If you look up ‘burlesque’, you’ll find that it means ‘in an upside down style’. Now this popular blend of satire, performance and strip-tease is being reinvented across Scotland and around the world. PAUL F COCKBURN talks to Missy Malone, Chaz Royal and Dan Bear to find out why an art form that turns the world on its head has landed on its feet.
Burlesque may not be family fare, but it’s definitely not pandering to the dirty raincoat brigade any longer. Indeed, with the attention that it’s been getting recently, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this kind of entertainment was just a few tassels short of being seen on Saturday-evening television.
Cheeky, witty and full of spectacle, burlesque is a theatrical art form that has seen a massive – and increasingly mainstream – resurgence in the past decade. This may be because, unlike straightforward theatre, burlesque shows let their audiences participate more – and have the added bonus of a bigger tease factor than the average cabaret.
“Primarily I dance for me – it’s my ultimate indulgence,” says Edinburgh-based Missy Malone when asked why she performs. “I always want to entertain my crowd – I want to see smiling faces and hear wolf-whistles! I love making eye contact and being able to tell that I’ve put on a good show.”
“People who are naked together don’t fight…”
-Mike Albo, a.k.a. ‘Dazzel Dazzle’,
co-founder NYC’s Dazzle Dancers
Although performances typically involve women taking their clothes off, the style is evolving and the audience is far from what you might expect: “Our shows attract all walks of life and in general are geared towards a very mixed audience,” explains Chaz Royal, who produces hundreds of burlesque shows around the world – most recently, the second London Burlesque Festival. “Couples, singles, straight, gay, all races and ages… We often have patrons who have just turned of age alongside seniors who might have seen a show in its original heyday decades ago.”
But why is burlesque making a comeback now, in a digital era dominated by evermore raunchy entertainment? Chaz describes a general resurgence in retro culture: “Burlesque and pin-up style has been infused into fashion-show runways and magazine spreads a lot in the past few years.” Certainly, many acts – from US trailblazer Dita Von Teese right up to Missy Malone – deliberately invoke the style and spirit of an earlier age.
“I am a huge fan of 1950s fashion and culture, which has been a big influence on my performance style,” Missy admits. “It’s such a truly beautiful art form, combining all my favourite things – the celebration of the feminine form, sexuality, freedom, music, costume and comedy.”
Still, this is not simply an exercise in collective nostalgia for a time when women were generally expected to be larger than size zero. “I think the biggest contributing factor is that burlesque is very DIY,” says Chaz Royal. “Anyone with a bit of creativity and a keen business sense can produce a show.” Indeed, many women have begun performing their own routines after being part of a burlesque audience. To explicitly distance the form from the seedy world of lap dancing, the advocates of twenty-first-century neo-burlesque invariably emphasize how it empowers, rather than takes advantage of, performers. “As a full-time professional performer, my life revolves around acting, modeling and burlesque – I live and breathe it,” Missy Malone explains. “I have managed to build my life around it. I get to meet so many wonderful people, see the world and call all my own shots. Exploitative? I think not.”
In fact, while we’re constantly bombarded with blatant sexual imagery on every corner, burlesque is increasingly going against the grain by emphasizing fun and glamour – the best shows are where the emphasis of the strip-tease is definitely on the tease.
So what’s in it for the entertainers? “I can honestly say that the biggest attraction for most performers getting into burlesque is the attention it brings them, regardless of how many people actually see them perform,” says Chaz Royal. “Some women take workshops just to dance at home for their lover. Others may be motivated to perform as a way to pay the bills. Some dancers are trained in various styles of performance, and use burlesque as a tool and gateway to something bigger than their local hall or club. With the boom of the internet, it’s made it very easy to connect with other people around the world.” The growth and success of websites such as the Ministry of Burlesque, which includes busy forums allowing current and wannabe performers to swap advice and information, certainly backs this up.
Burlesque offers many women a real sense of achievement when performing routines in costumes they’ve made themselves – and the appreciation of a diverse audience is no bad thing either. What’s more, as a quick look at the programme for the recent London Burlesque Festival proves, this is a truly international phenomenon. Missy Malone was just back from a week performing in Milan when we spoke, and she’s well aware of the growing worldwide demand for burlesque, having successfully performed in Ireland, Italy, Sweden and France.
At a time when there is still concern about the consequences of poor body image – primarily amongst women, but also increasingly men – burlesque is remarkably free of body tyranny. The basic rule seems to be: if you’ve got it, shake it.
Dan Bear is one of the younger members of Bearlesque, a popular all-male group with a growing following in London’s gay scene. “Burlesque is sexy, cheeky and fun – and that’s what we are all about,” he says. “Going out there and not taking ourselves too seriously while being sexy and sometimes a little cheeky. It is about celebrating the body that you have, no matter what your size.”
With a traditional emphasis on creating a public persona, and performing under a witty or over-the-top stage name, it’s easy to conclude that another part of the attraction for many performers is escapism. “Some performers are very shy on a personal level and come out of their shell when they hit the stage,” says Chaz Royal.
Whether burlesque offers a mask for the performer to hide behind, or an opportunity for them to slip off the corset of everyday social conventions, is open to debate. “I think a lot of performers view burlesque as the perfect escape from ‘normal’ life,” Missy Malone suggests. “It can definitely be used as a means of expressing what you want to say.”
Dan Bear has a different perspective: “When Bearlesque first started, I was just helping with props and costume changes – I swore I would never get on stage,” he says. “Then we were booked to do Duckies Euro Shame, and somehow we came up with the bizarre and quite brilliant idea of being pole-dancing Vikings. We had a Viking longboat made and we used the sail mast as our pole. We started having pole-dancing lessons and they were such fun that, from those lessons, I started to feel more confident in myself and in my body. I was so nervous on the night – but after a minute of swinging around the pole, all that went away and I just had a really great time!”
Even if it’s hard to tell whether the audience or performers are enjoying themselves more, one thing’s certain: burlesque is back with a bang.
A BRIEF HISTORY: Burlesque is a form of theatre with its roots in nineteenth-century US vaudeville and British music halls. In his autobiography, Charlie Chaplin described burlesque in 1910 Chicago as “consisting of a coterie of rough-and-tumble comedians supported by twenty or more chorus girls. Some were pretty, others shop worn. Some of the comedians were funny, most of the shows were smutty harem comedies – coarse and cynical affairs.”
Although originally a collection of satirical comedy sketches and variety turns – such as the comics mentioned above, but also singers, jugglers and stage magicians – changing attitudes, along with the arrival of competition in the form of cinema, forced burlesque to evolve. Dancing girls and strip-tease acts became increasingly important audience draws – although, for legal reasons, female nipples were always covered with sequinned tassels (or “pasties”, to use the traditional terminology).
By the 1930s, most burlesque shows centred on the strip-tease – sadly with the emphasis often on the strip rather than the tease – and for that reason, burlesque fell out of fashion.
Modern, new or neo-burlesque was pioneered independently during the mid-1990s by Billie Madley’s “Cinema” and Ami Goodheart’s “Dutch Weismann’s Follies” revues in New York, Michelle Carr’s “The Velvet Hammer Burlesque” troupe in Los Angeles, and a growing number of individual performers like Dita Von Teese and the UK’s own Immodesty Blaize.
In common with many other American styles, burlesque has spread around the world and drawn the attention of the Sunday supplements. In tribute to its various past incarnations, modern Burlesque takes many forms, from the sultry songs and vaudeville of its early days to its 1950s “bump and grind” incarnation – there’s even the increasingly popular Dr Sketchy, which combines burlesque performance with life-drawing classes and is now held in cities around the world, including Glasgow.
NEW TWISTS: Burlesque may traditionally be associated with women, but Bearlesque are proving that, in the twenty-first century, men can get are de rigueur in gay men’s magazines.
In other words, Bearlesque offer a little bit more body and a lot more body hair than most burlesque acts. “We are not your average gay men, all toned and tanned,” says member Dan Bear. “We are big hairy guys, but we still think we are hot.”
Formed just two years ago after the original members met through a Mr Bear Beauty competition, Bearlesque now consists of six members – founder Fred Bear, the suave and sophisticated Luke Bear, carnival-fixated Simon Bear, tattooed Justin Bear, “baby cub” Dan Bear and most recent recruit Neil Bear.
“I feel Bearlesque have always been more than a burlesque act,” says Dan Bear. “I would say we are more a variety act and I think that will show itself more over the coming year. We all have creative input into what we do. All our solos are our own ideas and we all work on the group pieces together. I think everyone has their own idea of where we are going. Some would like world domination and others quite like being underground.”
Bearlesque perform as part of Vauxhallville at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, London, every Thursday night, and will be appearing at the Latitude festival this summer. More information on performances can be found at: www.myspace.com/bearlesque
Paul F Cockburn was born in Edinburgh, but now lives and works in Glasgow. He writes for a living.