For some reason one of the constant themes that crops up in my life of late has been people starting the “but isn’t burlesque just stripping?” debate. I now declare this the definitive answer: no, it’s not.
Firstly - not all burlesque involves taking off clothes. Delores Deluxe, events manager and boss of The Kitten Club, has never been known to remove anything during any act. Burlesque means a parody, a send-up, or to turn on its head, none of which technically require any sort of nudity. Additionally, most clubs will mix burlesque acts with cabaret anyway.
And what is 'just' about stripping? Have you ever tried it? I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to make money from stripping (not that any club would be daft enough to let me try, but still). And don’t even get me started about how difficult pole dancing is.
Finally, yes, there is a large strand in burlesque which is what we have nasty tendency to call “pretty stripping”, i.e. strip tease. But that's strip tease, not stripping. These two things are actually very different in a number of key ways, so I thought I’d set out a few points to clarify for the apparently vast numbers of people that think we provide gladrags for strip clubs and that I spend all my time in topless bars. Why anyone would think I needed more boobs in my life after work, I have no idea!
House of Burlesque behind the scenes in customised Kiss Me Deadly
Women who strip usually pay the clubs they strip in to be allowed to work that evening. This can be over £100 pounds a night. They then often have to pay a cut of anything they make on the night to the club, and in many clubs, part of their job is to encourage you to drink more. Or, er, buy water pistols (don’t ask. Really, really don’t ask). There doesn’t seem to be an obvious trade union to join, and sometimes there are security issues.
Women who perform burlesque are usually paid to perform and are booked to perform particular acts as part of a show, though rates vary wildly (and if booked by us, may largely involve pants). In all honesty, most of them doing for love, as its still rare to find a performer making enough money to live off performance alone. They are often members of Equity, and this involves insurance, employment law, legal advice, the magic words “cancellation fee” and so on. Thus far I have yet to see a burlesque club in which security has been an issue, though I did once put a man in an arm lock in a private members club because he’d got a bit gropey when we were teaching burlesque as a warm up to a night. That man had some issues understanding about consent.
Costume and content
When you work at a strip club, clubs often choose the outfits (though you may pay for them) and frequently have standards about physical appearance. They choose the music and the setup. You may well have a particular skill, such as pole or dance or trapeze or the ability to look like a man is really very interesting when he talks, but you won’t necessarily perform an act as such. By outfit, we’re talking bra, knicker/thong, platform shoes and a cami top, generally. The dancers will usually remove the clothes as quickly as possibly, usually to a more explicit level than most burlesque acts, and the dancer generally dances naked for a while either playing with herself or in some places gyrating against the customer.
Tempest Rose (in Kiss Me Deadly) backstage at the Shard
When you perform at a burlesque club, you are usually booked to do a particular act from your repertoire, as part of a show, with a compere – cabaret style. As well as particular areas of skills you will have a variety of acts you have come up with the creative concept behind, chosen the music for, practised extensively, created costumes for, and so on. Costumes are usually extensive and elaborate – the art of tease, in fashion terms, is largely about extensive and yet hidden layering .
(All that said, I may kill the next person whose act is entirely about how many Swarovski's they have managed to stick onto their corset)
A performer will sort out with the venue, technician, compere etc where your act fits and how it goes.
In Burlesque the majority of time is spent dressed and displaying the beauty of the costumes and how they sit on the female body; if it's pure strip tease then the act ends rapidly after the strip is completed, or will go on to use something else like fire or water routines that need nudity.
I have seen burlesque performers from a size 6 to a 24, from 20 something to 40 something, with underarm hair, tanned, pale, every hair colour or bald, and I have seen a man do a reverse strip on a unicycle.
Nanny Dora. Probably not working in a strip club near you, but definitely burlesque.
What’s it about?
As a burlesque performer your job is to entertain people, sometimes provocatively. But tease acts in good clubs often account for less than half, and the best of those will be combined with some sort of comedic or parody aspect.
Now, I don’t know much about dance so had I written this section alone it would go "burlesque dance goes round and round and strip goes up and down".
Happily, Tempest Rose took pity on my ignorance and explained it thusly:
When stripping, the dance moves focus heavily on the breasts and crotch, simulated sex moves, especially submissive ones which seem to dominate current cultural preoccupations of women’s sexuality – as before, that's because it's about creating the fantasy that you are (her words) "some kind of stripper sex goddess who is desperate to have sex with you if only the conditions were met".
Typically in burlesque though, it's more about a classical dance aesthetic of line and form, showing off a woman’s figure including areas likes wrists and the calf (I can attest to this, it's why all our stockings enthusiasts like it, some acts even involve extra special foot wiggling). In interactions with audience members, the moves and tone will reinforce the performer's superiority and make women audience members feel good. Their interactions will not involve any extra cash transactions.
Tempest Rose in more fabric than the entire content of a changing room for strip artists.
The audience and the clubs
If you walk into a strip club, it will be rapidly apparent, as the place will be full of men, singly and in groups, with very few women, and those that are there will mostly be working.
If you walk into a burlesque club, it is likely that the audience will mostly be couples and groups of women. I did recently meet a mostly male audience at a Christmas lunch at Volupte, but that was because it was the works Christmas do for two companies! Obviously, they were ritually humiliated by the performers.
Strip clubs are largely owned, staffed and run by men.
Burlesque organisations are frequently woman-led and woman-run, though sadly not always women-owned (story of the world, really. Working on it).
So other than those few tiny differences, yeah its totally the same.
It's also ripe for a visual comparison using pictures and video, but a) I couldn’t find any that I knew the copyright was ok on for illustrating stripping, and b) when doing the research I just ended up distracted by naked men on YouTube, so someone else is going to have to do that!
So all of the photos from Madame JoJo's are from House Of Burlesque by Tigz Rice. We went to the final of Burlesque Idol last month and it was so much fun and some people didn’t even take any clothes off at all!