Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Burlesque: Its History And Its Present

At the end of September, my boyfriend Greg and I attended a fabulous show at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor called Pick a Card: a Burlesque Exploration of Tarot. I learned about it from the person passing out flyers. She came into the bookstore and asked to put one up, and not only did I say yes, I wanted to know all about it! The people involved in the show, and the subsequent Sirens and Spooks: Halloween Burlesque that some of the performers re-united for a month later, were so incredibly talented, I am grateful she thought to come into our shop with a flyer.

The day of the event, I had an interesting encounter with a customer who came in to buy his wife a tarot deck (and then asked me where he could pick up a bouquet of flowers, as well). It turned out she was one of the performers in the burlesque show, Miss GVS Mynx as the Queen of Swords. I expressed my excitement and said that I was going. This is a paraphrasing of the conversation that ensued:

Customer: You should totally come out and watch my wife strip!
Me: I can't wait to watch your wife strip!

(It didn't seem weird to me until later. And, by the way, she was sensational. He's a lucky man to be with someone so talented.) 

These performers are true artists, and though burlesque is supposed to be sexy, sometimes a bit raunchy, it's also supposed to be fun, funny, dazzling, and any other number of adjectives that describe entertainment. Neo-burlesque, shows like Pick a Card and Sirens and Spooks that we go to see nowadays, are live entertainment, like going to a play or the ballet. When I first started going to burlesque shows, I heard a lot of people badmouth the performers that didn't strip or didn't strip "far enough" as "not burlesque." In a lot of people's minds, burlesque = strippers. That is not the case. Though strippers became an integral part of burlesque early on, they are not, and were not, the end-all be-all of burlesque. (Though most say they were the end to burlesque.)

I recently found a book at Crazy Wisdom called Behind the Burly Q: The Story of Burlesque in America by Leslie Zemeckis ($16.95 paperback), and I snatched it up! If you are at all a fan of burlesque, modern or no, read this book (or watch the documentary upon which it is based). I have such a better understanding of what burlesque is and where it comes from. 

According to the book, a typical heyday burlesque show had the following format: 
  • Opening Act: The "tit singer" (actual term) would sing a song while about 15 scantily and glamorously clad chorus girls would parade on stage.
  • A skit between the comic and his straight man.
  • A striptease and/or novelty acts.
  • Another comedy skit.
  • A song/dance number.
  • Middle Production "Picture Act": another huge act that lasted about 10 minutes.
  • The co-feature (a stripper).
  • If there was a chorus line, here they would do a build-up for the feature performer. 
  • The Headliner or star stripper. 
  • The Finale with most of the cast on stage.
This all lasted for 90 minutes. Not bad for the dime it cost you to get in! I think we paid $20 each for Pick a Card, which was divided into two acts and well worth it. (The acts were mostly strips, but also included aerialists and hoopers (shout out to Tea who does the coolest black light hoop strips ever!!). Sirens and Spooks also featured a sideshow performer. Neither had comedians, but there was definitely comedy within some of the performances.) 

Later, going into the 50s and certainly 60s, strippers began to take over because burlesque shows had to compete with movies and we all know that sex sells. Performers began showing more of their bodies and doing progressively "lewder" acts, like grinding against poles and curtains, etc, which previously had been banned as indecent across much of America and Canada.

Speaking of bans, there were some good ones. People generally found a way around them, though. For example, many cities had laws that stated a person could not exit the stage with less clothing than they had arrived with on stage. Oh no! No stripping! Right? Wrong. There were at least two ways of getting around this:
  1. Performers would dance around the stage, parade to the side, step backstage, quickly remove an article of clothing, then pop back on stage. Rinse and repeat.
  2. Do what is called a reverse strip. Arrive on stage with nothing, put clothing on (in a sexy way), and leave fully clothed (or at least with more than was started with). Stepping from a bubble bath, for example, and dressing for an imagined party.
In some places, "bumping," or any provocative sudden thrust of the hips, was deemed "lewd" and illegal to perform. Blonde performers were sometimes required to wear certain colored panties, like black, so no one could "mis-see" what she was wearing and think she was nude or flashing her lighter public hair. I guess there's nothing you can do about performers with dark hair, and by God, someone had to be punished for audience arousal somehow! 

But that was then, and most of these laws, if not gone, are at least ignored. Many venues still ban complete nudity, but total nudity was never the arena of burlesque performance and there is no reason it should be now. 

Some things will never change. Performers still make the bulk of their own costumes, which makes them not only wonderful performers and choreographers, but dazzling designers and dressmakers. People were once very protective of their acts, especially their music, and I once read that today, the music that performers use is either trademarked or copyrighted to them, and many are still reluctant to share it. (Which is occasionally a shame because I have heard some phenomenal remixes that I wish I could hear again.)

When working clubs (as opposed to theaters, carnivals, etc), performers were expected to mingle - some even had their pay determined by how many bottles of champagne they could talk customers into buying - and we still see performers mingling with the crowds today, though usually after the show in the lobby, posing for pictures with attendees, and sometimes at the merchandise table where they sell pictures, T-shirts, handmade pasties, and all manner of things. (I also occasionally run into them in the ladies room, but I wouldn't call that mingling.)

This summer, I wrote about why I like burlesque, and after reading Zemeckis' book, learning the history and the stories of the women and men who lived it, I feel like I have an even greater love and respect. I wish I had pictures to share of my favorite performers, but I don't have the kind of camera-phone that takes pictures in low-lit environments, and some of the shows I've been to were a little strict on what photos were taken, by whom, and where they were shared. You'll just have to go see one yourself!

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