Today's burlesque performers follow a long line of pioneers in the field of exotic dance performance and striptease. Some of the most famous in this line continue to live on through urban legends, published stories and Broadway plays that are still popular today.
History of Burlesque
Being a burlesque performer did not always involve even a subtle striptease. The original term "burlesque" was used to describe a stage performance meant to cause laughter in an audience through mockery of dialogue, language, or the spectators themselves. The term came from the Italian word "burla", which simply means joke or mockery. However, the much more common usage of the word is to describe the American performances popular from the 1860s until the 1940s. Burlesque performers in this time period often performed in cabarets and theaters, using bold comedy and female striptease acts to entertain their audiences and establish what we tend to view as burlesque today.
Famous Burlesque Performers
Many performers during the heyday of American burlesque enjoyed illustrious careers both stateside and abroad.
Born in St. Louis, Josephine Baker came from a poor family and spent much of her childhood contributing to her family's well-being before she decided to make a life for herself by becoming a dancer. Though American, she spent much of her time in France because audiences in Paris were enamored with her, whereas her popularity in America was short lived. As one of the first African-American burlesque dancers, she broke the molds of the time, becoming the first to integrate an American concert hall and refusing to perform for segregated audiences.
She was discovered as a street dancer and recruited for vaudeville at age 15, where she went on to perform in the chorus lines of Broadway shows. She then opened a show in Paris and became an overnight sensation for her erotic dancing. She owned a pet Cheetah that often terrified the orchestra at her performances, and is noted for performing in a costume consisting of nothing more than artificial bananas sewn together as a skirt.
Gypsy Rose Lee
Her 1950s memoir of life performing with her younger sister and overbearing stage mother led to the successful Broadway musical and movie entitled Gypsy. However, long before this, Gypsy Rose Lee made a name for herself stripping before audiences. Continuously overshadowed by her younger sister, performer June Hovick, it was eventually determined that Gypsy Rose Lee was unable to carry a show with her own singing and dancing abilities alone. Originally billed as Louise Hovick, she revitalized her career and made a name for herself by changing her name and performing as a high-class stripper around the country. She later became a Hollywood actress and a murder-mystery novelist.
Known as one of the most enduring burlesque performers, with a career covering more than 50 years, Tempest Storm was known for her measurements of 44-25-35, and her naturally red hair, which helped her stand out among the other chorus girls when she was just starting out. With breasts insured for one million dollars, and still performing occasionally in burlesque shows in the Las Vegas region, Tempest Storm is considered to be a legend of the burlesque world.
While often considered to be a movie star instead of a burlesque performer, Mae West first became famous in Vaudeville. With a funny wit many found to be inappropriate for a female star of her day, she inspired perpetual controversy that the entertainment industry enthusiastically embraced. She wrote many of her own stage plays, and was once arrested and sent to jail for ten days for "corrupting the morals of youth."
A strong supporter of gay rights and women's liberation, Mae West was often censored by the press and various moral and ethical organizations. Today, she is still celebrated as having been a bold and outspoken actress who gravitated naturally towards edgy and risqué stage material.
Burlesque performers enjoyed a revival in the 1990s, when a new line of women known as neo-burlesque performers began to find fame and success in various troupes across the United States. Each year, there continues to be a Miss Exotic World pageant for burlesque dancers, as well as an annual convention showcasing the best in burlesque stage and cinema. The earliest burlesque dancers set the stage for the modern ones, paving the way for this dance form that brings together the erotic undertones of dance with the purely erotic flourishes that became abundant during the 20th century.