History of Burlesque
It all began with a bellydancer named Little Egypt who performed at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. She caused a sensation that inspired many imitators. Because her smooth moves were so difficult to replicate, the other dancers' crude attempts at bellydance became the foundation for the bumping and grinding of Burlesque—originally called the hootchie-cootchie dance!
"Salomania" is how the press labeled the cultural phenomenon that swept through Europe and the United States from the early 1900s all the way into the roaring '20s. This excitement started with Little Egypt and when combined with Oscar Wilde's hit play, Salome and mixed with the awesome discovery of King Tutankhamen's Tomb, it created an intoxicating cocktail difficult to resist. Vaudeville was the mainstream form of entertainment at the time and bellydance became one of the most popular acts in vaudeville. Everyone was getting in on the act, even the author Collette. Most were less than skilled dancers, but they helped to create a spin-off of vaudeville called burlesque. A burlesque show, much like vaudeville, was a variety show that included singers and comedians including the hilarious Buster Keaton, and it introduced a new dance form called the striptease. Back then, burlesque was racy and cutting edge, but still acceptable enough to bring your girlfriend. In the 20s and 30s, men and women alike would whoop and holler as glamour girls shimmied and shook out of their corsets and gowns, down to sequined pasties and barely-there G-strings.
Then came New Orleans...
New Orleans did not invent Burlesque, but the city left its mark on it and the dance has never been the same since! In the 40s and 50s New Orleans was heralded nationwide for being the "Most Interesting City in America." Bourbon Street was the epicenter, and it became world famous for its concentration of nightclub shows featuring exotic dancers, comics, risqué singers, and contortionists, backed by some of the most swinging music—New Orleans is the birthplace of Jazz after all! Along a five-block stretch, over fifty acts could be seen on any given night. The street gleamed with neon lights as barkers enticed tourists and locals alike into the clubs. It was a glamorous street where men and women dressed in their finest to take in a show.
The famous line and song in Gypsy, "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" was inspired by this creative time in New Orleans...and this theme changed the landscape of burlesque dance forever. A competition formed between the club owners to see who could draw the biggest crowd and make the most money. Girls competed with each other by creating acts based upon elaborate themes. One of the most popular Bourbon Street dancers, Stormy, said, "Anything you do—no matter what it is—if you do it well enough, can be lifted to an art." The dancers of Bourbon Street gained star status: hairstylists, maids, agents, managers, entourages, and merchandise; their images on drinking glasses, postcards, on the covers of pulp novels and some, even on the covers of national magazines and in movies.
The Burlesque world followed in the Big Easy's Footsteps...
Getting arrested on obscenity charges was always good for a headline in the newspaper. A few exotics from Bourbon Street staged elaborate catfights or public displays that landed them spreads in Life magazine, the most read magazine in the country at the time. Blaze Starr became famous for her affair with Governor Earl Long. Other dancers began to follow the lead of NOLA's burlesque dancers. One of my personal favorites is the story about a dancer in Los Angeles who was arrested for doing a pelvic bump directed at the audience. The judge wanted to see her alleged "lascivious" performance (of course!) and ordered her to dance in his courtroom. He found her guilty and sentenced her to jail! And as any good burlesque dancer would, she renamed herself, "Too Hot for LA" while she was out on bail.
During the 1960s, New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison "cleaned up" Bourbon Street. The clubs were raided and girls were arrested on obscenity charges. During the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the tame and playful burlesque was replaced with the more explicit strip clubs that have become so prevalent today.
The Burlesque Revival...
Burlesque seemed a lost art. But after years underground, the retro striptease of Burlesque is making a comeback, with its ultra-glamorous, totally feminine style. Performers say it's about nostalgic fabulousness and is very different from the explicit acts performed in strip clubs.
Burlesque has now made it into the mainstream. Before The Pussycat Dolls were a band and a reality TV show, they were a Burlesque troupe that featured famous guest stars including Gwen Stefani, Eva Longeria, and Christina Aguiliera. Many nightclubs now feature Burlesque nights, and some are devoted exclusively to Burlesque, like the hot spots Forty Deuce in Hollywood, Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, and a soon-to-be-club in New York City owned by Sting and David Bowie. Dita von Teese is the current pin-up model for Frederick's of Hollywood, MAC cosmetics, and Cointreau liqueur. Burlesque has become the hottest form of entertainment, and dancers are now increasingly performing at corporate parties, events, and on fashion runways.
Past and present, this dance is a way to celebrate being a woman in all its outrageous glory.