Tease N’ Tell: the Body Politics of Burlesque

Sometime in 2003 in a bar in
the East Village of New York
City I discovered burlesque
as a creative form. The show was
Va Va Voom Room, hosted by the legendary
Miss Astrid. The performers for the evening
were Dirty Martini, the World Famous
“BOB” and Tigger! among others. Needless
to say, I was motivated enough to embrace
this new genre.
Since my first encounter with burlesque I
have seen it popularized all across major
cities in the USA as well as internationally.
Although most critics date the start of the
burlesque revival around the mid 90s, “neo
burlesque” as it came be known, was fairly
unknown at the beginning of the 21st century.
With its short acts and tendency to blur the
boundaries between genres, definitions, art,
sexuality, and entertainment, neo burlesque
is a true representation of the early 21st
century zeitgeist. It is unapologetic in its
exploitation of the main stream and ranges
from a fairly conservative winks to the past
to outrageous spectacles of human desire.
Over the past fifteen years the debates
about the various forms of burlesque and
their origin have drawn scholarly attention.
CLAGS, an organization that proudly pioneers
the research and study of all forms of Queer
expression, invited some of the leading
figures of the burlesque scene as part of
the Seminars in the City series to explore
the definitions, history, and limits of this
dynamic art form.
To start with I’d like to offer my heartfelt
thanks to CLAGS for giving me the
opportunity to turn an idea into reality
by organizing Tease n’ Tell: the Body Politics
of Burlesque, Spring 2009 Seminars in the
City series. The series allowed me to make
the best use of my scholarly and artistic
interests in theater.
On February 4, 2009 Dr. Lukki, the first and
so far the only burlesque performer with
a PhD, led the inaugural seminar. Focusing
on her article, “It is the Ugly that is So
Beautiful”: Performing the Monster/Beauty
Continuum in American Neo-Burlesque. Dr.
Lukki analyzed burlesque as a departure
from “normative representations of beauty”
and pointed out the similarities between
burlesque and drag performance—both
make use of gender exaggeration. The
series further highlighted this connection
between the two forms of performance
in the fourth and final seminar discussed
The second seminar presented on March
2, 2009 was facilitated by Jo Boobs, the
headmistress of the New York School of
Burlesque, JZ Bich, a burlesque performer
and queer diva of undefined gender, and
Darlinda Just Darlinda, a performance
artist and burlesque performer. Jo Boobs
talked about her work on the right to
leisure, Darlinda discussed the connection
between feminism and burlesque, whereas
JZ brought to light the links between queer
identities and burlesque. This seminar
provoked some very interesting questions
about sexuality and body as envisioned by
the various generations of feminists.
In the third seminar on April 6, Tigger! one
of the key players in the burlesque revival,
discussed both the history and definitions
of the form since the 1990s. He emphasized
the “fundamental responsibility to entertain
the audience.” He also pointed out the
relatively small number of male performers
in burlesque and the importance of satirizing
the masculinity at least as much as femininity,
if not more. The lack of male performers and
the general discomfort with gender satire
brings us to the last seminar.
In the culminating seminar of the series on
May 4, Dr. Joe E. Jeffreys, a drag historian,
and Rose Wood, one of the icons of the neo
burlesque scene joined forces to discuss
the overlapping of drag and burlesque.
Presenting video clips
spanning several
decades, Dr. Jeffreys
reminded us that
drag has historically
been part of the
burlesque scene, and
the current emphasis
of differentiating
between the two is a rather recent
phenomenon. So we came full circle in
terms of the burlesque-drag theme with
Rose Wood’s enthralling rendition of Take
a Walk on the Wild Side. This provocatively
entertaining performance challenged the
viewers’ perception of gender, and during
the subsequent discussion underscored
one of major goals of this series: the
acknowledgment of neo burlesque
performers in pushing the boundaries—
theatrical and theoretical.