Burlesque Is Back and Here Is What You Need to Know About It

A tradition of breaking taboos included new jargon likeand, "immodest" clothes like tights, and women speaking in men's voices. The performers were early explorers of sexual and gender norms.
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Photo: Performer Perle Noire courtesy of James Lester and Get Naked NYC

When you hear the word "burlesque," you probably think of two things:

  1. Christina Aguilera and Cher in the not-so-stellar movie Burlesque;
  2. Women dancing naked.
But a quick Google search will tell you that the primary definition of "burlesque" is:


1. An absurd or comically exaggerated imitation of something, especially in a literary or dramatic work; a parody.

Synonyms: parody, caricature, satire, lampoon, skit, farce

The public used to understand burlesque for what it was: lower-class performers bawdily making fun of the lifestyles of the bourgeoisie. As it grew and morphed in the United States, that definition was diluted and the public came to understand burlesque as synonymous with striptease. But that's changing; neo-burlesque is mainstream entertainment, and it's a new take on tradition.

As Stuff You Should Know detailed in a recent podcast, burlesque was brought to the United States around the end of the Victorian era, a time when modesty and morals reigned supreme. Before a mostly lower-class audience, the performers would spoof the prudishness of the upper class with songs and dances. It was social and political commentary.

A tradition of breaking taboos included new jargon like bump and grind, "immodest" clothes like tights, and women speaking in men's voices. The performers were early explorers of sexual and gender norms.

From the '20s toward the '50s, burlesque enjoyed a strong following. With time, more clothing came off and the subject material became more diverse. But, as Stuff You Should Know described, burlesque shows saw declining business during the sexual revolution in the '60s and '70s. Free-love counterculture became the norm and porn was more accessible. There was a lull in interest until the '90s, when neo-burlesque broke out.

Today, burlesque is back.

Neo-burlesque pays homage to the origins of the tradition, but many of today's popular performers are full figured, queer, disabled, trans and more. Perle Noire, voted one of the top burlesque performers in the world by 21st Century Burlesque says,

When you're little you're taught what to wear, what to say, you're taught to be successful, but not too successful, so as not to threaten men. Well, burlesque combats these transgressions. This art is therapeutic, it is life and celebration and beauty because it is unreserved and uninhibited.

Perle is one of the subjects of an upcoming neo-burlesque documentary Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story. James Lester, known for editing the HBO documentary Prayer for a Perfect Season, and the acclaimed CNN series Chicagoland, is directing Getting Naked -- his first feature.

The GetNakedNYC features profiles of neo-burlesque artists and events from the upcoming film. Getting Naked aims to make this misunderstood art form accessible - especially to those who question whether burlesque can be feminist, diverse and or empowering.

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