What do you think of when you hear the word “burlesque”? That film with Christina Aguilera and Cher? Moulin Rouge dancers? Strippers? Or maybe you would look at me blankly and go, “huh? Burlesque what now?” When I think about burlesque, I think body positivity and self confidence (plus a good dash of feminism).
And here I want to tell you why burlesque is 100% all of those three things…and then some.
First of all, a little bit of history for those of you who are burlesque virgins!
The world burlesque has its roots in the Italian word burla which means a joke. In its very earliest forms, burlesque was a form of art that took the piss out of everything from politicians, to famous people, to gender roles – we English have been subverting norms and laughing at the status quo for a good number of years now! :p
In London in the 1800s, lots of theatres produced plays and mini operas which were funny – and even a little ridiculous – and which poked fun at these traditional ideas.
It is important to remember that this is a period when women were repressed by society, and had to adhered to strict rules on everything from the way they dressed, to the way the spoke, to the company they kept. And yet, at the same time, these popular stage plays were being produced by and starred women! And to top it off, these women often dressed in a scandalous/sexual way (for the time), or even dressed as men.
The Dual Face of Burlesque
Burlesque at that time could be split into two forms: extravaganza and travesty.
Extravaganza were shows which featured dancers, full orchestras, incredible costumes and over the top scenery. Everything was big, glitzy and similar in style to a Moulin Rouge type show. Travesty on the other hand, were shows which featured cross-dressing, tongue-in-cheek sketches and lots of criticism of gender roles and stereotypes.
So you see, the roots of burlesque are 100% feminist!
Americanisation of Burlesque
In 1868, Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes went across the pond to the US, where they scandalised and delighted American audiences by appearing on stage wearing nude tights – simpler times! While burlesque slowly went out of fashion in the UK, in the US the phenomenon had only just begun.
It slowly gained influences from Arabic-style dances, which gave rise to hootchy coochy or cooch dancers – which became popular following the Chicago World Fair in 1893. As the 1800s gave way to the 1900s and the Roaring 20s set in, burlesque dancing embraced fashions and all sorts of flesh, glitz and fringing appeared on the stage. But between prohibition and clamp downs on burlesque clubs, the art form gradually died out.
Then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, burlesque began its second coming…and here we are today with a thriving community, shows, classes and even academic papers being written on the subject.
So, there you have it, a little potted history of burlesque, and now onto what it is that makes burlesque so great for body positivity and self confidence.
Burlesque: Body Positivity and Self Confidence
1. Any form of dance, as I’ve said before, is completely natural. It’s a way of using our bodies as instruments instead of just viewing them as ornaments. By moving your body to the music, feeling its power, creating shapes that express different ideas and emotions, we feel joy and happiness.
2. It’s easy to feel stuck in a certain “role” in life – wife, mother, teacher, friend (whatever it might be). Burlesque gives you an outlet to explore of sides of yourself in a completely safe, non-judgemental environment.
3. Even in 2017, it is still taboo for women to be sexual/enjoy sex/be sexual beings. Burlesque is a space that allows you to welcome that sensuality. It’s about embracing your body and everything that makes being you, you, and saying “This is me, this is who I am, and I am beautiful”.
4. Make no mistake, it is not anti feminist to feel sexy and to enjoy your body. You have every right to say, “Hell yeah, I look great in these heels”. If it makes you feel good, if it makes you love yourself and your body – do it. Burlesque lets you experience that “Hell yeah” moment.
There’s no mystery to confidence, just self knowledge.” – Immodesty Blaize
5. Loving your body doesn’t mean you think it is perfect, and it doesn’t mean you think you are better than anyone else. There is something so powerful about being in a room of women, all dancing and having fun in their own skin, with no fear. It shows you it’s okay to love your body and to love other people’s bodies independently of that.
6. Burlesque gives women a space to observe other bodies which don’t match society’s insane body-type expectations. Any woman – of any race, of any bra size, of any dress size, of anything at all – can get up on stage and dance, and totally own the room. Burlesque is a celebration of the female form – in all its guises.
7. If you feel you are sexy and you allow yourself to love you for you, it shines through. It really does show. Burlesque is a space that says it’s okay to love yourself, in fact it is vital you love yourself.
And there you have it, just a handful of ways that I think burlesque provides women with the opportunity and tools to embrace body positivity and self confidence. Have you ever tried burlesque? What did you think? If not, what has stopped you in the past?
Interested in the art form and want to watch some videos? I’ve got just the thing…