When you picture burlesque performers, you probably see a tall, curvy white woman dressed in vintage boudoir attire. However, the art of burlesque has made incredible progress over the last few decades, and I’m pleased to say that there is now a strong tradition of feminist burlesque filled with queer, POC, and non-gender-conforming women of all different body types strutting their stuff onstage.
Burlesque dancing is rather distinct from stripping, but it gets the same intense reaction from feminists. The debates over whether or not dancing semi-nude in front of an audience could be considered feministic are endless. The truth is just that burlesque, similar to many things, can be both feminist or non-feminist, depending on the circumstances.
However, I did not know any of this when my friends first suggested going to see a burlesque show in town. When I thought of burlesque, I imagined women looking incredibly uncomfortable in front of a full audience of men wolf-whistling at them and sneaking a grab at their derrieres. So, needless to say, when we started making plans to go to the show, I was a little less than excited.
But, when the night came, I didn’t let it go to waste. I felt that, if these women were giving me a show, the least I could do was dress accordingly. So, I threw on my best body-con dress that I only use the one night a year I go clubbing, put on some makeup and hitched up my thigh-high boots that I never have an excuse to wear, and we were out the door.
The first jarring thing I took note of was the fact that the audience was at least half women. Not just lesbian women there to ogle at some half-naked bodies, but women there with their families, with their husbands/boyfriends, with their girlfriends, and even by themselves.
So that’s one thing I was wrong about, but I still sat anxiously waiting for the dancers to show up and start “disrobing.”
While we wait, let’s take a look into what burlesque dancing really means.
Image Courtesy: Huffington Post
When you think about it, burlesque dancing’s controversial history may be the very reason it’s so beloved by feminists today. We took something that was meant to be solely for the male gaze, something that objectified women and created them into only objects to be controlled, and we made it ours. Burlesque dancing is more than just a striptease in vintage lingerie. These dancers are performing elaborate, well-thought-out routines that subvert race and gender in a way that somehow manages to be both sexy and hilarious. There is no doubt that this is performance art with all the hard work and dedication that it requires.
When the show first began, I was rather uncomfortable. Women stripping and baring themselves to an audience seemed so taboo due to the way that I grew up. But soon, I was cheering along with my friends, hyping up the boss babes that looked so confident and sexy in their individual performances that they had worked so hard on. As I watched the performances, I realized how starkly different all the performers were. There was one that was super skinny with bright pink hair who sang La Vie En Rose, a curvy POC dressed in a costume that would rival Princess Leia’s, a bombshell dancing to a 20’s remix of Britney Spears – one was even pregnant. No one woman had the same body type or the same performance style. They were all distinctly their own.
Another thing that shocked me about these dancers were their bodies themselves. They were not perfectly thin, with small waists, big butts and bigger boobs. They had back fat. They had cellulite. One was flat-chested. Their bellies and thighs jiggled, and when they turned around their backs were not perfectly yet painfully arched. They did not all have that “perfect” Barbie-like figure that is so unrealistic it would be almost laughable if it weren’t so damaging. They were human. One of them had a body that reminded me of my own, and there she was onstage, strutting her stuff and grinning at a crowd that loved her, looking sexy and beautiful and completely happy.
There’s another thing I got wrong.
Image Courtesy: Rebel Circus
Something that I also really enjoyed about the show was the fact that the audience was not the one in power – it was the performers. Needless to say, I left that show feeling confident in my own body after watching these women being confident in their own. And that’s the core idea behind modern burlesque: to make women feel more confident in their bodies and to encourage them to celebrate their own identity. What could be more feminist than that?
If you want to see a show, you can find that group that I saw on Facebook at Shaken Not Stirred.