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Page last updated at 11:28 GMT, Friday, 29 May 2009 12:28 UK

Empower burlesque?

Peekaboo Pontani at the Sixth Annual New York Burlesque Festival in 2008

By Andy Dangerfield
BBC News

The burlesque scene has enjoyed a revival in recent years but that could all come to an end with plans that may see it treated as simple strip joints. Is there really much of a distinction anyway?

She spins around a pole in her lingerie. Twisting seductively, she gives a mischievous smile to the transfixed crowd. She winks. Then she removes her stockings and bra.

You may be forgiven for thinking you are surrounded by rowdy men in a strip-joint. But you look around and it is mainly couples and groups of girls in the crowd. It has been a night of glamour, theatre and comedy. A night of burlesque.

The burlesque scene has been revived in recent years. London now hosts an annual burlesque festival and Glasgow's Club Noir is the world's biggest burlesque club, attracting up to 2,000 people a night.

Dita Von Teese performing at the recent Eurovision Song Contest
Showgirl Dita Von Teese performed at the recent Eurovision Song Contest

But burlesque performers are worried their renaissance could be about to come to an abrupt end.

Some argue that burlesque is no more than stripping with an artistic bent. They say it objectifies women and needs tighter regulation.

That could be on the cards. Later this year, under the proposed Policing and Crime Bill, clubs hosting burlesque nights might have to apply for a sexual encounter entertainment licence or shut down.

Burlesque dancers fear clubs may stop hosting them to avoid the stigma that comes with a sex licence. Performers are planning protests to defend their work, saying it is performance art, not sex.

'Desire to shock'

"It's more the art of tease than the art of strip," says burlesque performer Ruby Rose.

"Nights involve humour, satire, theatre and vintage clothing. There's often a story line running through the act."

In fact, in its original form, burlesque contained no strip at all. In 17th century Europe, burlesque was theatre that appealed to working class values and parodied the politics of the upper classes.

Neo-Burlesque: A wide range of performance styles, from classic striptease to modern dance, from satirical comedy to theatrical mini-dramas
American Burlesque: Originated in 19th Century music hall entertainment. In the early 20th Century it re-emerged as a populist blend of comedy, theatre and striptease
Male Burlesque: Acts who have become popular in recent years include Bearlesque and the Dream Bears
Guerrilla Burlesque: When a burlesque act happens spontaneously at a show, or when burlesque performers descend upon a show uninvited

Only in 20th century America, did striptease become its main attraction. And it is this American form of burlesque that has been most influential in recent years.

Feminist journalist Laurie Penny performed with a burlesque troop at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival and says a show that started out being about politics, gradually became about stripping.

"As we became more successful, greater emphasis was put on the sexual side of our performance," she says.

So behind the glamour, glitter and feathers, is burlesque becoming more about the desire to shock than tease?

"When I was in the business, total nudity was frowned upon," says Penny. "But now you see it a lot."

With acts like Empress Stah offering full-frontal flashing, there is perhaps a fine line between strip and burlesque.

"Some club owners may think 'let's have a burlesque night. We'll put some strippers in corsets,'" says Penny.

And if some burlesque nights are no more than vintage-veiled strip, should they be licensed too?

Some argue that without proper licensing, areas around clubs could become no-go zones for women.

"If clubs promote the view that it's acceptable to treat females as sex objects, women may experience intimidation outside the clubs," says Kat Banyard, of the feminist group the Fawcett Society.


But burlesque nights generally draw a different crowd to a typical standard strip club.

"Burlesque simply doesn't attract a drunk, leering, all-male audience," says Ruby Rose.

Immodesty Blaze  performs
Immodesty Blaze is one of the UK's top burlesque performers

Alex Proud, who ran a burlesque show at the Be club night in London's Camden for three years describes a typical crowd as: "Teens to 40s, 60% female."

But last month, Camden council told Proud to stop burlesque nights, until he applied for the same licence as lap dancing clubs.

"It's absurd," says Proud. "Dancers can go onstage in an outfit but not take their clothes off to get to that outfit."

Since burlesque performances were halted, he has employed go-go dancers in an effort to maintain the erotic vibe while ensuring there's no disrobing.

"They're aimed at men and far more sexual and than burlesque. It's disappointing but we don't have many options," he says.


Proud thinks women enjoy watching burlesque because they can relate to dancers with normal-shaped bodies.

"The performers don't have bodies out of fashion magazines," he says. "Women enjoy it because they see it as empowerment. It's about them regaining their own sexuality and enjoying it."

I'll go dressed in stockings and a top hat, and never feel threatened
Tricia Cox, 28, burlesque regular

But others argue that, regardless of the performer's body-shape, being prepared to strip down to barely anything, is far from empowering.

"I don't think the ultimate symbol of feminist empowerment is for women of any size to be sex-objects," says Penny.

"A lot of people start burlesque for their confidence. But confidence should be more than the power to get your breasts out."

Maybe the difference between burlesque and stripping is down to the sort of people who tend to practise it. Given the expensive vintage costumes and extravagant props, burlesque is certainly not for those on a tight budget.

"It attracts middle-class women, who do it for fun," says Penny.

For now at least, the corsets continue to be unfastened and tassels remain in full swing.

"I'll go dressed in stockings and a top hat, and never feel threatened," says Tricia Cox, 28, a burlesque regular. "I've never even seen a stag do at a burlesque night," she adds.

"But the odd girls' night out can get a bit rowdy."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Having been to a couple of shows in town with my wife it is about the fun and the story behind the acts, the audience going along in vintage gear to add to the fun There are often comedy, poetry and musical acts giving a very mixed bag and always a humorous compere and a chance to boogie after the show. There are male performers too like Ed Muir who (with incredible skill and acrobatics) does a very funny diet coke style routine (and many more) that had the audience laughing until they had tears. This type of audience will not be objectifying women most of them have their wives and girlfriends there too. The fans become a community and friends take a look at the Ministry Of Burlesque website. People who jump on the whole idea obviously haven't been along to see a show for themselves and in my opinion simply dislike the idea of other people having fun.
D Wallace, Edinburgh

I've got a few friends who are burlesque dancers - one of whom is male. I think the key difference is that burlesque dancers do it because they love it. It's a hobby, it's fun, they feel sexy and empowered. Stripping, on the other hand, is generally just a job. You don't see any burlesque dancers getting money stuffed down their underwear.
John Thomson, London, England

I'm into the 1950's 'rockabilly' scene and the last few years many gigs have featured burlesque acts. There is always great deal more interest from the female members watching as they are all interested in the clothing the dancers wear! It's not about stripping, rather it's bringing back a touch of retro 40s/50s glamour back.
Adrian Coombs-Hoar, Margate, England

I organised a stag do at a burlesque night a few years back, but only because the groom-to-be fancied a go at being one of the acts. He then set up a successful part time stint as burlesque act Lord Dashwood, stripping down to stockings and corsets and what not. He's retired now because he and his wife have a son. But that sort of thing doesn't happen at Stringfellows. Probably. I've never been to Stringfellows.
Jim, London

It may be Penny's opinion that burlesque creates women into sex-objects but it not a fact, where is her evidence? However surely the exposure, to the comfort of the individual, of their body, regardless of their sex, is an act of empowerment within society. I think a lot of 'feminists' are actually prudes who would see us all (men and women) trailing around in something close to a burkha so that no one can make any distinction between individuals. Vive La Difference!
Caroline Corfield, Cramlington

"Women enjoy it because they see it as empowerment. It's about them regaining their own sexuality and enjoying it." Those words could have come from me. I have tried to describe burlesque to so many who see it as another strip act. Whenever I have been to a burlesque performance the majority of the audience are women!
Lauren C. Waterworth, Halifax, UK

I'm sorry, but of course burlesque dancing is stripping. The argument here is just about the extent to which this form of stripping can be considered art. Yes, it's a world away from the seedy bar full of lecherous men everyone here is rightly trying to distance it from; but don't kid yourself, it's closer to stripping than it is to ballet.
Joe, Edinburgh

It's a tricky one. On one hand, it's great to see an activity that challenges the narrow-minded views of religious and feminist conservatives growing in popularity. On the other hand, you can't really license burlesque nights differently to lap-dancing clubs just because the people in the audience are nicer, or because the dancers are wearing vintage costumes. Unfortunately, the law takes no account of taste!
Dave, Leicester

Perhaps I'm old-fashioned, but it's still taking your clothes off for money, however vintage those clothes are.
Sarah, Reading, UK

Having recently attended a Burlesque Revue, I can honestly say that while there is teasing going on, there is no sexual objectification. The dancers are absolute professionals and are attempting to re-create a vintage mood. Half the performance was other forms of entertainment in the Burlesque retinue, such as comedic singing and satire, and the atmosphere cycled between wonderment at the beauty of the dance and hilarity at the comedy. I have been to a strip club for a friend's stag do, and assure you that Burlesque is art, whilst the strip club is 'sex for sale'. The strip club had an undertone of sadness and depravity, whereas the Burlesque performers loved what they were doing and have talent.
Ads, Croydon

Thanks to another feminist taking things one step too far and giving the rest of us a bad name! The issue here seems to be a lack of understanding as to exactly what burlesque is which, sadly, seems to be the case with most of these opinions.
Clare, portsmouth

I am a regular frequenter of the burlesque scene, and whilst removal of clothes does go on, I can vouch for the fact that it is completely different to the removal of clothes in a strip club. For starters, the vast majority of burlesque performers keep their modesty intact with psties and g-strings, so what is exposed is little more than you would see on a beach. Secondly, most burlesque lovers are very into the fashion and styling of the artistes, so the shows are very much about paradinh exquisite fully fashioned stockings, corsets, hats, fans and other wonderful props. In that sense, it is theatrical. I agree with the comments that it is largely a middle class form of entertainment - it is intelligent, underpinned by history, classy, usually meticulously choreographed and attracts fans that would never dream of braying like sex-starved animals.
Helen, London

Working class girl takes off cheap clothes - tarty. Middle class girl takes off expensive clothes - arty. Regulate neither, or both.
DG, Newport, UK

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