Burlesque {and the New Bump-n-Grind}

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Sunday, November 12, 2006
by Michelle Baldwin #31

Here's another title from the backlog. I found this browsing in the library waaaay back in July. I wasn't looking for the burlesque section specifically (that's the 792's, stage productions for you dewey decimal fans) but was in the general 700's art section because occasionally some wonderful thing will leap out of the stacks at me.

What does the word Burlesque bring to mind? Feathers and spangles? Yeah. Tassel twirling? Certainly. The Simpsons episode Bart After Dark, where Bart breaks a window and ends up working the door in the Springfield Burlesque house? Yes! Gypsy Rose Lee? Of course! (a friend worked for Gypsy way back when, so I always look for Gypsy.) This book had no mention of the Simpsons, but the other areas are amply represented.

Baldwin gives a great overview of Burlesque and its place in entertainment -- both historical and modern -- from early British dance hall to the "Golden Age of Burlesque" during the 20s-30's to the modern revival. How can you not enjoy reading chapters that feature Sophie Tucker, Mae West, and the words "hoochy-kootchy"? Christina Aguilera could learn a thing or two about saucy but not too complicated double entendres from these early chapters.

One of the things that appeals to me about the idea of burlesque is the cheekiness factor. There is a sense of sexy fun which seems to be missing from most modern half-naked entertainment. Let's take music videos for example: there are often half-naked people, but they usually look dead-eyed and vacant as they grind their way through choreography designed to highlight enormously out of proportion fake breasts. On the other hand, tassel-twirling makes me laugh. It's so absurd, but strangely celebratory.

Speaking of big fake boobs, many modern burlesque troupes, while certainly more tattooed than their predecessors, take pride in having members who have not been surgically enhanced; i.e. no boob jobs! I think there's a whole generation of people growing up now who have no idea what natural breasts look like (or natural teeth, or non giant lips, or bumpy noses...). I just don't understand how something that looks like half a coconut forced under the skin is considered attractive, but I digress...

Many performers make their own costumes, design their own routines, make their own posters... so while yes, they are shaking what their mama gave them on stage, it is done with deliberation and specific intent by the artist herself. I guess this is why burlessque dancing doesn't seem demeaning to me, whereas music video hoochie dancing does. (I readily acknowledge that whether or not something seems demeaning to me really doesn't matter outside of my own head, since I am not the arbiter of these things.)

The early days of burlesque were all about comedy and sexiness combined. Comedians would come on between acts, not unlike a variety show (think the Muppet Show!) except with more spangles and exposed flesh. The natural outgrowth of this model brought the stars of the striptease like Gypsy Rose Lee, Lili St. Cyr, and Ann Corio. (I love this quote of Corio's opinion on what she saw as an unfortunate reliance on gimmicky props by other practitioners, "Corio felt that a good teaser had no need for gaudy props. 'A woman's greatest asset is a man's imagination.'" Which goes to show that it's the same as it ever was as far as how much is too much, I suppose.)

Lest you think the whole book is an historical overview, it's not. Baldwin spends a lot of time looking at the range and depth of the new burlesque -- from the old variety show model to acrobatics to the elegant "peelers" to song and dance cabaret to performance art, and so on. There is also time spent on exploring the difference between modern stripping and burlesque. (There are heated feelings and opinions about this, as you might imagine.) I particularly enjoyed reading the trade-specific vocabulary: peelers, teasers, baggy pants comics, tassel-twirlers. Also it's hard to beat the the names of the "classic burlesque stripteases such as the fan dance, champagne bath, birdcage and spider web." Like most language specific to a subculture that one is unfamiliar with, it all seems so exotic and evocative. If you have any interest at all in the subject, I think this is a very good book to start with.

These bottom two pictures don't have much to do with THIS book, but in the course of looking for photos to illustrate this post, I found these, which had to be included. Gypsy Rose Lee wrote a murder mystery called The G-String Murders (old paperback photo below). The picture I really love, though, is the one of her writing it. I know it's a publicity picture, but I adore the piles of paper all around her!
4 comments on "Burlesque {and the New Bump-n-Grind}"
  1. I LOVE the writing picture! It takes me back to about 70% of the papers I wrote last minute in grad school. It also reminds me of waking up the morning of my MA exam, surrounded by open books, notebooks, and piles of paper from which I was furiously trying to cram any forgotten bits of the entire history of German literature into my head the night before my oral exam. It was all crazy and hectic, but there was something fun about it too!

  2. Wheee! now we have the definitive link between German literature and the 20th century american stripper novel!

    I think what I love best about that picture (besides all the paper every which way, including on the fireplace) is that it's not super-glamorous. I'm sure that her mussed hair was mussed just so, but it works for me. It captures that chaotic but exhilirating feeling that comes with a big creative project.

  3. It does capture the (in my opinion) best part of working on a creative project, which is that moment where you cease to care about the wadded up paper on the floor (ok, I probably don't care THAT much about it to begin with, but still...) and you don't care anymore whether your idea is good or that you're saying it "right", because you're so caught up in the high of all the ideas pouring out of your head and into your fingertips so fast that your fingers can barely keep up with them.

  4. It looks like a fun book, so it is now on my library list. I like fun, especially when it feels like sleeping is the most exciting and fun thing I do. The clouds are extremely...cloudy. And that is not the way I like my sky, you know?


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