It looks like a rich girl’s dorm room: white shag furniture, scented reed diffusers, amethyst geodes, and girl-power posters. It smells like a dorm room, too. Baby-powder deodorants and fruity perfumes mingle in the air with commuter sweat, as women with overflowing tote bags queue for the single bathroom.
Tucked between a Best Western and Wow! Custom Tees on West 36th Street, in Manhattan, the SassClass Studio is a haven for hard-working millennials looking to swap their loafers and blazers for stilettos and an attitude. A nutritionist, a business coach, and a pharmacist chirp like morning birds as they stretch out and snap a few puckered-lipped selfies in the floor-to-ceiling mirror.
Today’s class is “Neo-Burlesque,” one of two workshops in the SassClass Burlesque Performance Program, where “future starlets” can learn burlesque dance techniques and get toned in the process. In hour-long sessions, held seven nights a week, the studio offers multiple fanciful, relentlessly playful variations on the exaggerated drama of burlesque dance and other feminized styles of movement: Fierce Feminine Hip-Hop, Sultry Street Jazz, Flirty Floorwork, and Bedography (a live-streamed dance class you attend from your bed).
“I used to think burlesque was just jazz,” says a middle-school teacher as she waits to change. “Now I know it’s so much more,” she continues, her eyes widening. “From, like, Nelly Furtado to Britney Spears!”
The instructor, Tony Guerrero, is an all-around pro dancer and choreographer who once worked with Taylor Swift for a New York Knicks halftime show. Solid-bodied and 40ish, he pants as he screams “go girl” encouragement —“Fierce! Confident! Sassy!”—at the mirror reflections of 18 women striking titillating poses. “Our goal today is kick ass and be hot,” Guerrero says, blowing a kiss into the mirror. “Pretend your last pose is the final group picture for Instagram before you go to brunch.” Pow: Cocked hips, sumo squats, snapping fingers.…
Christina Aguilera’s “Express,” from the soundtrack of the 2010 movie Burlesque, fills the studio on a loop while Tony runs through a routine. The choreography, packed with body rolls, booty shakes, and hair flips, is so ferociously paced that two students slink to the side and resort to clapping on the beat and gyrating enthusiastically in the corner. The class atmosphere frantically toggles between fierceness and foolishness, as the lesson races through choreography that is faster than most can keep up with. And there is a familiar state of puzzlement, one that happens when examining the fragile ecosystem of female empowerment, where performative femininity and criticism of it both feel misguided.
But everyone nails the routine’s final pose, pretending to pop open their blouses to those well-known lyrics “It’s burlesque!” That ending phrase remains the sole callback to the theme of the class, which appears absent of anything neo-burlesque. And yet, what workout would fit the title neo-burlesque, which refers to a movement: a resurgence of the once napping 20th-century burlesque.
And what does it mean for anyone to say “It’s burlesque!” today? What is burlesque at this odd, unprecedented moment in the history of the art? Guerrero, who teaches classes spinning burlesque in colorful ways in a variety of settings, promotes his lessons with an elliptical, cryptically telling maxim: “Any scene can be burlesque … and any burlesque can be a scene.”
More than a hundred years after its emergence in America as a scandalously popular form of taboo entertainment, burlesque has entered a new phase, where it can be said to be anything, adopted by everyone, and understood by no one. At its heart, burlesque has always been a practice of wildly theatrical experimentation with identity, a world of cross-dressing and disruptive sex play, where women have dared to defy the rules of social propriety to exploit and subvert the gazes of men, women, and culture. Now, though, the identity of burlesque itself is in crisis. As mass-market permutations of burlesque sweep through the gyms, streaming services, and night-school classes of mainstream America, serious burlesque performers who treasure the radical, destabilizing values of the art are feeling marginalized and misunderstood.
Then again, the margins of misunderstanding may be exactly where burlesque performers need to be.
Before there were movie theaters, nightclubs, titty bars, or beauty pageants, there was burlesque. Deep-rooted and durable, burlesque has outlasted a century full of popular arts that it inspired. Still, it remains a mystery, a familiar enigma—something we presume to know and don’t fully grasp. Apart from conjuring a steamy, nebulous image of tassels, feathers, and jazz music, we lack a collective understanding of what burlesque really is. This cultural lapse may exist because of its turbulent relationship with mainstream culture. Even in what many call its “golden age,” in the early 20th century, when hundreds of burlesque theaters opened across America, burlesque has always been associated with “unsafe” domains of pleasure, chaos, and the potency of female sexuality.
Condemned by liberationists as exploitative and sexist, burlesque was embraced in queer spaces.
Victorian burlesque blew the bonnets off Americans in the late 19th century, when Lydia’s British Blondes hit New York. Audiences were aghast and bewitched by Lydia Thompson’s pandemonium of biting wit, wild cross-dressing, and racy dancing in skirts that hovered recklessly above the knee. As their shows sold out, the press rolled in, and moral naysayers whined. An anti-burlesque hysteria swelled in the city, and an 1869 article in The New York Times, “Exit British Burlesque,” called Thompson’s performers “unwelcome guests” who “exhausted public patience.” Thompson’s gaggle of blondes fled New York but found success on the road; a six-week stint turned into a six-year tour as a wave of troupes inspired by the Blondes followed their model.
During the golden age of burlesque (a period spanning the 1920s and ’30s), the popularity of the art soared as its artfulness collapsed. What was once produced for a highly literate audience that would appreciate intelligently crafted topical commentary (the British Blondes’ debut in New York featured the play Ixion, satirizing classical mythology in a punning rhymed pentameter) increasingly became a working-class entertainment form. American burlesque broke away from the Victorian tradition of pastiching classical works by adopting a structure from the minstrel tradition, a formula that included musical performances, comedy skits, dance numbers, and a grand finale. The transgressive burlesque style that featured cross-dressing women and cheeky repartee faded in favor of shows that put the female form above all else. Until the 1920s, female performers, nearly all of whom were white, had worn tan stockings and bloomers, presenting an illusion of nudity. Theater lore has it that the first striptease in a burlesque show happened accidentally, in a frenzied costume change that made the audience howl.
In the 1920s, the era of the Harlem Renaissance and the “Negro Vogue” in white America, “Black and White” burlesque revues blossomed, with acts by both races alternating onstage, though rarely performing together. The fusion of minstrel shows and literary burlesque spawned a variety entertainment spectacle for the bourgeoisie: a morally unobjectionable show known as vaudeville. Josephine Baker, known to many as “Black Venus,” found success in New York as a vaudeville talent and chorus girl, with hit Broadway shows such as Shuffle Along (1921) and The Chocolate Dandies (1924). Although she was regarded as one of the highest-paid female dancers of the 1920s, she left New York in 1925 for Paris, refusing to continue performing for segregated audiences in the U.S., having grown tired of the persistent and blatant racism in the entertainment industry. Baker was 19 when she became famous for Danse Sauvage in “La Revue Negre,” at the Folies-Bergère cabaret hall, in Paris, shimmying down a palm tree in a rubber-banana-encrusted skirt. After becoming an international image of glamor and sex appeal, Baker both capitalized on colonialist fantasies and challenged stereotypes about Black women. The West’s disturbing fascination with “primitive” Black culture became just as pervasive as segregation in the burlesque houses, and, as audiences integrated, white troupes hired performers of color that they could bill as featured attractions and publicize as “exotics.”
The Great Depression saved burlesque from the fate of its more respectable cousin, vaudeville, by sating the battered male ego with liquor and sex. Stripping upped the ante and the stakes. As the novelty of burlesque wore off and competition among burlesque houses intensified, acts became raunchier and weirder. Thus was born the “gimmick.” Burlesque performers hustled to find a striptease stunt that might separate them from the pack. Sally Rand fanned gargantuan ostrich feathers, Lili St. Cyr splashed around in a bathtub, Zorita donned a 10-foot-long bull snake, and, in Paris nightclubs, Josephine Baker nuzzled her pet cheetah, Chiquita, bejeweled with a diamond collar.
The Minsky brothers dominated during the Depression, leveraging a single Lower East Side immigrant theater into a citywide chain, Minsky’s Burlesque. A Minsky burlesque ticket cost a dime, cheaper than the average movie ticket, which was then 25 cents in New York. But as they feted a generation of unemployed men, the brothers also faced the second wave of New York’s anti-burlesque crusade. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia deemed burlesque a “corrupting moral influence,” and declared war on the Minskys’ theaters. By the time LaGuardia was re-elected for his second term, in 1937, not only had nudity been banned from shows but burlesque was outlawed altogether. Promoters couldn’t even use the words “burlesque,” “striptease,” or “Minsky” in marquees and advertising. The government now took care of establishing what burlesque was, by law: not merely a sin, an indulgence, a transgression, but a crime.
And just as New York had been the birthplace of burlesque, the city hosted its funeral, as burlesque theaters shut off their lights. While some burlesque starlets were drawn to Hollywood or traveling tented “girl shows,” most moved into nightlife, headlining clubs as “feature dancers.” While nightclubs were frequently raided and often closed for violating decency laws, zoning laws and restrictions aimed at regulating the blossoming strip club industry were no match for male audiences’ persistent appetite for pole dancing, go-go dancing, and the ever-enduring striptease.
By the 1960s, the open carnality of burlesque had moved to girlie magazines and stag films. When Deep Throat hit theaters, in 1972, burlesque was officially dead—books will tell you this. And they’re right in one regard: Mainstream burlesque was, and had been, defunct for decades. But the tradition of burlesque as a vanguard art was very much alive, just operating in different settings, ones not always recognized.
With the rise of the women’s liberation movement, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, burlesque clashed with a feminism that challenged structures of the patriarchy. Condemned by liberationists as exploitative and sexist, burlesque was embraced in queer spaces. The lesbian community adopted burlesque, adding layers of irony and provocation. A subversive new era of burlesque, the precursor to neo-burlesque, argued for the legitimacy of sex work while the acts mocked the heteronormative male gaze. With the publication of the first woman-run erotic magazine, On Our Backs, and with pornographic film producers the Mitchell Brothers turning their adult movie theater in San Francisco into an eccentric porno palace, the Bay Area became a mecca for queer smut.
Third-wave feminism, which stemmed from the riot grrrl feminist punk subculture in Washington State, also advocated for sex positivity and freedom of sexual expression. As in Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, these young subcultures were passed down like the metaphorical distressed jeans from older queer feminists, détourning vintage aesthetics such as burlesque, pin-up, and fetish culture for a contemporary agenda. Sleaze-chic burlesque movies of the 1950s, such as Teaserama, Striporama, and Varietease, were re-released on video in 1993, dazzling all the budding Quentin Tarantinos of the video-store age. Neo-burlesque, born from the kinky and seedy dregs of underground entertainment, ushered in the revival of the burlesque scene in the 1990s.
In the hustle of a neo-burlesque boom, in the 2000s, a highly commodified, commercialized version of burlesque took center stage, and the political radicalism of back-alley burlesque was lost. The new neo-burlesque brought brand-name awareness and celebrity gloss to the art while depleting it of its strange artfulness.
Among the first acts to redefine burlesque for the new millennium was the Suicide Girls, a burlesque posse of hyper-sexed, faux-punk pin-ups. With their sleeve tattoos, pierced navels, and generic Maxim-magazine hotness, the group served up a cocktail of mainstream-acceptable kink. “The whole enterprise seemed really unabashedly commercial,” Maria Elena Buszek, author of Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture, tells me over Zoom.
In 2003, the same year the Suicide Girls opened for Guns N’ Roses, celebrity choreographer Robin Antin franchised her L.A. burlesque troupe, the Pussycat Dolls. Antin overhauled, remodeled, and rehired, recruiting singers like Nicole Scherzinger for the Y2K girl-gang. After negotiating a deal with IGA Records, the ensemble-turned-brand was launched into international pop stardom. Embodying the J-14 magazine-poster era for millennial tweens with their singles “Don’t Cha,” “Stickwitu,” and “Buttons,” the Dolls became one of the best-selling female groups in the U.S. In 2007, the CW Network premiered a reality TV series called Pussycat Dolls Present, in which contestants auditioned for a spot in the crew.
Robin Antin’s film director brother, Steve Antin, brought neo-burlesque into multiplexes in 2010 with his film-as-product-name Burlesque, replacing the G-strings and tasseled pasties with lace bustiers and glimmery corsets. As Antin told the Los Angeles Times, he set out to “fix” the misconception of burlesque as a “second-rate striptease.” This sanitized fantasy of glitz and glamor scrubbed neo-burlesque of its feminist, gritty, tawdry ethos. The mainstreaming of the art was set fully into motion.
“Oh, I’m hot,” Aurora realized, as she cavorted with local skaters, punks, musicians, and self-proclaimed weirdos. “I just go to school with racists.”
With the empowering seduction of burlesque established as a pop ideal, a generation of women was primed to aspire to learn its secrets for themselves. Once the sole province of oddball arthouses, burlesque migrated to gym chains for young professionals, where burlesque as exercise was being offered under catchy, girly names like Burlesque Bikini Bootcamp and Burlesque Groove. While the lingo may vary between Crunch Fitness and New York Sports Club, the selling points remain: Burlesque is hot and can shed pounds.
It will also get your man back. A new genre of reality TV shows cast “regular-degular” women deemed human works-in-progress in need of confidence and wardrobe sprucing and set them up to summon their “true” inner woman. In the handful of these burlesque reality shows, the women are then critiqued by a panel of judges and an eager body of viewers. In Canada’s two-season series Re-Vamped, the women arrive puffy-eyed, fresh off a breakup, ready to embark on a six-week personality conversion, a grueling and at times embarrassing mission in the pursuit of “sexiness.” Their final test is a burlesque performance onstage in front of their ex-boyfriends.
Burlesque seems to be everywhere now. “Burlesque academies,” dedicated to teaching the craft, have popped up across the globe and appear in almost every state in the U.S. From Alaska to Minnesota, Tasmania to Slovakia, Malta to Brazil, local teaching institutions patiently await the enlistment of aspiring burlesquers. There are well over 50 burlesque academies internationally, with a growing number of higher education institutions following their lead. Colleges such as the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia offer burlesque performance-art classes for credit. A “History of American Burlesque” course is taught at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where students can learn about American burlesque’s history theoretically, rather than through movement.
In these widely accessible venues and mass-distributed projects, burlesque is granted entrance into the mainstream domain, making small concessions each time. Claire Nally, subculture scholar and author, describes the prevailing dilemma of the subcultural bind. “Subcultures by their very nature police things quite heavily and gatekeep for good or ill,” she tells me in a phone interview. “When something that [subcultures] have done for years is picked up, maybe just for a season, there’s always a lot of resentment.” Nally laughs as she explains that, often, paired with this resentment is the comfort of convenience. Now, for example, a burlesque performer can buy a corset at H&M for a low cost and then customize it with rhinestones ordered from Amazon.
So, on the one hand there’s a yearning for authenticity and individualism within subcultures, and on the other, there is the desire to be broadly recognized, accepted, and duly remunerated. The two sets of aspirations rarely align without compromise. “Burlesque has definitely lost its edge,” Veronica Viper, a trans burlesque performer, from the Lower East Side, says to me backstage at the Slipper Room in between sets. “You have to be pushing some kind of edge, even if the edge is for yourself.”
As mass-marketable elements of the art are exploited by mainstream culture, less visible but necessary developments within the burlesque community arise, made possible as the art expands. Like the proliferation of the world wide web, yoga, or even pole dancing classes, popularizing niche practices has its benefits for the in-group, too. With rising access comes a greater number of practitioners. New styles of burlesque are born: nerdlesque, gorelesque, boylesque, bearlesque…. A renaissance of community centers, pageants, festivals, conventions, schools, and performance venues begins. In 1990, there was one gathering of neo-burlesque performers, the Miss Exotic World Pageant. By 2020, there were 26 festivals around the world.
Sites such as Instagram and Facebook connect burlesquers, fostering new communities and platforms for discussion. “When something goes down, like some fucked-up shit in local burlesque communities, you might be 3,000 miles away, and yet you’re right in it,” Miss AuroraBoobRealis, a community-builder and burlesque performer, shares with me over Zoom about the immense burlesque network on social media. Moreover, the number of POC burlesquers is at an all-time high, comprising more than half of the 2021 burlesque “Top 50 List.” Generated by 21st Century Burlesque magazine, the list is calculated from peer voting, ranking the 50 most influential burlesque industry figures each year.
In some respects, it’s never been a better time to be a burlesque performer. And yet, as the neo-burlesque revival that centered on political activism and transgressive performance fades further into history, the performers of today are wondering, Who and what are we? And what are we supposed to do now?
When Christina Aguilera, as Ali Rose, the small-town dreamer in Antin’s Burlesque, totters into a sultry neo-burlesque club in West Hollywood, wearing strappy stilettos and a bad wig, she asks Alan Cumming, the androgynous club host, “What is this place? A strip club?” Cumming is horror-stricken. “Strip club?!” he spits out. He then snidely gestures to the shimmering performers onstage, whose glittering opulence seeps from their poreless skin, saying, “Honey, I should wash your mouth out with Jägermeister.” In 2010, it was obvious: Strippers were sleazy tramps, and burlesque dancers were beguiling showgirls. Iowa Ali, how can you not see the difference?
Burlesque has always existed in close proximity to sex work and sexual rebellion. While burlesque practitioners each have their own relationship with embracing—or distancing from—a sex worker image, for many burlesque performers who pursue sex work as a legitimate part of the neo-burlesque tradition, the distinction is vexing. “I’m not a stripper, I’m a dancer,” Jo Weldon, headmistress of New York’s School of Burlesque and author of The Burlesque Handbook, says to me mockingly over Zoom, accentuating the word “dancer” as if she’s a British aristocrat. For performers like Jo Weldon and Miss AuroraBoobRealis, to embrace the illicit—or, in the case of sex work, the illegal—is to engage in creative contradiction. Steve Antin’s glamorous conception of burlesque exists in an alternate reality where neo-burlesque never happened. He also misses the point altogether. By replacing striptease with lip-sync cabaret, burlesque is stripped of its provocative hypocrisy. The aesthetic accessories of burlesque in its golden age—satin opera gloves, intricate lace corsets, flamboyant ostrich fascinators, and glittery rhinestone bustiers—adorned women who were there to strip it off. High fashion was exercised in opposition and in concert with low culture, and existed in burlesque only to be subverted.
This stylish parody of high society and disruption of class distinctions created the groundwork for sabotaging other social norms: those of gender, body image, sexuality, and race. Neo-burlesque operated in tandem and in close conversation with the cultural moment of the ’90s and was used, sometimes unknowingly, as defiant performance. Some fringe artists—punk, queer, feminist, and other—might not even have realized they were participating in the culture of burlesque. Jo Weldon and Miss AuroraBoobRealis discovered burlesque after they had already been doing it.
I spoke with Aurora over Zoom. When she started stripping, in the early ’90s at small clubs in Albany, she had no idea that 150 miles south, in New York City, burlesque was having a major moment of resurgence. Aurora, born Dawn Crandall, suffered from a poor self-image in high school, and concluded that she was unattractive. Growing up in Saratoga Springs, she was at times the only student of color in her classes. When she was in seventh grade and a new black pupil entered her school, her peers asked if he was her brother. She said, “No,” and they suggested she date him.
“If you ain’t got nothing to say, why are you at the microphone?”
It wasn’t until Aurora started hanging out in Saratoga’s town center, at age 14, that a new truth arose. “Oh, I’m hot,” she realized, as she cavorted with local skaters, punks, musicians, and self-proclaimed weirdos. “I just go to school with racists.” With a new leather-and-studs clique, Aurora would frequent the punk-rock venue the QE2, in Albany, on the weekends and dig through albums in a record store on weekdays; she listened to Prince, Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, and the Cure. She began stripping at age 19, and her priorities were simple: “the costumes, the dancing, and the tease.” But her stripper peers were making more money, she noticed. They were hustling—hustling drinks, hustling lap dances, hustling couch dances. “I was never good at that,” Aurora admits. “Nineteen-year-old me was totally doing burlesque at strip clubs.”
Aurora’s wild brown hair is cinched in a high bun; ringlets curl around her head. “Hold on,” she says, raising an index finger to the camera as she stands up to lower the volume of her living room speakers. Michael Franti, in Spearhead’s “Of Course You Can,” is in the midst of a moving political rap, “The federal Government doesn’t want me to go to school / I ask too many questions and I don’t play by their rules.” As she walks back to her computer, the graphic on her Abrazos Army band tee becomes visible: “Viva La Revolú,” it reads.
Stripping taught Aurora how to connect with her audience, breaking the fourth wall. Entering Sarah Lawrence as a dance and theater student, she plunged into the collegiate performance-art scene. After a troubling sexual experience in her freshman year, something she still grapples with as a 47-year-old trying to understand the nuances of the “gray area” of sexual assault, Aurora wrote a poem addressing her perpetrator. She then choreographed a dance to the letter. The piece, called “Letter to a Brother,” was performed on campus with four other dancers.
In Aurora’s sophomore year, she recruited some friends to act in a performance piece she was directing for a cross-dress cabaret. Suited-up and suave, cosplaying a businessman, Aurora stripped off a suit piece by piece, revealing lacy lingerie underneath. Her friends, cast as strip club customers, whooped and whistled on cue. Aurora laughs as she thinks back, saying, “I was doing a satire of a strip club!” Parody and pastiche have long been parts of burlesque’s narrative. “I had no idea I was combining my performance art, dance, and stripping … which is what the fuck neo-burlesque is.”
Embracing the performative side of the striptease created the pathway to finding burlesque, an art form that resonated even deeper. When Aurora moved to New York, in 1998, friends recommended Blue Angel Cabaret, a woman-run strip club touted as the first neo-burlesque club in the city. Despite Aurora’s direct proximity, she didn’t hear the word “burlesque” until 2004, when her partner saw a Slipper Room show and urged her to check out burlesque, this artsy strain of stripping. While stripping had helped Aurora reconnect and appreciate her body after years of her peers’ disapproval, burlesque was a way to hone all the aspects of performative sexuality she enjoyed, “without the fucked-up shit of stripping.”
The fucked-up shit of nightlife is an enduring challenge for entertainers, especially for those involved with sex work. Jo Weldon recognizes that the perceived dangers are more than a perception. However, she is careful about overstressing the hyperbolic reality of nightlife, in which “society’s problems are exaggerated.” People are quick to blame the space and not the societal issues at large, and this illusion of binary spaces of safety and danger compels some to avoid nightlife altogether. Jo acknowledges to me that she “could be a little less safe in some ways and safer in other ways.”
But the nightlife she chose to work in, with all its hazards, made sense for her. A disarming, petite 60-year-old performer and educator, Jo (sometimes known as “Jo Boobs Weldon”) centers her life around sex work advocacy. Loud in appearance and quiet of mind, she has velvet-rope-red hair and wears a leopard-print sweater but speaks in delicately precise, even-keeled sentences, like a Victorian duchess moonlighting as a showgirl. “I’ve never given anyone this much time before,” she says with a coy smile in our second interview, adjusting a pair of oversize cat-eye reading glasses on the bridge of her slender nose.
As a young girl in the 1960s, she discovered burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee on TV talk shows. Gypsy was glamorous and intelligent, but, more important, was “undomesticated and self-invented,” Jo recalls. By the time she was in high school, Jo was performing burlesque in the hallways through her alter-ego, “Prunella Dubois the Most Conceited Person You Ever Saw,” a big-mouth caricature who would incessantly brag about her greatness. This satirical facade concealed the difficulty of being queer in conservative, homophobic 1970s Georgia.
Doing poetry readings at a punk venue in Atlanta called the Blue Rat and attending Rocky Horror Picture Show viewings provided a community she was denied in high school, where Jo faced violent hostility from her peers, even changing schools because of unrelenting bullying. “There’s a category of queer where people can read it on you before you’re even sexually active,” she says, twirling a lock of hair in her fingers.
While homosexuality was still seen not only as immoral but as criminal, literally against the law, Jo was able to explore vintage and queer culture in the safety of her bedroom. “Rocky Horror had burlesque in it, you know!” she exclaims. In a touching Rocky Horror number, “Don’t Dream It, Be it,” in which Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a bisexual, cross-dressing mad scientist, urges the engaged couple, Janet and Brad, to succumb to absolute pleasure, Janet ends the number by gleefully crying out, “God bless Lili St. Cyr!” With eyes dancing, Jo explains how this led her to investigate the burlesque star. “Being interested in the past was kinky,” she says.
When she found nightlife, Jo also found sex work. “There’s no nightlife that doesn’t have sex workers—it just doesn’t exist,” she says with a headshake. She tapped into the underground art scene in Atlanta and was involved in every corner of queer art culture. She did poetry readings and performance art, was featured in installation pieces, and hung out in drag bars like Club Rio, where RuPaul, John Sex, and Phoebe Legere performed. The “divisions” between sex work and art, she insists, “are fantasy.”
After moving to New York, in the 1980s, Jo became an active part of the fetish community, queer spaces, the fashion world, and nightlife in the city. She found an even deeper connection between the entertainment industry and sex work in her brief career as a dominatrix. “Studio 54 is a prime example of queer culture saturated with sex work, elements of wild dressing, and sex-work dress as an aesthetic,” she explains. “A lot of people do burlesque because they like dress-up. Burlesque is dress-up. Fetish is dress-up. They’re queer, they’re kinky, they’re open-minded, they’re humorous, they’re weird, and they love glamor.”
Jo always felt connected to burlesque as a feature dancer because of her “stripper ancestors.” In Atlanta, she had met a few elders working as house mothers who had done burlesque in the 1950s and ’60s. She was starstruck; she says she always wanted to be a fangirl and tell them how much she admired them. Then she laughs, telling me they’d probably say, “Oh, you sluts with your cheesy costumes and jukebox music. We had a live band and big gowns!”
The movie-lot burlesque in Antin’s Burlesque, full of big-gowned showgirls and live bands, tells only part of the real story. The smug host’s dismissal of strip clubs is a mark of society’s precarious attitude toward fringe culture and subversive behavior. Stripping bad, burlesque good is the same framework that was used to condemn burlesque and endorse vaudeville in LaGuardia’s New York. Neo-burlesque, a combustion of ’90s feminism, politics, and performance art, sought to restore a woman’s voice and wit to the striptease, and still informs today’s burlesque landscape, maintained by practitioners who graduated from this era.
With neo-burlesque’s uproarious entrance into nightlife performance venues in the 1990s, a distinction soon emerged. There were now two categories within the burlesque scene: mainstream neo-burlesque and underground neo-burlesque.
In underground burlesque, disruption is mandatory; the audience cannot experience the show without it. “At its best, burlesque can be transformative for audience and performer,” Aurora says, explaining that a successful burlesque show will disintegrate the societal truths you came into the theater with. “If [a burlesque performer] is only conforming to being sexy, that is not groundbreaking, nor does it shift anyone’s ideals,” she continues. “Someone can just come, see a pretty woman mostly naked, go home, and not have thought about anything.”
As burlesque becomes increasingly visible in cities like New York, moving into mainstream venues, the business of filling seats might not always harmonize with burlesque’s penchant for disturbance. “Compared to the ’90s, it’s technically prettier now in the sense that it’s more palatable to the masses,” Miss Frankie Eleanor, the reigning Miss Coney Island of 2022, tells me outside the bar Nurse Bettie, where she’s about to perform. If the mainstreaming trends continue, then it will be palatable raunch, appealing nonconforming bodies, and acceptable female empowerment that will drive ticket sales. Burlesque artists are worried.
“If you ain’t got nothing to say, why are you at the microphone?” scoffs Veronica Viper as she pauses to take a pointed drag of her joint. I am speaking with her, both of us crouched, on a metal staircase behind the Slipper Room curtains. Veronica is striking, with a freckled complexion and teasing dimple. Her wispy fuchsia hair is kept short and set in perfect curls around the edges of her forehead.
Veronica has seen a decline in traditions recently. “New York City is a fuckin’ industry,” she says, “and traditional sometimes gets the back burner.” She is talking about the traditions of neo-burlesque: edgy burlesque that grew from a political agenda. “Right now, my biggest thing is that I want to restore the transgressiveness of burlesque.”
A fourth-generation New Yorker who grew up in an insular “machismo Italian community” on the “Lower Lower East Side,” Veronica was sheltered from the possibilities of sexual and gender exploration. She transitioned when she was 35 years old. On a serendipitous night out with friends, she stumbled upon Jo’s student showcase at the Slipper Room. Finding burlesque during the beginning stages of her transition was lifesaving, she says; Veronica was immediately taken with the potency of burlesque and its potential for transformation. Previously, as a costume maker, performer, and sex worker, she was an “artist without a vocation.” Burlesque fit her unwritten curriculum vitae.
Veronica admits that perhaps it’s easier for her, as a trans performer, than it is for others to admonish burlesque’s loss of transgressive performance. “An advantage that I have, besides just being a naturally imposing person as I am,” she says, slipping into a cheeky smile. “Getting naked onstage, in and of itself, is transgressive.” In her puppet mastery of gender expression onstage, Veronica is toying with and upending her audiences’ sexual impulses. In contrast, when Jo, in her past shows, played up her conventional sex appeal, she called it her “stripper drag”—it was a performance of femininity that she was able to expand or contract for the audience.
Veronica’s unconventional allure subverts the objectification of the striptease, bringing the audience on an unexpected adventure of erotic submission and inversion. “There’s a tremendous amount of care that has to be taken,” she says. A regular performer at the Slipper Room, Veronica entices the audience with playful smiles and calculated eye movements. “It’s not an automatic win for me,” she admits. “When my very presence in the room makes people uncomfortable, I gotta go out there and I have to win them over.” And in her ongoing battle to arouse, surprise, and ultimately win over audiences, she has reduced her act to its intimate core. “It’s just me and a dress,” she says.
Actually, it’s Veronica, a black sequinned dress, and a joint. Veronica stands in profile as a lone spotlight casts down like a UFO beam. A red light erupts from stage right, caressing her. Veronica dips her head back, her sharp features traced with light, and takes a drag of her joint; plumes of smoke cast purple billows like a mushroom cloud of marijuana. The sound of aching chords slashing and sliding on electric guitar strings—“The Night Bell With Lightening,” by David Lynch—echoes through the space as Veronica presses the blunt to her mouth. The clatter of cocktail shakers, zippy whispers, laughter, shuffling feet, and catcalls dissolves into dead air. The audience awaits her direction. Veronica is unmoved, unflinching. Like a dominatrix with a whip and a scowl, she commands the room with discipline and authority.
She begins to gyrate slowly. Twisting, tilting, and leaning, she sways in soft movements. She gingerly pulls on the straps of her dress, unhurried. Minutes pass, and she has yet to remove any clothing. The room is smoke and sex. Finally, she slips out of her floor-length sequined dress with her back exposed to the audience. She turns around and presents her “girl cock.”
“There’s a responsibility here,” Veronica explains. “And if you’re not doing something transgressive with that responsibility, what are you doing?”
For her part, Aurora has conflicting opinions about one’s so-called burlesque responsibility, and often has contradicting inner dialogues, mirroring the complexity of burlesque. “Even though we’re in 2022 and there’s so much sexuality in our culture, there’s still judgment around it,” she says. “So, someone on stage celebrating that is a political act.” Aurora doesn’t want to place any judgment on performers who have flocked to burlesque for reasons that differ from hers. “Newer folks who see the sexy dances and corsets and say, ‘That sounds fun.…’” Aurora pauses and emphatically responds to herself, “You know what? This is fun!” Then adds, “Is that all I want burlesque to be? Is that all I make burlesque? No, it’s not.”
Miss Frankie Eleanor, “The Nuyorican Bombshell,” maintains that the ethos of the ’90s art-house burlesque scene is not lost but simply relocated. The transgressive agenda once found onstage is now shifting to behind the velvet curtains, and a more nuanced political agenda is being discussed offstage, mobilizing an even more direct and effective activism.
Frankie, an East Harlem–born Puerto Rican performance artist and “FemmeCee,” heaves the door open at the Nurse Bettie bar on the Lower East Side, the oldest burlesque club in New York. She sidles against the doorframe in a plunging black dress with a coquettish look of ta-da. One of her breasts will pop out of this slinky number later in the evening. For now, however, the winged sleeves and gauzy material billow at her sides. Her short black hair is rolled in pin curls, and her lips sparkle iridescently in a thick glaze of ruby-red glitter. “There’s an old-school burlesque revival,” she says. The costumes are becoming “more sparkly and robust.” Smacking her lips together, glitter falls to the floor.
As a producer as well as a performer, Frankie is dedicated to making the backstage area a diverse and positive atmosphere for her performers. “It can be a triggering space out there,” she acknowledges. For a Latina such as Frankie, the issue of perfunctory representation remains at the forefront of her mission when she scouts and books her shows. “I don’t want to see tokenism to excuse a producer or venue from being inclusive,” she says. “It’s lazy.”
Frankie’s efforts to lift Latina voices fit into a broader movement to diversify burlesque. There are significantly more artists of color in the burlesque community since the early 2000s. As Aurora recalls, when she first started peeking around at the burlesque scene, in 2004, she saw only one brown body onstage. “Where are they? Are they not getting booked? What is going on?” she wondered, as she contemplated joining the burlesque arena herself. In 2007, she decided she was going to start an all-women-of-color burlesque troupe.
The New York burlesque scene was ready for the arrival of Brown Girls Burlesque. On October 12, 2007, in a modest rock venue above the Pussycat Lounge, near Wall Street, BGB staged their first show. Aurora still remembers watching some 200 people fight their way inside the small club. An associate producer of an edgy midtown theater happened to be in attendance, and offered BGB an off-Broadway residency at the Zipper Factory.
The absence of brown performers in burlesque became even more apparent as patrons flocked to see BGB perform. Thirty self-produced shows later, frequently selling out the 250-seat theater at the Zipper Factory and even winning Best Group at the Burlesque Hall of Fame (BHoF, as those in the know call it) in 2011, BGB was celebrated for its sharp, topical shows that illuminated the politics, culture, and complexities of brown women’s experiences in society.
Frankie struggles with finding the balance between feeling “too Latin” or “not Latin enough.” In one of her favorite acts, The Buckeye Chica, Frankie pays homage to “the Saturday morning Latin woman.” She saunters onstage in a house dress, with a Swiffer mop. She cha-chas around with the same carefree, joyous energy she remembers her mom having on Saturday mornings. Underneath the understated house dress is a red fringed salsa two-piece that is slowly exposed as Frankie mops the stage.
Growing up in East Harlem, near the landmark “La Marqueta” sign under the elevated Metro North railway tracks, Frankie had never heard a racial slur until she moved to New Jersey for high school. She now produces a show called Butter Pecan Burlesque, the only all-Latinx revue in the city. By gathering performers who have a shared heritage, she hopes to bring awareness to the fact that there’s not just one singular kind of Latinx performance—and, arguably more important, that it’s bookable.
Like Frankie, Aurora is a community builder. Aurora left BGB in 2015, and a year later started Brown Radical Ass Burlesque (BrASS Burlesque), with fellow burlesquers ExHOTic Other and Sister Selva. “Compost Bin,” BrASS Burlesque’s monthly show at Bushwick’s Starr Bar, wasn’t your typical neo-burlesque show. Because of their frequent collaborations with other political groups, BrASS Burlesque was a meeting point between burlesque and the larger community it operated in. “We were all very interested in grassroots activism and the marriage of performance space, politics, and community,” Aurora explains.
In 2022, Aurora was elected board president of BurlyCon, the world’s first and only burlesque educational convention. Founded in 2008, BurlyCon is a not-for-profit organization whose members meet annually for workshops and panels, on subjects such as “Ethics, Copyright, Propriety & Imitation” and “Exoticism, Racism, and Cultural Appropriation.” Before BurlyCon, the only formal burlesque gathering was the annual Tease-O-Rama, in San Francisco. That event, held over two days and nights, was a useful showcase for performers, comedians, and DJs, but lacked the educational component many were searching for.
“To beat to your own drum, to be artistic, to go to a seedy basement and rip off your clothes and slap baloney on yourself is very political,” Frankie says with wild hand gestures. “But there are other levels of politics within burlesque now. There’s a nuance now because we’re addressing more behind the scenes than what you just see onstage.”
The political developments brewing behind the velvet curtains are driving forces to stir change and set standards in burlesque, perhaps in less obvious but ultimately more precise ways than that of activist art. “We’re discussing full representation, gender identities, cultures, creating a more POC-friendly space,” explains Frankie.
Drag and strip—the putting on and taking off of clothes—have always been about transformation. Bigger the eyeshadow, bigger the personality. Peel off your clothes, expose your vulnerabilities. The audience plays a role in this, too, acting as the arbiter of authenticity in a performer’s strip and drag transformation. At the end of the act, we expect a chunk of their heart and a peek into their soul.
But the process might sometimes not be at all political or social, functioning instead as a tool for self-care. In a post-neo-burlesque climate, where everyone approaches the art for their own reasons, some performers are prioritizing personal benefits, such as emotional healing, over activism.
Joyce LeeAnn Joseph, a burlesque performer and independent certified archivist based in Brooklyn, found herself suffering a second wave of deep grief when her maternal grandmother died not long after her ex-boyfriend and “twin flame” took his own life. Joyce is a sixth-generation Denverite—her grandmother’s great-grandmother moved to the city during the Great Migration, the movement of over six million Black Americans out of the rural South to cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and West. Joyce’s mother was 15 years old when she gave birth to Joyce, and she and her mother raised Joyce together. For Joyce, losing her grandmother was losing a mother.
At home one night, Joyce pulled out a book that reminded her of her childhood. In the thick of tears and anguish, she started to dance. Movement became the outlet to work through her grief. She started signing up for yoga classes, including Chicava Honeychild’s Sacred Burlesque Yoga. “This is totally who I am! This is the energy I walk with in the world, and this is what I want to exude!” Joyce recalls saying. “Y’all do this in real life?” By connecting with her body more intimately through movement, Joyce was able to examine herself more closely and more freely. “Burlesque brings me so much pleasure,” she says.
“Sure,” Veronica says. “Why not find healing? Yes, of course, find healing any way you can.” Facing massive abandonment after transitioning in her 30s, burlesque made space for her. “Burlesque healed sexual gaps for me as I transitioned,” Veronica explains. It was more than just a process of healing; it was a wholesale exploration and discovery of a new body. When Covid-19 shut down burlesque clubs, in 2020, Veronica’s revenue stream, desire for self-care, and entire support system were turned off overnight. “Well now I have nobody and nothing,” Veronica says she thought at the time. She put on over 40 pounds and her cholesterol shot up to 220. Veronica and her beloved community have been recovering ever since. She has been headlining shows at the Slipper Room all year. The 20th Annual New York Burlesque Festival, this September, will celebrate the community’s vibrant resurgence, featuring performances from Veronica Viper, Miss AuroraBoobRealis, and Jo Weldon.
For Joyce, the healing process and politics are closely entwined. “The Library of Congress is not preserving my story as a young Black girl from Denver,” Joyce says. “As a Black woman, I’m realizing self-preservation is the most political thing I could do.”
Joyce is a member of House of Noire. Founded by Perle Noire, an award-winning burlesque performer and “transformative coach,” House of Noire is a community and burlesque company of all POC women. Inspired by Black ball culture, popularized in the documentary Paris Is Burning, “houses” are chosen families of glamor and support. As an “intuitive healer,” transformation through the art of burlesque is Noire’s raison d’être. It’s also her sales pitch. In her “Healing Through Seduction” course, she offers female empowerment by urging her potential clients to “feel sexy,” “live their truth,” and spend $1,500 for a six-week program.
Self-help or exercise, a path to enlightenment or a lighter weight, burlesque has clearly come to take many forms whose connections to politics or avant-garde aesthetics are difficult to see, at least at first. If the meaning of “It’s burlesque” feels harder than ever to parse, the extraordinary durability of the phrase seems proof that something—some thread, some feeling, some idea, some thing—must connect the myriad permutations of the art, from its beginnings in backrooms to the Slipper Room today.
“It’s about making money,” Veronica says. “You need to get asses in seats. And a 22-year-old with nice tits puts asses in seats. It’s a fact of nightlife.”
In the early 20th century, the mainstreaming of burlesque marked the beginning of the art’s first end. The sound of the female voice was overpowered by the sight of her skin, as whooping hordes of men came to think a woman’s body was all burlesque could offer. And they were wrong. History went on to prove that burlesque’s secret feature was its complexity.
The grumbles from performers like Veronica, who value the neo-burlesque ethos, signal a changing atmosphere. “I think that sometimes people need to be reminded that this started to get men in seats to drink liquor. See the dancing girls show their ankles! That’s the root of this. And that form of oppression is what generated the voice for women to be political,” she says.
Yet the truth is, neo-burlesque already happened. “We’re at this point in this subculture where enough people in burlesque want the transition [into mainstream spaces],” Veronica says. “And I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I just know that I’m not a part of it.”
And somehow, in the chaotic sea of contemporary burlesque, with the mainstream co-opting the most marketable aspects of the form, the money is not yet trickling down to the performers. “We have the glitz. We have the glamor. We have the drama. We have the looks. So, like, where’s our money?” Veronica asks. Frankie says the same, that the thing she most wants to see change over the next five years is: “More money.” If there’s contradiction in the calls for both more compensation and less commercialization, it could perhaps be chalked up to the workings of an art virtually defined by contradiction.
Scholar Claire Nally, who has been observing the same subcultural clash in the UK, bemoans the trend of the burlesque reality show. “You’re bringing a practice to a wider audience, which is good, but they often pick up on the most reductive aspect of it.” Burlesque’s widening exposure may be its ticket to popularity, but the art form can also appear to be thinning in quality and becoming diluted in attitude. “It’s like, slap on the corset and now you’re a burlesque dancer,” says Nally. Then she sighs, adding, “And now it’s ‘Do burlesque to get slim.’” ❖
Alessandra Schade is an arts and culture journalist based in NYC. She writes about the overlapping worlds of nightlife, sexuality, music, and subcultures.
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