Burlesque: Theatrical Dance or Erotica?

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Fancying something a little different in my gym routine, I opted for the Sport Rec’s Chair Burlesque class. The flyer promised a fun workout and the opportunity to dress up, but other than this I had no idea what to expect. Whilst convinced that the university wasn’t about to turn their female students into strippers, the class sparked my interest in the stigma attached to the activity.

Burlesque existed for centuries as a theatrical form involving comedy, parody and all clothes intact. With 20th Century America’s sexier makeover of the art, striptease has become its signature attraction. Due to the success of stars such as Dita von Teese and films including Moulin Rouge, the last ten years has seen burlesque emerge into popular culture. Next month seesthe release of a new musical movie titled Burlesque, starring Christina Aguilera and Cher, which looks set to further add to the act’s popularity.

Yet performance is so suggestive that it has provoked classification alongside lap dancing and stripping, to the extent that last year a proposed Policing and Crime Bill nearly resulted in clubs hosting burlesque nights having to apply for a Sexual Encounter Entertainment Licence.

However, in response to a Save Burlesque petition, the Government excluded it from the stripping category. The loophole was that, despite being very risqué, the act does not involve nudity.

This lack of nudity is what burlesque performers find so empowering. “It’s more the art of tease than the art of strip,” burlesque dancer Ruby Rose told BBC News. “Nights involve humour, satire, theatre and vintage clothing. There’s often a story line running through the act.”

Voted top burlesque dancer in the world in 2007, Immodesty Blaize (real name Kelly Fletcher) elaborated on this view: “I find a greater liberation in holding on to [women’s] power by not giving everything away; keeping a little mystique.”

Surprisingly, the audience of a burlesque night could not be more different to that of a strip club. Rather than leering drunken men, the average crowd is 60 percent female, and most of the men are there with partners. Glamour and comic innuendo replaces the sleaze; extravagant costumes replace, well, lack of costume.

It is an art which has torn feminists. To be expected, some view it as a derogatory portrayal of women as sex-objects. Others believe women should embrace this ‘art of tease’ and the sense of empowerment it offers. Feminist journalist Laurie Penny comments: “A lot of people start burlesque for their confidence,” and Kirsty Allan, a star of the UK burlesque scene, believes that it offers “the perfect message” for women in a society where the media promotes unrealistic images of the female form.

“Burlesque is the perfect show for these times, it’s an art form that must not be taken seriously. It’s all about coming in to forget your worries and enjoy the beautiful costumes, naughty shenanigans, crazy antics and lots of glamorous fun.”

‘Fun’ was indeed my main experience in the burlesque fitness course. Every week Pussycat Doll style dance moves were put together for performance, along to an appropriate track for the style. Although no undressing was involved, we were able to embrace the theme with costume in the final class. With 45 minute sessions of body rippling, ‘peek-a-boo’s and strutting, my confidence (and fitness) had soared by the end of the course.

For a work out with a difference, sign up to the 5-week burlesque course beginning Wednesday 17th November. At only £18 for SportRec members or £23 for uni students, this won’t put a dent in your overdraft and is a great way to meet people, get fit and above all, have fun.

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Discussion3 Comments

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    Great article Becki, I really enjoyed it. It’s interesting that you comment upon feminist response; as a feminist myself and one in the position of authoritive opinion within the society, I find myself completely torn by burlesque. Perhaps it’s something that you need to actually indulge in before judging? Shame I work Wednesdays! x

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    I was around when there was debate about the pole-dancing classes, later abandoned. My opinion of them was that there was a good case to say that the activity is not able to be ‘reclaimed’ from patriarchy, but equally, as fitness classes detached from context, they were *less* sexist than the other classes SportRec ran – mostly focused on weight loss, and scheduled consecutively, with active encouragement for those attending the first of a ‘double header’ to stay for the second. I knew at least one friend with an eating disorder who would consistently do just this, and do not believe she was the only one.

    By the way, Laurie Penny’s article was actually highly critical, at least of what she perceives burlesque has become: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/may/15/burlesque-feminism-proud-galleries

    The examples she quotes also run directly counter to Kirsty Allan’s point. (It should be noted that if I’ve got the chronology right from Laurie’s other writing, she was still fighting an eating disorder at the time of her burlesque experiences. This may well colour them, though it absolutely does not invalidate them.)

    Becki Hughes
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    Thanks for your comment David. I was particularly interested to read Penny’s article – I paid more attention to the reasons why she’d begun burlesque – the confidence, empowerment etc. – and neglected to note her dislike of the burlesque/ stripping merge.

    I spoke to SportRec about why the pole-dancing classes were abandoned. Apparently they were forced to charge students lots of money as it was an expensive class to run – an outside instructor had to be brought in, poles bought for everyone, the hassle of putting them out and taking them away after each class whereas with burlesque all you need is a chair and some music!

    Has anyone seen the new Burlesque film yet? I’d be interested to see what people thought of it and how the activity was portrayed.

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