- Look at your glove.
- Now look at the audience.
- Then look back at your glove, and use your eyes to direct the attention of the audience to your glove.
- Look again at your audience, and tease them with your eyes, while presenting the glove.
- Touch your glove. Let the audience know how soft and silky it is. Make them wish they could touch your glove, and touch you!
- Make them jealous that you're up there on the stage, feeling so good! Smile and wink. Make them wish they were up there with you.
- Now direct their gaze upon your fingertips, and slowly, intimately, remove your glove, keeping careful command of their attention through your delicate movements and seductive eye contact.
In the days of ubiquitous internet twerking, it's not easy to titillate a room with the removal of a mitten. A burlesque dancer's striptease must be endowed with artsy sophistication, tongue-in-cheeks humor, and a seductive style of retro-risqué that could make your grandmother blush right through her powdered wrinkles. During my first lesson in burlesque, taught by Montreal's The Lady Josephine, I learned that there are actually multiple steps involved in the removal of each article of clothing, and every step is nuanced with complex power play. Playfully and powerfully, the person in charge of directing the gaze of the audience - is the dancer.
This female-directed gaze is politically significant. Academic feminism inculcates a particular dilemma with regard to looking. "The Gaze" - one is taught - is male. And the camera that is motivated by the hungry male eye reduces all objects in its path to puppets for the satisfaction of male ego. According to this critique, women under the Male Gaze are mere accessories for the male hero's central narrative, not fully formed human beings. Women can not Be; lacking language and signification under Patriarchy; l'écriture feminine can not even exist!
So goes the dominant Theory of our theory-ridden generation...But my very first lesson in burlesque taught me differently. It is the eye of the burlesque dancer that directs the audience where to look. Her carefully planned movements guide their line of vision. Her confidence commands their attention. In fact, in burlesque, beauty lies not in the eye of the beholder, but glitters out from the quirky, spirited eye of the beholden.
The burlesque dancer looks back at you, across the fourth wall of the stage, reaching through the decades of changing sexual attitudes and fashions. From Lydia Thompson's British Blondes, which brought burlesque to the United States in the 1800s, making a home on the vaudeville circuit, especially in New York City’s famous Minsky’s Burlesque at the Winter Garden, where the defiant Gypsy Rose Lee spoke her witty poetry; to the Neo-Burlesque revival, passed down by cherished legends like Dixie Evans, popularized by mainstream stars like Dita Von Teese, and enjoyed by a growing Burlycon of D.I.Y. vintage hobbyists: the performer's gaze entices the audience in a mutual exchange that transcends historical, geographical, class-based, and sexual boundaries.
“Burlesque has its origins in sex work,” says NYC burlesque dancer and outspoken activist Akynos. “Back in the day, in the 1800’s, when you wanted a female performer to do something risque, who the hell was going to do that except for a whore?” Early burlesque dancers were sex workers. “But now you’re too good to be called that?” Akynos asks. “How are you separating yourself now from the people who started this?
Many burlesque dancers today are ashamed to be associated with strippers or escorts. Proud of their glamorous presentation, these dancers distinguish themselves as creative artists. Miss Sugarpuss, a first-rate performer and impassioned burlesque teacher at the Wiggle Room in Montreal - who is sympathetic to sex workers and has also previously volunteered with Stella, a sex worker human rights organization in Quebec - describes the artistic difference between burlesque and stripping:
“Though strippers are the great granddaughters of burlesque dancing women, Neo-Burlesque dancers have a different use for the art form….I’m not going to go as far as to say burlesque is sex work - and I’m also not going to say they’re not related. They were once related. They’re like estranged cousins. I wish there were more acceptance about it, so there would be no more shame…I have told my class that ‘No, burlesque is not pole dancing’ - but it’s not me condemning pole dancing; it’s just a different way to express feminine sexuality. I just know that people who are stripping in strip clubs make more money than I do as a burlesque performer. But I feel, in the mainstream, that anything fueled by wanting to make money changes the art.”
According to Miss Sugarpuss, art for art’s sake is an aesthetic drive that becomes altered when money is the primary motive. Burlesque dancers typically do not make a lot of money in performing. In fact, the investment of time and resources in creating original costumes and rehearsing new numbers, often exceeds the amount of money that can be made from doing gigs. Almost all burlesque dancers have second jobs in the “normal” working world, and some burlesque dancers also dabble in other forms of sexual performance, such as stripping, domination, or escorting. For the Stripper-as-Artiste whose primary drive is to push the boundaries of the artform, inventive inspiration in burlesque trumps financial incentives.
However, the artist’s attitude towards money is sometimes seen as a luxury afforded only to the privileged. The cantakerous and frequently inebriated Feminist Current blogger, Meghan Murphy, wrote a whiny article in XOJane a few months ago, which criticized contemporary burlesque. In the article, Meghan insisted that burlesque is a boring performance for the “Male Gaze,” which in her Meghan-centric Feminist analysis means that burlesque is not Feminist.
She also suggested that burlesque is classist in its self-differentiation from stripping:
“The only difference between strippers and burlesque dancers,” Meghan philosophized, “is that burlesque dancers are well-off enough to call their strip shows a hobby.”
This is very insulting, responded Miss Sugarpuss in our phone interview. “Most burlesque dancers are struggling, as artists of any kind are,” she told me. “It’s always a juggle to be an artist and to survive.” For Miss Sugarpuss and other serious dancers, burlesque is not a hobby. It is also not a very lucrative profession, so dancers are generally not wealthy. But their struggle only further legitimizes what they do as art, not a job like any other.
Murphy actually makes a similar argument when she talks about her own anti-sexwork activism, in comparison to the activism of sex workers, claiming that her not being paid very well somehow legitimizes her as a true activist, and accusing sex worker activists of being self-serving. In several of her blogposts which condemn sex work and sex worker activists, Murphy complains that she doesn’t make nearly as much money as sex workers do, and repeatedly expresses the following line of reasoning: that she, with her non-paying blog, somehow deserves more Feminist-cred for her activism because sex workers make a higher wage than she does.
One might say about Murphy, when you turn her own logic upon her work, is that the difference between sex working activist writers and “Feministing” abolitionist bloggers, is that the latter are “well-off enough” to pity and pontificate on the “shameful subjugation” of others, for no compensation...which must be a nice hobby…
Either way, being poor does not an artist make. And being popularly appealing enough to earn a living from your craft also does not automatically make you less of an artist - especially in this day and age, when no single person is qualified to dictate what “art” is. Andy Warhol, the paragon and poster child of Modern Art, made an art of moneyed marketing and iconic reprints, hand-made by apprentices at his warehouse/art factory. His work casts doubt upon the supposed boundaries between Capitalism and that higher-than-material space which art, knowledge, justice, love, and spirituality - theoretically occupy. The dividing line between high art and “low-brow” commercial entertainment, between the white walls of a museum and performances on the street or in the strip club, are increasingly being called to question: they are divisions primarily based upon class demarcations, degrees of formal education, and personality pandering. Especially in these times, they are not rooted in discernible differentiations in skill or aesthetic appeal; it seems the whole world of Art is increasingly a charade for semi-mystic speculation by the wealthy.
Burlesque falls somewhere in between the high brow and the low brow. Still stigmatized for its sexual displays, burlesque seems to sit in a stressful spot between the brows, causing me to raise a brow when I hear any type of judgments expressed within the burlesque community upon people of other stigmatized communities. The dancers of the contemporary art world are equally disdainful of burlesque dancers as some burlesque dancers are of nightclub strippers. As Miss Sugarpuss described in an anecdote: “Contemporary dance is in a very weird place when it comes to women’s sexuality and what qualifies as valid art. Contemporary dance is way more angry at burlesque than strippers are when it comes to dance.”
Miss Sugarpuss told me a story about Betty Wilde, another Montreal burlesque dancer, who used work for a contemporary dance company with well-known choreographers, performing in respected venues, and was also secretly moonlighting at the time as a stripper. A few years ago, Betty’s dance company created a piece that was basically a mockery of stripclubs, and the way that strippers dance for clients. “It was supposed to be an exploration of the ‘Danse à Dix’ [slang term for stripping at ten bucks a song]. It was supposed to be a very deep dance.” But Betty actually found it to be extremely offensive, “almost like a blackface of stripping,” which contrived to be high-nosed contemporary art.
“What if contemporary dance invaded the world of a strip club?” - ran the advertisement for the sold-out show. The dance piece was actually performed at a stripclub in Montreal, during the early evening before the club opened for business.
On the night of the performance, after the art piece was done, the formally trained performers began leaving the stripclub just as the real strippers were coming onto their nightly shift. The two groups of dancers brushed shoulders, and chose to completely ignore each other. “There was absolutely NO interaction whatsoever between the contemporary dancers and the strippers,” Miss Sugarpuss explained, “And this space was small and intimate; they were all in the same room. It was just so demoralizing - that these people appropriated their home, came into their home, made fun of their home and their art and their way to make a living, and put their dance degree ideas all over it. Then, when they were leaving, they don’t even say ‘Hey.’”
One might accuse burlesque of doing a similar thing when it tries to distance itself from contemporary stripping. However, most burlesquers, including Miss Sugarpuss, are actually much more sensitive and inclusive of other erotic performers than the formally trained “degreed dancers” in the world of modern dance. There are many burlesque dancers, like Miss Sugarpuss, who acknowledge stripping as an art form. There are even many Neo-Burlesque dancers who embrace the pole as a burlesque instrument.
“What a lot of burlesque dancers don’t understand,” explains Akynos, who did her undergraduate research paper on burlesque while training to become the international performer she is now, “is that burlesque does not mean stripping. Burlesque has a specific definition which means: you’re basically parodying something. A burlesque show is a show with jokes and comedians and music and strippers. And your ass is a stripper...in a burlesque show. It’s pretty clear for me; there’s no blurred line - even if you glue on the pasties - you’re taking off those layers; you’re a stripper.”
When asked whether she thought burlesque is “feminist,” Miss Sugarpuss replied:
“I think burlesque is a feminist act for any woman who considers it a feminist act for herself. It’s a tricky way of defining feminism - and it’s tough to define feminism any more than that. I think we’re living at a time where the word ‘feminism’ has turned in on itself, and no one really knows what to do with it. But for me, I still consider myself a feminist, and I still consider burlesque to be a feminist act, for me….I can’t speak for any other performers or any other woman.”
Burlesque has truly been empowering for Miss Sugarpuss. As the daughter of an actress, she grew up always knowing she wanted to be a performer, but she struggled with her weight throughout her twenties, and found that too many casting directors were unwilling to cast her because of her non-conforming appearance:
“I never got to do film and television because I was constantly running up against the idea that my body was wrong, just wrong on camera - I couldn’t get a gig. Because I was a curvy young woman….I fell into a great depression, and my mom took me to see a great documentary called ‘The Anatomy of Burlesque’ by Lindalee Tracy, a wonderful advocate for women, and for feminism. She was a stripper in Montreal and she started making films….The documentary really spurred me to action for the first time in years. Here were these beautiful women on the stage, doing these fabulous things, and they had bodies like mine! For me it was a catalyst that gave me a sense of purpose and belonging in the world, and wanting to participate in the dialogue again. So how is that not feminist?”
Flouting all the messages of feminine beauty that riddles our fat-phobic, homophobic, and age-ist society - the shapely, queer, elderly dancer takes a radical stance by positioning the Gaze upon her or himself, a body that the mainstream media refuses to see. At the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, the burlesque community celebrates such vivacious elders as Tempest Storm, Satan's Angel, and Penny Starr - while embracing queer, trans, and Boylesque performers like Tigger! and the bisexual cross-dressing SciFi fan-geek Stormy Leather, as well as the out-of-the-box innovative mime of full-figured April O’Peele. Their sexy movements are unlike any you see on bodies in the mainstream media, and you can’t help but be emboldened by their dynamism, which demonstrates that sexiness is not a form of body, but a state of mind.
With immense sexual power, Neo-Burlesque performers of all shapes, sizes, and genders, bare themselves to the audience, not as sex "objects," but as the creative subjects of their own independent sexualities. They direct the Gaze of a media that ignores them as persons of beauty and sexuality.
Furthermore, the degree of creative control that Neo-Burlesque dancers have is quite unparalleled in the world of acting. Over and over again, I’ve been told that Neo-Burlesque “has no rules,” and is open to all kinds of experimentation. There’s an extremely warm and encouraging underground community of burlesque creators and appreciators, giving each other much love and mutual support. “I made my way into the theater scene in Montreal completely by taking the back doors of all the routes,” said Miss Sugarpuss, “I don’t think you need Theater School to make it in theater - that’s what I learned, and Burlesque really helped. It really empowered me in that way.”
“There are many things I love about burlesque. On a personal level, it has given me not only an opportunity to perform but an ability to control my performance destiny which is a great gift. Without this specific form of live cabaret entertainment, many dancers and actors are left at the mercy of auditioning, agents and casting directors. The burlesque format keeps the performer in the drivers seat. Additionally, it is great for the performer that enjoys creating their own work. One can be the author of their own stories, which is unique to burlesque.”
You don’t even necessarily have to strip in Neo-Burlesque. You can do a reverse strip; you can do a mime act where you are stripping an invisible person next to you. There are really no rules in Neo-Burlesque; it doesn’t even have to be sexy.
Lulu les Belles Mirettes, an engineer and researcher at McGill University, and the founder of “Burlesgeek Montreal,” an event that brings together geek culture and burlesque dancers, highlighting performances that feature superheroes and cult movie characters, told me in our interview:
“In regular shows, people come to see glamour, but geek shows are more like: ‘do whatever you want.’ Regular shows are about sexy. But I don’t do this form of burlesque to be ‘sexy’ - the point is, you can be whatever you want to be. And you can go on stage. And you can be naked. And people will love you.”
When asked whether she considers herself a feminist, she replied, “I’m not really a militant feminist. Sure, feminism is good - everyone should be a feminist; it’s just equality. But I’m not part of some organization.”
Lulu often cross-dresses in her performances, wearing men’s clothing, or gender-neutral costumes. She also performs in a troupe called Sublimes Rondeurs, which celebrates the powerful sexualities of plus-sized women. When asked whether or not she is “consciously defying gender roles,” she replied:
“No, my acts are not meant to be ‘political’ - I just do what is natural for me. If people are empowered by what I do, that’s great. I’m glad people look at me and think: ‘Oh, if she can do that, and she is not ashamed of it, and she is having fun, then maybe I can do that too.’ It’s great when it has that impact on people. But for me, burlesque is fun. For example, when I dress up as a robot, it’s only because I think robots are pretty awesome.”
Lulu embodies some of the attitudes of Third Wave Feminism, which takes gender equality as a given, and playfully questions the way gender regimes restrict people’s behavior. Rather than feeling that she must consciously rebel against patriarchy, Lulu simply seeks to do “what is natural for her,” which speaks volumes about true gender equality. She wants everyone to feel like they can “be whatever they want to be.” This is, perhaps, a more advanced form of feminism than one which only recognizes an oppositional binary between the sexes; Lulu’s feminism signals the success and transcendence of earlier waves.
Third Wave Feminism, also known to some as "Post-Feminism," crashed over the party of pant suits and shoulder pads of Second and First Wave Feminists, throwing out the mandates of masculine imitation with neon pink battle cries of "Girl Power." This newest wave of feminist thought is highly concerned with popular culture and the images of women in the media. In the ‘90s, the Riot Grrrl movement, alongside the queer movement, provided fertile ground for the subversive attitudes of the Neo-Burlesque Revival, which continues today - much to the chagrin of our squarely dressed foremothers.
Feminism's dirty little secret has always been its uneasiness towards female sexual power. Confounded by the indirectness of seduction, the First and Second Waves considered feminine sexual power an inferior form of influence, which caters to male dominance in “false consciousness.” These feminists equated male sexual desire with female victimhood: (named it such, and in naming, further made it so) - blindsighting the Female Gaze, which has always artfully directed the male eye to her own advantages and pleasures. Feminists who subscribe to these earlier Waves of thought insist that systemic sexism reduces individual agency to falsehood, no matter how empowered a woman might feel; and in so doing, these Feminists block out the expression of other feminists who are in support of sex worker rights. Positioning themselves as the voice of the mainstream Feminist movement, they deny the experiences of self-empowered courtesans and erotic performers, who have been some of history’s most powerful women. Their anti-whore stigma perpetuates the age-old sexism that maligns, silences, and punishes female sexual strength.
When asked about Feminism, SWOP activist Akynos replied:
“I don’t really like that word. When I think of feminism, I think of Melissa Farley - I think of those First Wave bitches that are so miserable with themselves, they want to control other women. If feminism is about every woman respecting other women to define what’s objectifying to her, and to live her life any way she chooses despite what they feel about it, then I could respect it more….I think as a woman, I should have a right to define what is derogatory or objectifying to me - cuz [sex work] is not. Until I became a sex worker, I never felt so much freedom. That’s how I realized my feminine power and I realized how much control I had as a woman.”
According to social and art critic Camille Paglia, feminism has "cut itself off from history and bankrupted itself when it spun its puerile, paranoid fantasy of male oppressors and female sex-objects as victims.” Women are the "dominant sex," bewitching and controlling men since Delilah and Helen of Troy. The sexual exhibitionism of women like Madonna demonstrates "the whore's ancient rule over men," Paglia wrote. She describes herself as “radically pro-pornography and pro-prostitution."
Paglia calls Naomi Wolf's style of complaining about women’s sexual objectification and oppression: "whingeing."
The association of female victimhood with male sexual desire is stronger than ever on college campuses: from protests against date rape to sexual harassment in the workplace, many young feminists today are increasingly vocal against sexual violence in the Ensler monologue style of One Billion Rising, placing ever greater emphasis on the vulnerabilities of sex rather than its strengths and advantages. These young feminists appeal to police protections, encouraging the expansion of carceral politics, and neoliberal rescue for the protection of female sexual vulnerability, yet they notably leave out violence against sex workers.
Burlesque dancers also rise up: to celebrate sexuality for its strengths, rather than its vulnerabilities. Rather than indulging in the self-satisfied privileged feminist discourse of Rescue, which encourages a First World nonprofit industrial complex, a shadow state that gives moral status to neoliberal philanthrocapitalism, recruiting college-educated, middle class women, to spend their vacation money and free time “saving” women in Third World countries, or consuming unnecessary goods from inefficient industries that stay inefficient in the name of Fair Trade, while never succeeding in creating large scale change in environmental or human rights practice, but cater only to a privileged class who can afford the additional self-esteem boost of elite branding. Instead of this convenient way of increasing the self-esteem of the privileged, burlesque can be a grassroots expression of the oppressed, the direct expression of sex workers in the Global South who lead the international movement for sex worker human rights. Rather than emphasizing female sexual victimisation, the sex working burlesque dancers of the Global South demonstrate how sexuality can be a viable path to self-empowerment, artistic freedom, and fulfillment. These sex workers lead the community-driven, bottom-up movement for sex worker human rights around the world.
“Let me live my life the way I want to, and you live your life the way you want to, and I’m gonna respect that” says Akynos, “That’s what feminism should be, but instead, it’s a bunch of bitches fighting with each other about what’s right and wrong to them [about other people] - and I don’t have the time for that.”
Like the world of mainstream feminism, the mainstream burlesque community is also not as inclusive as it could be. People of color, sex workers, queer, fat, and other subversive burlesque dancers are still the minority among the many “classical” dancers who pe