So you want to book Burlesque for your event?

The purpose of this post:

This post is meant to be an informative guide addressing common issues that arise for those interested in booking burlesque, particularly if they are a corporate or brand-based talent buyer who requires G or PG-13 entertainment. This post is not intended to be a “bible” of burlesque. I will not go in to depth about the art’s rich history, nor will I explore every nook and cranny of modern burlesque.

What is burlesque?

You’ve decided that you want book a burlesque show. Let me tell you, there can be a LOT to unpack there, so get ready for a wild ride. Burlesque performers have many different beliefs about what burlesque is and isn’t. What is burlesque, historically speaking? From Dictionary.com:

“Traditionally, burlesque has been a type of variety show that is both provocative and comedic. It features a female chorus and solo dances, plus bawdy, slapstick skits and songs. And yes, it may feature striptease acts, but not necessarily.

Burlesque” comes from Italian and means “mockery.”  Historically, it was originally used to refer to an array of entertainment that used caricature, ridicule, and distortion. The word was first used in the 16th century by the Italian Francesco Berni who called his operas burleschi“.

That’s pretty neat! By the early 1900’s however, burlesque in the U.S. became synonymous with striptease through the popularity of Vaudeville starlets like Sally Rand and Josephine Baker. This new definition of burlesque persists today with modern burlesque artists. As such, if you ask for “burlesque”, you are not asking for a juggler, a fire eater, a Rockette style chorus line, a small play, or a singer; you are asking for a striptease performance.

But all that weird stuff you do is burlesque, right?

Some burlesque performers have skills in other disciplines that they may choose to incorporate into their striptease acts. Those other skills, what ever they may be, (i.e. sword swallowing, ballet, contortion, circus clowning, singing opera, etc), are NOT burlesque. They are separate disciplines that have been incorporated into a burlesque act. You wouldn’t call the Ringling Brothers Circus or the Russian Ballet a burlesque show, nor would you call Luciano Pavarotti a burlesque performer. This is an important distinction because again, if you request burlesque, you are specifically requesting striptease. You are not intrinsically requesting other types of skills.

When the client finds out burlesque isn’t like that Christina Aguilera movie…

Sir Olaf and the Underworld by Kay Nielsen (1913)

A lot of people have the Christina Aguilera & Cher movie Burlesque in mind when they request a burlesque show. I must tell you up front that movie explicitly does not portray modern burlesque. What it portrays are choreographed song and dance numbers similar to what you might find at a Vegas show or cabaret. The movie is PG-13, so if it were a dinner show on the strip, theoretically you could safely bring the whole family.

The movie Burlesque features burlesque adjacent entertainment, but is otherwise devoid of the elements that make modern burlesque, well, burlesque. Burlesque by it’s very essence is adult in nature and controversial. In addition to disrobement, modern burlesque routines often contain elements of exotic dance. Burlesque acts can be sensual, nerdy, humorous, gory, glamorous, and a number of other things. Acts may have controversial themes surrounding gender, eroticism, sexuality, violence, politics, you name it. Costumes may be decadent or inelaborate. These acts are designed as expressions of the individual performers; they are largely not devised with some one else’s comfort or personal beliefs in mind.

Just like at the Moulin Rouge!

In addition to requests for burlesque based on novel notions, clients often mention the Moulin Rouge as a point of inspiration. I am certain that they are referencing the Nicole Kidman movie…. which I have never seen, so I don’t get that reference. What I do know is that the Moulin Rouge is located in Pigalle, a red light district of Paris known for it’s sex shops and adult entertainment. The Moulin Rouge is often credited as the birthplace of the can-can dance. When you think of can-can, you are probably thinking of a family friendly dance number involving frilly skirts and high kicks. The can-can was a risque dance at the time of it’s inception because the pantaloons the dancers wore had open crotches. Talk about a peepshow!

Keeping it “classy”

People often use the word “classy” when describing costume requests or the style of entertainment that they want to book. This might be a polite attempt at saying, “Please, no butt cheeks”. The appearance of wealth is often considered classy, so it may be a request for an ultra glamorous costume with disregard to the level of exposure. “Classy” doesn’t have solidly defined parameters. It’s not a one-size-fits-all term so much as it’s an expression of one’s personal biases. What is considered classy varies by demographics such as age group, income level, social status, profession, cultural perspective, religion, and so on.

So what you really want is….

Typically when people make these kinds of requests, unless they are already patrons of living, modern burlesque, what they are really asking for are trained professional dancers to do choreographed numbers in conservative, burlesque-inspired costumes. There’s no problem with that. Many burlesque artists can accommodate these kinds of requests if we know that’s what you want in advance. Having said that…

Not all burlesque performers are trained dancers. Others have years of extensive dance training under their belts. What it comes down to, for better or for worse, is that we are a diverse group of movement artists.

Another point of consideration is that a lot of the punch of burlesque acts lies in the layers of costuming, in the various “reveals”, and in the choreography that is based on removing garments. A “reveal” is a surprise that is layered into an act. The term can reference a costume piece, a prop, or the performer’s body. For example, a performer showing their derriere after removing a feather skirt is a reveal. If that feather skirt transforms into a set of feather fans, that is another type of reveal. For this reason, while burlesque performers may be able to adjust a pre-existing act to meet a PG-13 request, it doesn’t mean you are getting the same wow factor in the delivery.

Speaking on myself, I almost never adjust a burlesque act to be more tame because I walk away from those types of performances feeling like it wasn’t all that it should be. Instead, I developed non-burlesque versions of all of my sideshow acts that are intended for PG-13 audiences and have adjustable wardrobe options.

Questions to ask/ Statements to make

When requesting acts that fit your visions, be sure to be very specific about what your vision entails. Your idea of burlesque is not likely the same as our lived experiences creating and performing it. Here are some questions and statements that might help.

  • We can not have any pasty reveals“, i.e., don’t take your bra off. (Pasties are nipple covers worn by burlesquers. This is what the tassel attaches to for tassel spinning).
  • Alternatively, you can confirm that you “want burlesque that includes striptease“. Burlesque performers are all about that!
  • Do you have any costumes with this level of coverage“? – Be sure to include a photo or video reference.
  • Can you send us photos of your costume options“? – I love this one! Every one is on the same page.
  • Do you have any non-striptease acts“?
  • Do you have any non-striptease acts that feature this skill“?
  • Alternatively, “Do you have any burlesque striptease acts that feature this skill”?
  • “Can you convert this burlesque act to a non-striptease act”?

Maybe you don’t want to insult a performer by discussing levels of coverage. Maybe you think it is awkward to discuss an adult’s wardrobe choices. It is way more awkward to not have that conversation and end up with unpleasant surprises and upset parties at your event. No one will be happy.