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A History of Burlesque

The History of Burlesque Dancing

by Serena Doherty at

“Burlesque has been a word used since the 17th century, deriving from the Italian word ‘burlesco’, itself from ‘burla’ meaning a joke or mockery. It was used to describe this type of theatre during the Victorian era.”

Though burlesque was also used to describe pastiche and parody in the 17th and 18th century. Burlesque shows were also referred to as ‘travesty‘ and ‘extravaganza‘.

Where Burlesque Began

Victorian burlesque was popular in London theatres from the 1830s to the 1890s. It took well-known culture like opera or Shakespeare and parodied it. They would often use the original music or popular music of the time and re-write the lyrics for comic effect. Venues became known for showing burlesque during this era.

American Burlesque

The Victorian burlesque style was taken to New York in the 1840s. It was later popularised in 1868 by Lydia Thompson‘s visiting dance troupe, the British Blondes.

Their burlesque shows were focused on parody elements performed by a female cast. The women wore tights which were risqué for the Victorian era, when compared to all the ruffles used to hide a female leg. Scandalous.

Their first success in New York was with Ixion (1868). The mythological spoof saw women playing men’s roles.

A female-run production that showed under-dressed, attractive women mimicking patriarchs’ roles, including as sexual aggressors, pushed boundaries. No wonder the show was a hit! Lydia Thompson’s first season in the city grossed over $370,000.

There was soon prudish outrage which, of course, fueled the demand for such shows. Quickly, imitators were popping up and were also often female-run.

Striptease came into its own during 1920s burlesque when film and radio began to rival the appeal of Vaudeville. Furthermore, alongside Vaudeville there were several competing circuits with The Ziegfeld Follies and Minsky’s and Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) for black performers. While Irvin C. Miller’s Brownskin Models and Chocolate Scandals served as their alternative to Ziegfeld’s. The free-flowing alcohol, however, helped fuel the attraction to all this risqué adult entertainment.

During 20s burlesque, both Hinda Wassau and Mae Dix at Minsky’s claim to have invented the striptease “accidentally”. Either way this era led to the burgeoning scene of 30s burlesque.

Stars of the stage included the unforgettable Josephine Baker, innovative Sally Rand and famous Gypsy Rose Lee. It’s argued that during this time burlesque was truly elevated to an art form. Although, 40s showgirls soon faced censorship and clampdowns in New York that began to strangle the biz.

Big name burlesque dancers were then seduced by the bright lights of Hollywood and seen on the arm of famous and infamous characters. From 1950s burlesque onward, the industry suffered a slow decline up to the 70s. That was until the 1990s when burlesque dancing experienced a resurgence. Neo-burlesque has seen a worldwide revival with burlesque stars like Dita Von Teese, Miss Dirty Martini, Perle Noire, Julie Atlas Muz and Immodesty Blaize, to name a few.

Great! Now what can I expect at a Sky Dancer show? (Read "What to expect at a Sky Dancer show on the homepage)

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