My speech

Burlesque: The art form which communicates empowerment and sexual desire

Due to the sexual revolution in the 1950s where playboy and pornography entered the world with force, burlesque started to disappear as it was replaced with full frontal nudity which burlesque could not compete with. However now, in this day an age an over sexed public is cheering for something which isn’t all about revealing everything, but about sexy glamour and a glimpse of something that doesn’t bare all and leaves a lot to the imagination. This new burlesque era is bumping the tease back into the strip and highlighting female empowerment and portraying women as not objects but as subjects of sexual desire.

To fully understand burlesque we have to re visit its birth. How was burlesque dancing ever going to succeed in a generation when showing the leg was considered to be pornographic? It all started with the rise of photography as being a commercial art form, small business cards called “carte de vistes”  started being mass produced at an astonishing rate. The carte de visite portrayed women undressing, showing a little bit of ankle and progressed to showing the top of the leg, these photographs multiplied the image of women undressing and made it available the everyone everywhere. By the mid 1860s carte do visites were being exchanged all over the world promoting the female body as a product. The pioneer photographer was a man named a.a.e. disderi, his photographs showed ballerinas exposing ankles, thighs and occasionally a cheeky behind, his photographs secured pictures of women undressing as a commercial erotic icon of that era.

The burlesque star, Adah Isaac’s menken, was particularly famous for her use of the carte de visite. She was the first true performer to see the promotional potential that the photograph was starting to have and she decided that she had to have photographs of herself taken to go on carte de visites. At the same time the then unknown photographer napoleon sorany was also realizing that photography was coming of age as an art form and he recognized the opportunity the theater held. Together they produced photographs focusing on her exotic look, curvaceous figure and charismatic sexuality which presented her as a new and exciting model of contemporary womanhood. Adah Menken quickly became famous for her scantily clad carte de viste and napoleon sorony became well recognized as the photographer that took these iconic photographs, sorony then went onto become a famous theatrical portrait photographer.

However the true first onstage tease goes to a women named lydia tompson. Her group the british blondes exploded onto the stage in america wearing knee length stockings and flesh colored tights. These women were not playing any roles, they were having fun and being themselves- they were the first show girls, and they appealed to the male audience purely on a visual level.

After this iconic band of women that went against the nations belief burlesque began its rise, with theaters popping up everywhere. The strip tease became a powerful symbol of “the new woman’s sexual liberation”

However by the 1950s adult movie theaters soon began to replace burlesque theaters across the nation. Why would men want to come and see a women half undress and tease them when they could watch an adult movie or read mens magazines such as play boy, which started in 1953, that revealed everything and left nothing unexposed. By the sixties the tease had all but vanished and topless and bottomless dancing prevailed. However this wasn’t the end of burlesque and it would once again rise.

One movement that has helped constantly change the portrayal of burlesque is the feminist movement. Gone are the days when women whipped of their bras and burned them, this is a new age, the age of the third wave feminists where feminism is the idea that women can and should define their own womanhood. After a decade in which feminism seemed to vanish it made its comeback in the 1990s, however the reemergence saw a big change in this “new wave”. As astrid Henry states in his book “not my mothers sister: generation conflict and third wave feminism”, “ Feminism was not something that women had left behind but in fact something women were reclaiming and reconceptualizing in a enthusiastic way” 

The second wave feminists battled for equal rights between men and women, these women were characterized by a claim of sisterhood, solidarity and community however quickly became known as a group of man hating women.They secured a lot for women of that time for example the right to vote however not al there views were looked at on in such good light. The second wave feminists are well known for not really taking into account differences between women eg, class and race. Everything they based there work on was on the standard white middle class women. They viewed popular culture as sexiest, pornography as degrading and humiliating and the family structure as just a way to keep a women from achieving her full potential.

With that being said it is easy to understand why burlesque hasn’t always been looked at in such a good light. Before the third wave feminists came around burlesque was seen to be sexually demoralizing to women. Women partaking in the practice of burlesque were describes as outcast ands compared to strippers and prostitutes. In horrible prettiness: burlesque and american culture robert allen writes about how one reporter described burlesque when if first came onto the scene in the 1900s. “ Burlesque produced a female body out of control and unable to control itself. It was an exposed public body that insisted on calling attention to itself: a raving, convulsive, incoherently screaming, hysterical mad body”. However for every person that has demoralized burlesque there has always been a army of women to defend it and demand there own rights to display there bodies how they wish.

However nowadays the art of burlesque dancing can be seen as feminist portrayal of a women taking control of personal and sexual empowerment. There is something truly powerful about a performer commanding the stage and the audience, whilst unveiling her body through the story she has created. “i think of the modern world of burlesque as a liberating, dizzying explosion of feathers and glitter, rhinestones and feminism……i realized that feeling beautiful had power and political potential” (Margaret cho, the burlesque handbook)

Since the beginning of burlesque there have always been people photography this specific art form, back in the 1950s a photographer named Michael Ochs burst onto the photographic scene with his photographs portraying well known burlesque star tempest storm. His photographs of this iconic star exude sexuality, not in an intimidating way but in an empowering experience for the viewer.

As burlesque grows in this era so does the rise in burlesque / boudoir photography, Where women allow themselves to get in touch with their own ulta egos and express their own sexual empowerment and look and feel sexual desirable. Boudoir photography stems from the burlesque movement, with glamour and sexuality being the main force behind this style. Images of women that scream of romance, sensuality, flirtation and sexuality are being produced at an astounding rate evermore communicating that women are taking control of their sexual desire and undertaking empowering changes.

Tigz rice is a female burlesque/ boudoir photographer based in london, who has been photographing the burlesque scene heavily in london for three years now. In her work one main idea she focuses on is empowering the women she is photographing. As she states on her website she wants to “help you accentuate all your greatest assets whilst boosting your inner confidence, making sure you leave feeling confident, empowered and inspired.” This goal helps her achieve the stunning photographs she creates. After reading interviews which she has done she explains how she got into photographing this style of photography she says that all began with her watching her first burlesque show, while she was watching it she envied the women on the stage because they exuded confidence, feminity and empowerment and she wanted feel that herself, which is when she started learning burlesque herself and eventually got into photographing it. Her stunning photographs never fail to portray beauty, power and sexuality in heaps which is felt by the veiwer. She stated that she was extremely unhappy about the shoot if a women did not leave feeling confident and happy.

Many people however still to this day ask the question How is burlesque dancing any different to just plain stripping? I think the answer lies in the tease, stripping is simply about removing items of clothing to revel the naked body however burlesque is an art, based around dance, musicality, story telling and theater performance. Using dramaturgy and the body as a tool to tell a story. In Jo Weldon’s book “the burlesque handbook she recounts how body actions represent meaning  “The removal of the successive layers of clothing usually either reveals some unexpected element about the character the dancer portrays; develops a narrative plot line featuring that character; or both”. The combination of sex, humor and playfulness is a powerful way to communicate certain issues such as religion, gender, history ect. Burlesque stars are not only sexually empowering themselves and the audience but also conveying issues that they think ought to be discussed.

When burlesque first started its purpose was to entertain the male audience and be visually pleasing for them. Back then the majority of the audience at a burlesque show would be male. However after attending a few burlesque shows myself i have began to notice that times have definitely changed where now a much larger majority of the audience is women. One main reason why i personally think this has changed is because women in todays over sexualized society can relate to what and who they are seeing on stage. Burlesque accepts all body types which is why i think it empowers a lot of the women in the audience because they start to believe in themselves. Immodesty baize a burlesque star says in living dolls: the return of sexism “ I find personally burlesque empowering because instead of being told we have to be one body type, showgirls all have individual characters and body shapes”. 

When watching a burlesque show it is easy to become distracted by all the glitz, glamour, humor and sexuality and i think this can distract you away from seeing that the dancers are in fact empowering themselves and the audience at the same time. I have personally found that watching them using the skills of communication and sexuality only increase this empowerment, burlesque offers an escape from our society today where all you ever see are skinny girls, burlesque offers something different than the standard mass produced culture of today. To finish my speech i am going to quote the well known burlesque star Miss astrid “does an eagle cry because it’s not a swan? no. Is a dove sad because it’s not a flamingo? no. And so it should be, ladies and gentlemen with women. Different shapes, different sizes, tall, short, fat,thin are all beautiful”


~ by hmsteel on February 11, 2013.

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