when I have three minutes on the radio, and of course I'm goign to describe burlesque AS it is, and AS it will commonly be perceived. Those willing to converse further with me will find I have far more to say on the matter. Down, boy.

Burlesque Forum said...

Let's keep in mind that in building our definition of burlesque that we can take all the little pieces we throw out here in discussion - as great or as small as they might be - and combine them into something larger to use for our overall consideration. There's no one right answer.

So perhaps the best way to look at a definition of burlesque is to both look at what it is in spirit and what it is in practice? In practice, it would seem to have a lot of essential components that may or may not fit in exactly with a stark dictionary definition. In spirit, it would seem to have a certain tease and irreverence that crosses over to more than just what female performers bring to the stage.

Laura Herbert said...

First off, kudos to The Burlesque Forum for seeking to further the discussion of our beloved, slightly beleaguered and universely misunderstood art form! As a trustee of the Burlesque Hall of Fame (a/k/a "BQHoF"), I can't tell you how impressed and inspired we are by the recent spate of bloggers devoting their time and resources to such efforts... especially the postive ones ;)

However, at the risk of qualifying my praise (which is certainly not my intent), have you considered identifying yourself on the homepage? With so many people starting blogs and webzines on the subject, being upfront about your identity and/or P.O.V. would likely go a long way towards validating the discourse contained herein... I mean, look no further than "Mr. Burlesque" to see the sort of negativity and speculation that anonymity often breeds.

Just a thought.

Regardless, again: kudos! If there's ever anything we can do to support your efforts, please don't hesitate to call on us.


PS: A slightly more relevant comment, for those still searching out a concise, user-friendly definition of Burlesque: for my money, you just can't beat Sophie Tucker's take: "Burlesque is just vaudeville with tits."

Burlesque Daily said...

"burlesque comedy performed as comic relief after a classical Greek tragic trilogy. Satyr plays are believed to have developed from the dithyramb, a hymn to Dionysus, concurrently with tragedy. They were evidently introduced at the Great Dionysia celebration at Athens in the late 6th century BC. They were written by the competing authors of the three tragedies and…"

When you get too historical, the question becomes, "Whose history?"

I think what burlesque is depends partly on your environment, and that's why people think of it as a style (pussycat dolls style, for instance), or as it was in the 30s, or as it was in the 60s, or as it is in New York or in LA or in Las Vegas. I don't mean that it's all good and it's all burlesque, but before you get into a hardline definition there are a million factors outside of the community we know.

My area of burlesque is striptease, with an emphasis on the 40s-60s, and with the flavor of some of what I learned in strip joints in the 80s, and a lot of performance art I've been doing and watching for as long as I can remember. That is what I do and I'm confident that what I do is burlesque. But that doesn't mean that what I do is all burlesque IS.

Burlesque Daily said...

I'm Jo Weldon, by the way.

I wanted to add that re the men in burlesque, because they weren't strippers, they had more options to move into other careers outside of burlesque. Part of what I lvoe about it is not the historical accuracy, but the idea of appreciating and supporting the women who may have had a harder time than the men (they may not have, but you can see why I mention this possibility). A magician, comedian, etc., puts himself on the line in a different way. The woman has classed herself forever and anon as the kind of women who would do a thing like that (strip in public). The men have not. So when the men of traditional burlesque don't get as much attention at burlesque conventions, it may sometimes be because they were able to be taken seriously elsewhere, whereas the women may not have been. The women had an altogether different connotation, and while the men may not have had it easy, they weren't branded as sexual and social deviants in the same way the women were.

Scarlett Letter said...

I agree, with Miss Weldon, in regards to the different roles and possibilites that existed for men and women.
I also have to add that when I am trying to answer this question, it is almost always in a bar and generally addressed specifically to my participation in the art forum. If they are interested enough after that answer to continue the discussion, then I start to excitedly rattle on about what I've seen on the field-trips I've taken across the country and my favorite acts and performers and what is going on in the area if they can't make it to my show.

Jack Midnight said...

I understand exactly where you're coming from, Jo. Like I said, during much of it's heyday, the burly-q was a bad place for women.

That being said, by almost universally ignoring men (and I'm sorry, but a slight tip of the hat to "boylesque" doesn't really count as inclusion) at the larger conventions, shows, etc., you aren't correcting the problems of the past... you're hiding them.

I just think a more diverse conversation would yield better understanding and results. And maybe honor those women of the past more. All you've done by deconstructing burlesque down to just strip-tease (or style or whatever you want to call it) is give the public a very wrong impression of what burlesque USED to be through a very strict, political reinterpretation of what it IS.

ETA: Are there no other supporters of men in burlesque out there? Am I wandering the desert by myself on this one?

Burlesque Forum said...

Welcome to everyone who has just joined us! Thank you for your insights.

To address Laura on the issue of my identity:

I chose to develop this forum as a venue for unhindered discussion. In doing so, I felt that it was necessary to have a faceless/gender-free administrator, one that, when communicating here on the blog and with others via the admin email, has no interests to any particular group, company, festival or performer. For purposes of this venue, I'm supposed to be blank. In my experience as a market research professional, this has proved to be a most cohesive and beneficial means of administrating an online discussion forum, something I've done on a regular basis when discussing everything from computer software to health insurance to cheese slices.

Ideas are ideas. My identity should have no bearing over the thoughts that others - whether they sign their names to them or not, as is their right on this forum - post here.

I appreciate the concern vis a vis the Mr. Burlesque website, however, if you take a look around here, I think you'll see that what we're doing here is not the same thing in tone or content. At least, that's not the intention. Unlike the Mr. Burlesque site, this Forum is designed to be driven by the community - anyone can send in a topic for discussion, anyone can send in a news item for posting.

I am certain that we will, over time, get better in our ability to ask and discuss topics - and with more and more individuals from the community chiming in with opinions the quality of the discussion will certainly become the resource I had hoped this Forum would be.

Jack Midnight said...

btw, thank you, Burlesque Forum, for creating this space.

Burlesque Daily said...

'That being said, by almost universally ignoring men (and I'm sorry, but a slight tip of the hat to "boylesque" doesn't really count as inclusion) at the larger conventions, shows, etc., you aren't correcting the problems of the past... you're hiding them.'

As a sex workers' rights activist, men often come up to me and say, "Why don't you write about the clients? Why do you always write about the workers?" and my response is, they can write about themselves. I don't mean that in an exclusionary way--I mean that I would read that and talk about it and include it in my bilbiographies and ask them to speak on a panel if I put it together, but I'm not writing about it, it's all I can do to cover my own subject. I sacrifice hugely to do it, you have no idea, really, and I don't have the energy or the motivation to take care of the clients' concerns too. I have my own agenda that I have to nurture, and which is being fought down all the time by people who think what I'm doing is stupid or wrong.
If you think about that in the context of burlesque shows, you can see that your participation might have to be self-motivated.

That said, nobody I know of really excludes men. Do you apply? Do you offer new options when the application seems to exclude you? Have you started your own fest?

Many of the men of burlesque became legends outside of burlesque. Hardly any of the women did. When people are more interested in the women than the men, it isn't meant to be turnabout. Maybe unconsciously it's meant to balance out some of the suffering those women experienced when burlesque died out and everybody but the stripteasers had an easier place in entertainment to go practice their magic, comedy, etc. To celebrate their surviving. THEY became invisible, not the men.

Also note, most of the festivals were started by women.

'All you've done by deconstructing burlesque down to just strip-tease'

I haven't. That's what I perform, not what I deconstruct. It's my area of interest. There's no shortage of writing about burlesque comics and variety performers out there. Striptease is my area of expertise. What do you think I should write about?

Burlesque Daily said...

BTW--I'm speaking about what I write and perform as an individual. In New York I often perform in shows that ARE variety shows. Le Scandal, Starshine Burlesque, and Pinchbottom Burlesque all have comedy routines in them, and often close to an entire small circus in them. Some shows at the Slipper Room are variety shows and some aren't, but all have a comedian as a MC and host. Good MC's and comedy writers are worshipped and rewarded here, not excluded or ignored, as are musicians and variety artists.

I produce shows that are all strip because that's what I teach. But I oftent hink of them as a different kind of variety show. Since performers are able to use variety arts or express themselves in a way that doesn't rely on an aesthetic of sex appeal, they often manage to inserts elements into their acts and make a variety experience out of a show that's all striptease.

Jack Midnight said...

Jo, if I had the time and resources, I most certainly would start my own festival. It would highlight troupes over individual performers. Because I think the burlesque experience is about the whole, the variety; not the individual slice that is strip-tease.

As far as your comments equating burlesque performers to sex-workers... yikes. I'm not sure the women I perform with would be comfortable with that tag at all...

Also, I note that you very succinctly seperated the men from the women... AGAIN. We're all in the same show, but performing in different aspects. Yes, "men" can write about it. I am. But this forum isn't a "Women's Burlesque Forum" or a "Men's Burlesque Forum." Just as Burlesque shows aren't usually delineated as "All Women's Burlesque for Women Only".

I don't think the seperation does ALL of us any good. I understand you have an agenda (as you said). This is MY agenda... bringing everyone to the table, and trying to widen the definition of burlesque back to it's original roots (instead of just compacting it down to strip-tease).

Burlesque Daily said...

'As far as your comments equating burlesque performers to sex-workers... yikes. I'm not sure the women I perform with would be comfortable with that tag at all...'

Not at all. I compared the balance of men and women writing and representing themselves in fields where women are stigmatized differently than men.

And, some burlesque performers do equate themselves with sex workers. I don't equate as sex work my burlesque performing with my work in strip joints (it's actually more complicated and not so clearly delineated as that, but I'm simplifying), but I'm not saying other performers can't identify as sex workers.

Sherry Britton told me that when she first performed, the burlesque clubs where she performed had men masturbating throughout the shows. She talks about her perspective on this in the documentary Pretty Things, too, so you can hear her talk about this for yourself if you watch the documentary. I don't mean to imply that that's the main thing burlesque was, but it's what one legend reports as part of the history of burlesque.

'Also, I note that you very succinctly seperated the men from the women... AGAIN. We're all in the same show, but performing in different aspects. Yes, "men" can write about it. I am. But this forum isn't a "Women's Burlesque Forum" or a "Men's Burlesque Forum." Just as Burlesque shows aren't usually delineated as "All Women's Burlesque for Women Only".'

My point was that I can only write as a woman, and it takes all I have to cover my own area of expertise. As you say, "If I had the resources..."

My area of study and performance is striptease, and it's true I am part of variety shows almost every week. I venerate the variety format. And whether or not I'm in them, there are multiple burlesque variety shows in New York every week, and I often attend them as an audience member. My appreciation for variety shows is huge.

I have no doubt variety will come to be more widely represented in various festivals and large events, and I welcome that.

Nance1564 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nance1564 said...

I am a currently student attending New York University and I need some outside help. For my writing class I have to choose a subculture I am interested in and write a final paper about it. I have chosen the topic of burlesque, and I think it would be very helpful if I could interview some of you in order to have some of my questions answered. I would be very thankful if anyone can help me! If you are interested please feel free to email me at it would help me so much!
Thank You!

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