What is Burlesque?

Feather boas, glittering make-up, damask corsets, fishnet stockings, frilly underwear… no it is NOT the set of a porn film.

With movies like Renée Zellweger’s Chicago (2002), Nathalie Portman’s Black Swan (2010) and Cher’s Burlesque (2010), to name but a few, we have been seeing a lot of storylines focussing on dancers and their sexuality during the past few years. This movement marks, among other things, an issue which seems to be slowly navigating its way to our shores the revival of Burlesque.

But, what exactly IS burlesque? The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘burlesque’ as ‘an absurd or comically exaggerated imitation of something… a parody’. Its secondary statement acknowledges burlesque as ‘a variety show… including striptease’. So, which is it?  Let us make things clear.

Burlesque originated in the 1840s, mostly as a way for the working class to make fun of the operas, plays and social habits of the upper class. It was a way of getting back at social oppression and norms through the use of music and comedy. In the Victorian age, when women went to great lengths to hide their bodies beneath elaborate gowns and garters, burlesque shows parodied and satirised the accepted way of life, and defied all norms by displaying the female form in its ludicrous caricaturing of the Victorian Miss. This was the British burlesque, not to be confused with the American burlesque

Because yes, there are TWO different types of burlesque! I bet you did not know that… or did you? Anyways – American burlesque was originally an offshoot of Victorian burlesque. This focussed on female nudity, striptease, elaborate costumes and sexually aggressive dances, as opposed to the more satirically and comically orientated British burlesque. Striptease in American burlesque is used to challenge sexual objectification, orientation and other social taboos, putting an emphasis on the fact that burlesque dancers come in all shapes and sizes and that one needs not be a perfect size 0 to be sensual.

Malta too has seen many different types of burlesque dancers in the last few years – mostly performing cabaret style in tasteful venues in Valletta, as part of other events like rock concerts and heavy metal gigs, and even featuring in fund raising activities. Most of these shows are charming, sexy and quite amusing, not to mention enriching and funny.

Just a personal word of caution though – if you are attending a burlesque show, better leave your kids at home, as it might consist of the more flamboyant American burlesque taking centre stage, which might not be everyone’s cup of tea.