Over the last decade, Minneapolis/St. Paul has become a major player in what has been
dubbed the burlesque revival: a cultural movement that began in cities like New York,
Los Angeles, and London in the late 1990s and involves the reconceptualization of
early-to-mid twentieth-century striptease performances (Ferreday 2008; Willson 2008).
With roots not only in the “Golden Era” of burlesque (ca. 1920s-1940s), vaudeville and
music hall, circus and carnival “cooch” shows, the nightclub years of burlesque (ca.
1940s-1960s), and various other dance and theater practices, neo-burlesque also
follows in the footsteps of exotic dance show clubs of the 1970s-1990s that boasted
elaborate, highly-produced acts created by traveling feature performers and by some
in-house dancers as well, depending on the venue (Weldon 2010). Feature dancers
continue to circulate among gentlemen’s clubs today, with performers like Roxi D’Lite
and Tali De’Mar finding opportunities in both exotic dance and neo-burlesque venues.
In the Twin Cities, gentlemen’s clubs like Solid Gold (now Downtown Cabaret) maintained the show club aesthetic into the 1990s (Ophelia Flame: personal correspondence), providing a backdrop to the re-emergence of burlesque in 2003, when singer Amy Buchanan opened Minnesota’s first neo-burlesque venue. Buchanan re-fashioned the New French Bar, located in the Minneapolis Warehouse District, into Le Cirque Rouge de Gus, an intimate nightclub showcasing striptease acts and a live band. Many performers, including Jean Bardot, Amy Buchanan, Corinne Caouette, Nadine DuBois, Coco Dupree, Ophelia Flame, Gina Louise, Mia Malone, Karen Vieno Paurus, and Sweetpea, got their neo-burlesque start at this club, and it paved the way for producers/performers to mount other productions throughout the metro area in the coming years. Shortly after Le Cirque Rouge de Gus’s time in the warehouse district ended (the cast split up in 2004, with some members forming Lili’s Burlesque Revue, which continued to produce shows in the same space through 2006, and some going with Buchanan and forming Le Cirque Rouge Cabaret and Burlesque Show, now in its 11th year), a number of weekly and monthly shows came onto the scene and all eventually closed, including Lili’s Burlesque Revue - the Underpants Show, Dr. Farragos (which had its last show in January 2014, ending a 10-year run), the Naughty
Naughty Show: A Not So Nude Revue, Twin Titties Burlesque, Abbey Road’s Psychedelic Road Show, The Lovely Creatures Cabaret, Nick and Eddie’s shows, and still others.
Since those first formative years, the neo-burlesque community has continued to grow and change. One can find performances in many locations throughout the Twin Cities and elsewhere in Minnesota, and in seemingly innumerable guises. Shows ranging from Toil and Trouble Production’s “Science Fiction Burlesque Feature” to Red Carpet Burlesque’s “Afrodisiac,” a variety show featuring a cast of performers of color; festivals showcasing local, national, and international performers; and numerous recurring burlesque/variety shows, including Bawdy Blue: A Burlesque Revue, Bippy’s Burlesque-O-Rama, Blackhearts Burlesque, Carnivale Revolver, Flying Poodle’s Big Sexy Circus, Grown and Sexy Pride, Hot Dish Cabaret, Le Cirque Rouge Cabaret and Burlesque Show, The Midnight Muse Revue, The Nudie Nubie Show: An Amateur Reveal, Palace Burlesque, the Peacock Cabaret, Pop and Mox Menagerie, Sweetpea’s Soirée, Vendetta Vixens, the Vigilantease Collective, the Wicked Wenches Cabaret, and more, all point to the increasing popularity of burlesque in Minnesota and diverging trends in revivalist performance practices.
As well, The Playful Peacock Showgirl Academy, the first school of burlesque in Minnesota, founded by Ophelia Flame and Gina Louise; BurlesqueMN / ExpertTease, founded by Jac Fatale; and individuals like Foxy Tann, Red Bone, and Sweetpea offer classes and workshops. Burlesque also frequently appears in drag queen and king shows such as Barbara Gordon’s Lip Service, Dragged Out, Dykes Do Drag, and Red Carpet Burlesque’s Thank God I’m Fabulous. Finally, the Twin Cities is home to award-winning performers like Ophelia Flame (Burlesque Hall of Fame Queen of Burlesque, 1st runner up, 2012; Burlesque Hall of Fame Miss Exotic World, 1st runner up, 1999), and Sweetpea (Burlesque Hall of Fame Most Dazzling, 2013), Foxy Tann and the Wham Bam Thank You Ma’ams (Burlesque Hall of Fame Best Troupe, 2006), among others.
Person + Persona and the Labor of Transformation
Nick Kozel’s “Person + Persona” project provides a window into the transformation that burlesque performers must undergo each time they step on stage—a metamorphosis that involves costume-making, carefully and skillfully applying makeup, designing and learning choreography, music editing, and more. This transformation is also, more often than not, a labor of love, as very few burlesque performers today are able to make a living at it. While burlesque is a potential boon for small business owners looking for a supplementary, inexpensive, and popular form of entertainment, dancers must deal with the uncertainties and inconsistencies of free-lance work in an industry wherein flexibility and independent contracting are taken for granted. Some performers have augmented the services they offer, creating their own lines of striptease-related products, or opening up schools of burlesque in response to the desires of audience members who’d like to try it out, and for semi-professional and amateur performers who want to hone their craft. But, even in the best of circumstances, burlesque today is generally not considered a viable career path. What it is is something very meaningful to each performer who chooses to dedicate time and energy to it.
That many Minnesotans and other U.S. Americans have embraced pasties, G-strings, and the wide variety of bodies that display them seems clear. But what is it, exactly, that entices audience members to go to a bar, nightclub, or theater to witness a striptease performance today? Who are the stripteasers, and what enticed them into this world? Finally, and more broadly, what does contemporary burlesque tell us about performance, art, sex/sexuality, and gender? “Person + Persona,” rather than answering these questions outright, invites viewers to ponder the relationship between everyday life and the stage and encourages us to begin to connect neo-burlesque to its larger context. It is a timely project that, importantly, draws attention to the local, lived experiences of the performers themselves.
The History of American Burlesque: A Work in Progress
The history of American burlesque has been fairly well-documented (Abbott 2010; Allen 1991; DiNardo 2007; Glasscock 2003; Preminger 2004; Shteir 2004; and Zeidman 1967). American burlesque began to take shape in the mid-nineteenth century, and it “came of age when Lydia Thompson and her British Blonde burlesque troupe arrived in New York in the summer of 1868” (Nally 2009: 622). Lydia Thompson’s shows were clearly very successful and influential, but as Robert Allen (1991: 25-156) notes, the creation story of American burlesque should not be confined to this British blonde invasion, with French ballet, equestrian shows, museum dime shows, and other theatrical and dance “imports” contributing to its development.
The English music hall origins of burlesque were nonetheless significant and shaped the early years of American burlesque, with parody being a central component. Irving Zeidman (1967) asserts that “burlesques”—not “burlesque shows”—were “imported travesties from England, based on mythology and classical drama” (20-21), and these legitimate, mainstream shows were known for their mockery of high class society and not necessarily for nudity, at least, not early on. Owing much to the circus, minstrel show, and dance halls, burlesque had a similar trajectory to certain types of vaudeville, in that it “was first associated with legitimate productions or travesties, on the one hand, and behind-the-barn tent or cooch shows, on the other” (Zeidman 1967: 20), eventually falling under the rubric of “lowbrow” art (Levine 1990). Zeidman holds that “[i]f burlesque ever became too talented, it ceased to be burlesque. It became vaudeville or musical comedy and even . . . light opera” (1967: 20). In terms of socio-economic class, Allen notes the ways in which late nineteenth-century burlesque moved out of the realm of middle-class acceptability and became a form of entertainment for predominantly working class audiences; this, Allen contends, was partially due to the growing presence of middle class women in the audience, which caused theater owners to create more “female friendly” kinds of shows—in other words, vaudeville (1991: 178-193).
Another component of the burlesque history narrative is its purportedly favorable relationship to economic hardship, something that perhaps still holds some truth today. The 1873 financial panic saw an influx of burlesque shows; with both men and women looking for work and the increasing need for inexpensive forms of entertainment, burlesque was in a position to grow and flourish (Zeidman 1967: 28). During the Jazz Age and into the Depression Era, burlesque entered into its “Golden Age,” with stripteases occurring in burlesque theaters, nightclubs, carnivals and fairs, and making appearances in moving pictures (Shteir 2004: 4). By the post-Depression 1940s, and despite “moral panics” concerning burlesque, performers like Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr were well-established and well-known for their apparently “chaotic and nebulous combination of dancing, singing, minstrelsy, witty repartee, political commentary, parodies of plays and scant clothing” (Willson 2008: 18).
In the 1950s, burlesque dancers continued to find a home in nightclubs, state fairs, and carnivals, although with the advent of adult movie houses and the flourishing of men’s magazines like Playboy, it had stiff competition and also became a “less respectable” form of entertainment, contentious though it was up to this point (Shteir 2004: 5). Post-war legal changes in numerous cities, suburbanization, the growing popularity and affordability of televised, in-home entertainment, and “exotic dance” also contributed to a shift in the industry—from the “slow reveal” accompanied by jazz combos, to pole and lap dances sonically supported by pre-recorded popular music (Shteir 2004).
Exotic dance emerged in the US in the late 1950s and continues into the present day, more or less replacing the generally lengthier, tease-oriented acts found in earlier burlesque shows (Shteir 2004). But, as Jo Weldon (2010) notes, burlesque never fully “died,” as dancers in some gentlemen’s clubs across the country continued to create and perform burlesque-style acts. Like their burlesque precursors, exotic dancers appear in various states of undress (depending on the venue and legal restrictions) in front of predominantly male audiences, but usually with less of a theatrical “fourth wall” in place between audience members and performers. According to Frank (2007), exotic dance often involves “varying states of nudity, physical contact, and constellations of erotic and personal services such as talk, fantasy, and companionship,” and dancers “may perform on stages or sell individualized dances to customers” (502).
Finally, in the 1990s, neo-burlesque, or the “burlesque revival,” started in subculture form in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and London (Ferreday 2008; Willson 2008). Often, though not always, involving the nostalgic reconceptualization of early-to-mid twentieth-century striptease performances—evident through dancers’ musical, sartorial, staging, and/or choreographic choices—neo-burlesque has spread across the US and internationally, with predominantly cis-female producer-performers organizing and participating in shows, festivals, workshops, and classes (though, notably, the number of cis-male and transgender participants continues to increase).
While there is a certain amount of truth to a narrative that takes us from burlesque’s roots in England, to its Golden Age during the Depression years, and up to the present day revival, it leaves out burlesque’s reliance on and co-optation of African American and non-Western art practices, with discussions of minstrelsy, cooch dancers, “exotic Others” encountered at the World’s Fairs, and jazz offered up as sideshow acts to a white burlesque’s center stage. Sydney Lewis (2011), an African American burlesque dancer and writer, has addressed these oversights on the blog “Racialicious,” asserting that the sidelining of people of color in burlesque histories is both inaccurate and inexcusable: “Due to racist and exclusionary scholarship, I’ve been tricked into believing that it was racism from long ago that kept these brown burlesque queens nameless and lost to history, that no one bothered to document their presence then so we can’t find documents now. And that’s a lie. Such performers were documented, extensively, by the black press, and that documentation isn’t impossible to find” (para. 4; for the entire article, see http://www.racialicious.com/2011/06/03/women-of-color-in-burlesque-the-not-so-hidden-history/).
Reaching back into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Lewis focuses primarily on the 1950s and 1960s), one can now see that the perceived need to protect middle-class female audience members from the “dangers” of an increasingly risqué burlesque had to do with class and race, with working class women and women of color being the groups against which notions of appropriate sexual behavior for white, middle-class women were being constructed. At the same time, the non-Western “cooch” dance (i.e., belly dance), the African-American “shimmy,” and “low-brow” minstrel humor became part of the performance practice tool-kit for dancers through the 1960s, with both white performers and performers of color incorporating these elements. Thus, as a corrective to scholars’ lack of attention given to these elements, and in order to acknowledge the growing involvement of women of color in the burlesque revival today, Lewis concludes that “[b]lack and brown women must be acknowledged as pioneers and integral players” in histories about burlesque, both because of the movement styles they contributed and because they themselves were also dancers (2011: para. 8). In addition, Lewis believes that a re-writing of history is necessary in order to counter some of the negative images neo-burlesque dancers of color face today. She holds that “as long as the historical face of burlesque is porcelain then contemporary neo-burlesque performers will always be seen as exotic others, brown-skinned derivatives of Sally Rand, Dixie Evans, and Dita von Teese” (2011: para. 8).
Lewis aptly asserts that the relationship between history and present-day burlesque is extraordinarily important, and this is an ongoing conversation within the community today (see, e.g., the series of articles regarding race and burlesque in the online publication, 21st Century Burlesque, at 21stcenturyburlesque.com). Given that many dancers rely heavily on the past for artistic inspiration, knowing how that past is invoked, and to what ends, is key to understanding the burlesque revival writ large.
- Minneapolis, Minnesota, August, 2014.
Beth Hartman, aka Pedi Bourgeois, is a burlesque performer, musician, Feldenkrais practitioner, and Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at Northwestern University. She holds a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University and a master’s degree in musicology from the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation (currently in progress) will focus on contemporary striptease-related practices (burlesque, exotic dance, and pole dancing) in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, and she is especially interested in the relationship between music/sound and dance/movement. Beth would like to thank all of the dancers, instructors, musicians, DJs, emcees, photographers, managers, mentors, colleagues, friends, and family members who have helped her with her project thus far, and she looks forward to sharing her work not only with scholars, but with those outside of the academy as well. Beth would also like to thank Nick Kozel for asking her to write a few words to accompany his project, Person + Persona.
Works Cited Abbott, Karen. 2010. American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee. New York: Random House. Allen, Robert C. 1991. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. DiNardo, Kelly. 2007. Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique. New York: Back Stage Books. Ferreday, Debra. 2008. Showing the Girl: The New Burlesque. Feminist Theory 9(1): 47-65. Frank, Katherine. 2007. Thinking Critically About Strip Club Research. Sexualities 10(4): 501-517. Glasscock, Jessica. 2003. Striptease: from Gaslight to Spotlight. New York: Harry N. Abrams. Levine, Lawrence W. 1988. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Lewis, Sydney F. 2011. Women of Color in Burlesque: The Not-So-Hidden History. Electronic document, http://www.racialicious.com/2011/06/03/women-of-color-in-burlesque-the-not-so-hidden-history/, accessed August 29, 2014. Nally, Claire. 2009. Grrrly Hurly Burly: Neo-burlesque and the Performance of Gender. Textual Practice 23 (4): 621-643. Preminger, Eric Lee. 2004. My G-String Mother: At Home and Backstage with Gypsy Rose Lee. Berkeley, CA: Frog Ltd. Shteir, Rachel. 2004. Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show. New York: Oxford University Press. Weldon, Jo. 2010. The Burlesque Handbook. New York: HarperCollins. Willson, Jacki. 2008. The Happy Stripper: Pleasure and Politics of the New Burlesque. New York: I.B. Tauris. Zeidman, Irving. 1967 . The American Burlesque Show. New York: Hawthorn Books.