Burlesque is back
But does the old-time art promote archaic attitudes?
Hayley Gray, Staff Contributor
Under the fluorescent lights of the Cunard Convention Centre, I watch Roxi Dlite, Miss Exotic World 2010, extend her gloved hands from side to side. Her dainty hand curves gently as she zigzags her route across the stage. There is an aesthetic to her movement, her body, her show. She fits right into that 1930s theme of an all-around good time. This woman is burlesque.
But what, exactly, is burlesque today? And why does it matter?
According to Dlite, about two-thirds more women are coming out to her shows than men. burlesque might not have moved far from its roots, but our interpretation of it has. Dlite’s audience today are not like the men who would have been heading to the burlesque theatre in the 1930s through to the 1950s. They are people interested in the aesthetic, the performance, the costumes and the sexuality.
Dixie Evans is a former burlesque star. She says that the American burlesque of the early 20th century was more than just a good time; it was the theatre of the people. In a time when television did not exist, and going to the theatre was not fiscally accessible, the burlesque show was where you went for affordable entertainment.
“It wasn’t all strippers,” Evans says. “There would also be forty girls marching across the stage, a belly dancer, comedians, and straight men—a regular show with big productions and finales. When people went out of that theatre, they could breathe again. It was like a shot in the arm for them. They couldn’t afford anything else! burlesque is a real, important part of our culture.”
For Evans, burlesque was an attempt to take a break from politics, in and out of the bedroom and have a laugh. But where does that leave us now? In a culture with no shortage of spectacle, what is burlesque’s role?
For Skye Sharpe, a psychology and film student at Dalhousie, burlesque’s direction is a political one.
“There is a big movement within feminism right now, to reconcile being a feminist and being sexy or erotic,” she says.
According to Sharpe, some feminists struggle with feeling like they can’t be submissive or sexual and still care about women’s rights. “There is a big surge right now of feminism that is trying to bridge those two things, and make it clear that you don’t have to reconcile feminism with sexuality, that they can go hand in hand,” she says.
Maija Buckley-Pearson is a feminist blogger and University of King’s College alumna based in Vancouver, BC. She’s tentative about her feelings on burlesque, but she thinks it can be used in a political way. “What is the burlesque (show) telling the audience? Is it just about sex, or is some subversive satire going on?”
The humorous, striptease element of American burlesque was a way for women to reclaim bodies which they’d been told were someone else’s property.
“Some women took burlesque and … made it a way of empowering their body and their sexuality,” Buckley-Pearson says.
But Roxi Dlite says she doesn’t want her creative experience being co-opted by a larger movement.
“There’s a lot of hoopla right now about burlesque being a feminist movement and a feminist act,” Dlite says. “For me, it’s not. I’m not doing burlesque to put anything out there for women’s rights … It’s my job, it’s my passion, it’s my art and that’s about it.”
Miss C is founder and leader of Halifamous burlesque troupe Pink Velvet. “(Feminism) is really a muddled area. I try not to think too much into it,” she says.
“People ask me if I’m feminist because I do this. Some feminists don’t like me because I do this,” she says. “It takes some of the fun away from it.”
I asked Sharpe what she would say to burlesque dancers who don’t consider their dancing feminist.
“I would first start by asking them why they enjoy burlesque and if it has something to do with claiming or affirming their sexuality,” she replied. “For me, that is the feminist explanation, whether or not you want to label it as feminism.”
Dlite doesn’t consider burlesque to be affirming her sexuality.
“It’s kind of a job sometimes,” she says. However, she also says, “dancing made me more aware of my body, and made me more aware of myself.”
Though Dlite doesn’t call herself a feminist, she makes no apologies for the work that she does. “I don’t think it’s dirty, I don’t think it’s anything demeaning or degrading, I think it’s a positive thing.”
Sharpe says, “The fact that women can do that in a safe space, without feeling threatened, and can feel empowered … is an exact result of feminism.”
“So whether or not you would call it feminist or not, feminism is extremely linked to burlesque and what burlesque is now.”
But Buckley-Pearson’s not sure that the environment that promotes burlesque is so positive.
One of the major reasons we look up to sexualized performers, says Buckley-Pearson, is because they’re our only role models. “If you look at the way advertising works these days, even if you don’t watch porn or you’re not into burlesque … you’re going to see women’s bodies used to sell things. I think women are being conditioned to say that ‘oh if I use my body, I can get what I want, and this is the way I’m supposed to do it.’”
“Women should feel empowered in their sexuality,” Buckley-Pearson emphasizes. “But if women look at sex or burlesque as a way to empower themselves, it becomes a problematic dynamic where the only way I can be liberated is through sex and by making myself sexually available.”
“I think that’s a negative effect of the whole sex culture we have going on,” says Buckley-Pearson. “Empowerment comes through the way we let other people use our bodies.”
When asked what spurred the recent revival of burlesque, Roxi points to that other domain of women’s simultaneous objectification and domination—“fashion.”
“History always repeats itself,” she says. “A vintage style is coming back in fashion and music.” Just step into the north end of Halifax and you’re swept away by a sea of fitted dresses and suspenders. Meanwhile, musicians like Old Man Luedecke and Krasnogorsk bust out their banjos, taking new spins on old music.
The vintage scene, however, has a politic that burlesque lacks. The vintage fashion movement hearkens to a time when things were made by tailors, not unwaged workers in the Third World. These individuals sew and knit to preserve, to be sustainable, to say no to corporate commerce. You might find dresses from the 1950s at Lost and Found, but you aren’t going to find apolitical housewives buying them—that lady behind the counter knows damn well who Betty Friedan is. Old Man Luedecke might have some sweet old-time love tunes, but he also writes songs about Monsanto.
Buckley-Pearson says, “people don’t examine their choices in sex as much as they think they do.” Maybe they should start with burlesque. If this art wants to carve out a space for itself as something sustainable and intriguing, it needs to move beyond being a good time.
In a society saturated with entertainment, burlesque needs a reason to be relevant. I’d recommend that it be a feminist one.