By Jorri Roberts
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Is taking off your clothes a form of art? If you ask burlesque performers and fans, the answer would be “absolutely.” The practice of burlesque is over 150 years old and still thriving with more and more venues showcasing performers stripping down and shaking it out across the country.
They come in all shapes, sizes, ages, races—and even genders—as they titillate and captivate audiences. These attractions are not just limited to local dive bars; burlesque performers are now more than ever taking their shows on the road.
One of the most famous modern burlesque performers is dancer, model, costume designer, and ex-wife of Marilyn Manson, Dita Von Teese. Von Teese, a self-professed addict of vintage clothing and retro style, went on tour with Burlesque: Strip Strip Hooray! last year, bringing her 90-minute show nationwide to cities like New Orleans, New York, Boston, and Seattle.
She plans to revive Strip Strip Hooray! with additional shows this fall due to the significant success of the previous tour, with which Von Teese is helping to bring burlesque into the mainstream. Once a raunchy underground practice, it is now a more accessible form of entertainment and independent burlesque artists are benefiting from the sea change.
The Mason Dixie Burlesque Tour, starring four performers—two of whom are based in New York City—visited 18 different cities last March, concentrating on the east coast and southern US. According to co-organizer of the tour and performer Ula Uberbusen, burlesque artists on tour have similar experiences to independent touring music artists.
“We toured with four people in a car, it was crazy,” she says. “We were packed to the brim in that car, and you have to really like people when you’re in a small car for hours every day.”
Guest performers from various cities hosted and promoted their shows and even helped the performers find places to stay. Despite the tour being low-budget, Uberbusen states that “on a more important level and personal level, I felt that it was a solid show, really personal.”
Deanna Danger, additional co-organizer and performer of the Mason Dixie Burlesque Tour, talks logistics of the tour: “It’s all the same show, but every factor within those shows is different: venue size, how they handle things, local acts you’re bringing in, how to get the word out in the local scene, adjustments here and there, what your venue is like, etc.”
Touring also allows burlesque performers to reach audiences that they normally wouldn’t have access to.
“One of my favorite aspects of the tour was to go to places where there’s not really a burlesque scene, because it felt like we were bringing a show to people who hadn’t seen the kind of show we’re putting on,” Uberbusen explains.
Danger adds that her favorite part of touring was “being able to go and see new people and share what I do with different audiences and connect with different burlesque dancers in different areas. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a good way to go out and do your thing night after night and share it with the people you love.”
Connecting with diverse audiences is a significant aspect of burlesque’s growing popularity. Although many credit Von Teese with bolstering the art form’s prominence, a resurgence of interest in the ‘90s led to a neo-burlesque movement still active and increasing today. Neo-burlesque artists sought to express themselves and tell a story onstage rather than merely titillate their audience, although a happy medium is ideally found.
“I think the best burlesque is interesting without the reveal—but the nudity adds to that story,” says Uberbusen. “It helps affect the audience. And I think, in my opinion, burlesque that is just for the sake of showing boobs is boring.”
Danger attributes burlesque’s rising popularity to the public’s growing liberalism.
“I think people out there in the world today are looking for new entertainment. The world has progressed a lot and opened up to many different things, especially acts that are more adult, a little bit cheeky and risqué,” she says. “I think people are starting to clue in that there’s more to it than just scantily clad girls dancing about.”
However, the art form’s eminence also raises new challenges for performers. Uberbusen explains, “As burlesque artists, we’re in a big transition place because it has become so popular. It’s safe to do crazy things on stage because it’s underground, but because it’s becoming more mainstream, as a performer you often think, ‘Should I do the crazy piece? Maybe not; I don’t want to alienate my audience.’ As burlesque performers, our challenge is to not let our work become watered down and tame now that it’s becoming more mainstream.”
Despite these possible drawbacks, performers seem to feel that burlesque’s recent movement from underground to mainstream has not compromised the act’s artistry. When asked if they considered burlesque to be a form of art, both Uberbusen and Danger gave an immediate, enthusiastic “yes.”
“I felt especially as a performer that here was a medium where I wasn’t just projecting someone else’s vision—I was doing my own choreography, doing my own story. It made me feel like an artist,” Uberbusen says. “The reason that I am an artist and a performer is that I want to affect people, and I want to see and connect with people. Audience members would come up after my shows and tell me that they felt more liberated about their bodies and about their body issues, and I thought that was really awesome.”
Danger agrees. “To be a professional, it takes a lot of preparation, a lot of theater, a lot of expression, and a lot of sharing of one’s self and one’s stories and creating a fantasy about it. It’s art through and through. I’m also a burlesque teacher, and when I teach my students, I always say to them, ‘This is the greatest art form in the world! Every level is about you: you get to choose your music, your costume, your concept; everything originates from the heart and soul.’”
Mason Dixie Burlesque will do a short fall tour at the beginning of September 2013 before the performers gear up for a longer spring 2014 tour. Keep up-to-date with Deanna Danger and Ula Uberbusen here.