The History of Burlesque Dancing
British burlesque dancer, Bettsie Bon Bon, took us through her Guide to Showgirl Burlesque and it all begins in the same place. She said, “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.”
Where it 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.
(Image from We Are Colours)
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, fuelled the demand for such shows. Quickly, imitators were popping up and were also often female-run.
New York burlesque shows were adding elements of the minstrel shows. The performances began with song, sketches and low comedians before male acts (acrobats, magicians, solo singers). Lastly, would be a chorus number or the English style of satire.
This led to the arrival of Mabel Saintley as the first American-born burlesque star. She was acclaimed for feminising the genre with her turn in Mme. Rintz’s Female Minstrels.
The minstrel element of the shows also gave way to a new generation of black performers. In 1890, The Creole Show débuted and re-shaped the minstrel all-male tradition with female cast members.
These women took to the stage in their decadent outfits and proceeded to show a little leg. They even cross-dressed as part of their parody, according to Chicava HoneyChild.
Stars of the show included Ada Overton Walker, Stella Wiley, Dora Dean and Belle Davis. These women went onto become the stars of Oriental America. Not only did they look fabulous but they provided a scathing social commentary of America and abroad.
(Image from Burlesque Fan)
In London burlesque shows were one of three acts in an evening’s entertainment up till the 1870s. Then they were extended to become the main event. Though by 1890 its popularity faded in favour of more wholesome entertainment.
20th Century Burlesque
Burlesque gradually transformed into striptease with more and more elaborate costumes. The most notable first sighting was Little Egypt introduced the ‘hootchie-kooch’ at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The continued moral outrage towards burlesque dancing further increased its attraction.
The first burlesque star of the 20th century was ‘The Girl in Blue’, Millie DeLeon. She gained the tagline from her costumes and the moves during her ‘cooch‘ dancing. She’s also known as ‘The First Real Queen of American Burlesque’, hitting the scene in 1903.
Miss Millie DeLeon was also known for her media grabbing escapades. Gasp. Sometimes she would “accidentally” forget tights which led to an arrest. She really set the scene for the coming decades.
(Image from Dollar Dazzler Burlesque)
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.
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, by the 40s showgirls censorship and clampdowns in New York began to strangle the biz.
Burlesque dancers were often seduced by the bright lights of Hollywood and seen on the arm of infamous characters. Though, 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. But that’s a new era, for another time…
Check out The History of Neo-burlesque so Far…