Burlesque is a genuine grassroots phenomena. Gareth K Vile immerses himself in a world of glamour and humour

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 28 Feb 2009




Since I first encountered burlesque, back at an early Club Noir, it has expanded hugely. Perhaps due to the energy of the Ministry of Burlesque – Kitty Klaw and Gypsy Charms have been the Johnny Appleseeds of cabaret, dropping classes and enthusiasm across the central belt – it isn’t just another series of performance nights. Burlesque is asserting itself in the face of grey mediocrity and reclaiming sensuality and style from a sex-obsessed culture that thinks nothing of naked women on the middle shelf at Tesco. There are regular classes at Dance Base and Dance House, workshops on specific themes, and a mini-industry of DVDs and costumiers alongside a lively online and live community and a host of associated events. Given the diversity, there is no single, clear definition of burlesque, although there are certain themes.

Missy Malone, who has toured with The Damned and has skills spanning from stilt-walker to book reviewer, suggests “it is a celebration of female form (whatever that may take!) and performance”. Photographer to the stars Andrei Heins warns that “it would take a while to list all the defining features of burlesque”, but agrees “one of the most important, to my mind, is the appreciation that is shown towards any and every body type out there. I've never been part of a scene that is so welcoming in this regard – people aren't pretending to embrace unconventional ideas of beauty; they are really enjoying and celebrating anybody who's comfortable with their body.” Cat Aclysmic from Rockaburley takes a more scholarly approach to the question. “At its height of popularity prior to the twentieth century it meant a parody or satire done in an exaggerated and comedic fashion.” Its exclusion from the usual run of reviews is easily explained by this attitude. “It was used to make fun of operas and other areas of ‘high’ culture – often replacing established song lyrics with more bawdy versions.

“The travelling variety shows that encompassed these acts progressively began booking striptease as well, especially in the United States in the late 1800s and the early 1900s.” Lady Dee takes up this attitude. “Burlesque is defined by the humour, exaggeration or mischief in its theme, which can take many forms and needn’t include a striptease or tassel twirl.” In short, it is far more than just another event where women undress to hoots and whistles. Cat says: “I’m always happier with a laugh than a whistle and an act that you enjoy doing is an act that people enjoy watching.”

 One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that burlesque has little in common with modern forms of dance like lap-dancing. Certainly, it is far more female-friendly forum than the clubs of Edinburgh’s pubic triangle, with an increasing number of male performers. At the very least, it doesn’t make me feel the need to go to confession the next day – at its best, it is slick, cultured and debonair.

 Cherry Loco is one of the new breed of male burlesque artists who have a very modern sensibility. “Gender roles and androgyny are of great influence to me,” he begins. “I am exploring the ways in which a male in burlesque can be entertaining in a glamorous and graceful way, rather than a slapstick comic role.” His act is quite a wonder to behold. Taking the props of a bygone era, he invests them with a new and playful resonance. “For as long as I can remember, I've been drawn to a retro aesthetic. My parents raised me with a great appreciation for old music and movies and I have such a sweet tooth for the showy artifice of the 1920s to 1950s over any other era. On hitting my late teens and discovering there was a whole theatrical art movement that took inspiration from these eras, I was hooked. When I was a child I wanted to be Tallulah from Bugsy Malone. This is probably a dirty, wrong wish fulfilment.” Cherry Loco exploits the freedom of burlesque to pose questions about masculinity and femininity – his recent acts include a pastiche of Sweeney Todd and a fan dance. “It's really such an accessible and liberating scene to be involved with.”

This sentiment is echoed by other artists. Sunday Blue, who runs Blonde Ambition with Gilda Lily affirms that “it embraces all art forms and people, from the skinny pin-up model, to the curvaceous opera singer. The community is friendly, very supportive and full of entertaining and interesting people. Burlesque also gives performers a tremendous confidence boost and makes you feel fabulous and beautiful no matter what size, shape or sex you are.”

Although it is rarely mentioned as a defining characteristic, it is this awareness of feminist and queer theory that informs so much burlesque, and pulls it away from lazy associations with mere striptease. The titillation, as Sunday Blue explains, evolved from there. “The mimicry of popular characters, much like a modern spoof, would be made sexy or funny using striptease or adult humour: a way of mocking the aristocratic entertainment that the working folk in the music halls of the day could not afford.” Cat Aclysmic continues: “From this association burlesque and striptease became synonymous with each other and in the new burlesque scene started up in the past few decades; it is rare to find a burlesque act that doesn’t incorporate some form of striptease.” Yet this is far from the totality of burlesque. “I think the defining characteristics are still satire, at society’s view of glamour, at the ‘seriousness’ of performing, and of ourselves. As one of my favourite burlesque performers Gypsy Rose Lee says in the musical Gypsy: “Nobody laughs at me! Because I laugh first. At me!”

Behind the glamour of the performance, the strength of modern burlesque comes from the sense of community. Missy Malone says: “I have built my life around it! Being a full-time performer, it is my life everyday. I have met some of my best friends and the love of my life through burlesque. I get to see the world and perform my passion for a living. I also find fans are very supportive and really keen to be a part of this beautiful world!” This, for Sunday Blue, explains why the scene is growing. “It accepts all people from any background and I think it’s the welcoming attitude and friendly, fun and cheeky atmosphere that draws more and more in each day.”

This comes across in even the shortest conversation with the artists – they list their enthusiasm for each other’s work, speak warmly of the atmosphere, the support and excitement. Andrea Heins sums it up. “The best thing is how easy it makes it to find like-minded people. Sometimes it seems impossible to find anyone in the city with an appreciation of things bizarre and fabulous, but the minute you start connecting with even one person in the community you realize there's a whole mob of them waiting to be discovered.” Of course, that doesn’t exclude the razzle-dazzle of the shows themselves. As Cherry Loco concludes, his real delight is “being able to get on stage and show-off without feeling bad about it!”