By Hanna Nes
A few weeks ago, I was chatting to this guy at a bar who asked me what I did outside of my studies. I told him I did a bit of burlesque as a hobby.
“That’s hot. Dita Von Teese is so sexy.”
I couldn’t help but laugh a little to myself because 1) the immediate association of burlesque with Dita Von Teese is inevitable, and 2) do I look like I can afford Louboutins and Swarovski crystals?
Burlesque, at its core, is the art of the striptease. Emphasis on the tease. Throw anything you learned from the film Burlesque out the window at this moment (sorry Xtina and Cher!). Performances typically revolve around artful disrobing that ends with the artist in pasties (little covers for your nipples) and knickers. As with any art form, burlesque has constantly been in flux. Since the 1990s, we’ve been living in the era of neo-burlesque and if we’re going by Wikipedia’s definition, neo-burlesque “encompasses a wider range of performance styles; neo-burlesque acts can range from anything from classic striptease to modern dance to theatrical mini-dramas to comedic mayhem”. Before I continue, I should give credit where credit is due. Dita Von Teese is largely responsible for the major comeback of burlesque in the 1990s and the immense global platform it’s gained in the decades since (hello Bejewelled and Don’t Worry Darling!). Von Teese has inspired and uplifted thousands of performers but (!) the association of
Dita with burlesque performance in general is indicative of a whole lot of tropes and expectations those unfamiliar with the form have. At this point in my very new career, I’m not peeling a stocking off and dousing myself in champagne. I tried to imagine this guy’s reaction if he saw me doing my main act, a Liza Minnelli number where I channel the energy of a coked-up
Studio 54 guest combined with a floppy seal. Hardly the “hot” imagery he had in mind.
The Dita Von Teese association in burlesque is to that of classic burlesque – a style that burlesque performer and academic Julia Matias writes draws “on pin-up art, Las Vegas showgirls, the Ziegfeld Follies, and other sexualized performances of high femininity”1 from the early to mid-20th century (all further quotes are from this work). She notes that because the style is derived from historical burlesque performance, it has sometimes been accused of “[perpetuating] the cultural baggage inherited from its predecessor.” Picture thin white women with 1950s glamour looks, hairless bodies, form-slimming shapewear that accentuates the smallness of the waist – an image that Dita has made her signature. It’s a style that can seem
like it exists solely to cater to the male gaze, yet can also “work to reanimate history, often preserving its repertoire in order to tap into its liberatory potential.” Think of it as hyper-femininity as a satire of gender expectations or the empowerment that comes with creating one’s own fantasy world. Neo-burlesque performances, on the other hand, “are often narrative driven, incorporating gender inversion, contemporary pop culture references, and overt political commentary.” I’ve seen some crazy stuff onstage – cow udders spraying (what I hope was) water on the audience, an orange being fingered, a fisherman striptease, fire eating, a Pussy
Riot-esque balaclava floor humping routine. I’ve witnessed bodies of all shapes, sizes and shades absolutely murdering their moment and bringing the audience to their feet, hooting and hollering. As an audience member, I’m now unfazed by the human body in various states of undress. I feel inspired every time I watch someone leave literally everything on the stage. It’s both vulnerable and invigorating.
I made my burlesque solo debut just under a year ago after having been enrolled in group choreography classes for months. It wasn’t the biggest artistic stretch for me, having come from a background in musical theatre and show choir (I went to high school at the height of Glee, okay) and I didn’t feel too iffy about peeling my clothing off in front of a crowd of mainly strangers. What I like about live performance is that you go into a sort of blackout state. The entire time onstage feels like a flurry of nerves and electricity, and the energy between the audience and performer is palpable. All of a sudden, I’m offstage, huffing and praying that my
little pasties are still glued on tight to my nipples, as a wave of euphoric relief washes over me. As a newcomer trying to carve out a presence in the vast burlesque industry, I knew I had to make a separate social media account for my performer identity. It’s practically the only way to
really engage with other performers and producers who may book you for shows. It’s how I find out about gigs to check out and gain inspiration from performers who’ve been in the business for years, if not decades. But with that comes posting of my own performance footage and self-promotion.
The truth is, despite everything I’ve said earlier about neo-burlesque and it’s liberatory nature, the common conception of burlesque is that of an art form where “erotic capital” (social power based on your conventional sexual attractiveness and charm) is the sole indicator of a successful performer. And that outsider perspective really feeds itself into my head when I wonder what my peers and pals who aren’t in the performance bubble I’m in think about my posts. I find it incredibly difficult to watch videos of myself onstage. It’s not that I hate my body. I’m probably at a place where I feel the most comfortable in it ever. But I also don’t think that
feeling comfortable in my body necessarily equates to confidence and perceiving it from an onlooker’s view. Onstage, I pull faces that aren’t “attractive” or enticing, there’s usually a stomach roll here and there, and flailing arms will irk me for days. I’ll replay and replay the recordings, trying to cut them down into flattering clips that don’t expose my biggest insecurities. But doesn’t that defeat the whole point? Bodies in motion don’t translate to the perfectly staged and edited photos we’re used to, where we forget the hours of retouching and poised control that go into the final product. After all, nudity doesn’t equate to sexiness and sexy isn’t one-definition-fits-all. Maybe some people find my stage persona’s silliness sexy or my back rolls kind of hot.
After a series of my-mind-is-slowly-unraveling-and-I-no-longer-wish-to-be-perceived voice notes, a close friend told me that the act of revealing my body onstage is inherently political. It’s political because it’s me choosing to set the vision of how my body is seen onstage and how I interact with the public. This is how I present my arm; this is how I shake my butt; this is how I roll my eyes on a certain lyric. I’m in control. It’s about the in-the-moment connection that drives me to pursue the artform further. Live performance is a risk, it’s a single chance to create a relationship with the audience, an unspoken contract. Segmenting the performance, and therefore my body, into photographic stills and videos takes me out of the purpose of the act. An act is whole because it operates on having an arc, narrative and/or message. I think it’s also knowing that people who aren’t familiar with the artform are expecting something that I can’t deliver. I’m not making enough money to buy an extravagant seductive lingerie set and I’m also not interested in doing classic burlesque at this stage of my career. It’s a constant struggle between knowing what I want to do and knowing what people want to see or have been trained to expect from a woman undressing on stage. So when are you disappointing them and when
are you introducing them to something they never knew they wanted? There’s a lot of stripping for stripping’s sake in burlesque and there’s nothing wrong with that, but for me having to watch myself in motion and take it out of the context of the act for promotional sake (like wow look how
fat my ass looks here) perpetuates my own body hatred and self objectification. I don’t perform burlesque for a camera. I perform it for a room of people collectively connecting with the artist. I perform because a lot of people will never be comfortable showing their body to the extent I do. I perform because I know some will feel inspired after they leave a show. I perform because it gives others permission to embrace their bodies in ways that they previously thought they weren’t able to.
Maybe this is all to say that I’m working through some kind of exposure therapy, where I subject myself to gazing at my own body so much so that any kind of objectifying and/or harshly critical gaze is depleted. Maybe it’ll become an adoring gaze, a prideful gaze, a gaze of recognition. In the end, it’s my own.
Matias, Julia. “‘Working On and Against’ Classic Burlesque Conventions in Zyra Lee Vanity’s Irie
Love.” Canadian Theatre Review 189 (2022): 27–32. Web
Hanna Nes (she/her) is a Bergen-born, Canada-raised MA student in the first year of IMK’s Screen Cultures program at UiO where she is researching digital theatre. Outside of her studies, she’s a burlesque performer, writer and theatre fanatic.
Originalt publisert i #2-23 HUD