FAQ You! How to get ahead

I have a routine, how can I get ahead in Burlesque?

If you are indeed keen to pursue a fancy in burlesque artistry, cabaret or ‘pinup’ modeling yourself, be prepared to invest a lot of your own time, money and effort in pursuit of a good routine or model portfolio – they can be very expensive hobbies and even more expensive and competitive career paths to take. We are available for consultation and direction on photo-shoots, ensuring the best results are achieved. You can see our founder’s own model portfolio here – defying the norms, she was a magazine cover model, a sought after catwalk model, appeared on billboards at London Fashion Week, hung in the Paul Smith gallery in Tokyo among other accolades – despite being only 5′ 1″ and curvy.

Remember: it is your choice to invest in this personal pursuit and the financial cost of it is your own responsibility – not that of an audience or promoter.

Also, don’t forget that although there is a large and increasing hobbyist circuit, there is also a professional industry and a tiny one at that. Taking up the form does not equate to being a professional entertainer – at least, not without years of hard work, sacrifice and often disappointment first. It is important to respect that burlesque is a working business. Expecting remuneration for any novice pursuit is unrealistic. Having a pen and ideas does not make one a writer. Similarly, having a costume and ideas does not make one an entertainer. It is experience and ability which earns both reputation and wage.

The amateur or ‘hobbyist’ circuit is the best place to start performing as you will need to earn a good reputation through working with peers before larger promoters will start to book you. Take it slowly and learn the etiquette and skills needed backstage, onstage and online. The time will come when you will need to be able to ’sell’ your act too and here you will need excellent photographs and promotional material. Step by step, treading board by board…

Take advice from those who are successful and never be afraid to ask for advice, help or feedback. Why not attend one of the Ministry of Burlesque events and perform in their Battle of Burlesque? This is stage time given to newcomers seeking advice and feedback as well as exposure amidst a bill of seasoned pros.

FAQ You! Resolving stage name disputes

Someone else is using my stage-name! What should I do?

If you are a performer and you find that someone has begun using a name which is the same or very similar to yours, the best thing to do is get a second opinion on the matter.  Don’t wade in to unknown waters  – don’t ride in on a high horse shouting about copyright, theft and the like it’s a theatrical business but no-one likes a drama queen ;p What may sound similar in one mind, might not match in an others. Many performers have needlessly opened up arguments over rhyming couplets or semantic puns and looked foolish in the process. Few performers are in a position where their stage name is recognisable as trademark to the degree that it would stand up under legal scrutiny.

However, having said all that, protecting your identity is important and if need be you should take polite action to resolve the matter. Contacting your name-sake to explain the predicament rather than complaining about it publicly on Facebook etc, is the first step toward a peaceful and dignified resolution. They may be unaware of the problem. They may have been using it longer than you realise. Secondly you can ask if there is another option to consider. It is in everyone’s interest to get along and have unique identities so be prepared to consider some change on your part too. Common sense and an ability to deal in fairness will be required.

Certain names will naturally sound alike and no one can lay claims to ownership of sounds or double-meanings  but it is considered poor etiquette in the least, to ignore the effects of stepping on another’s toes. Aping an identity can be construed as ‘passing off’ which takes a person in to the legal mine fields of trademark infringement. Typically, registered trademarks have weight in these instances whereas unregistered marks often don’t. See the Intellectual Property Office for official guidelines and help on this matter.  Also, if your stage name and persona are not already well known it will be difficult to justify your sole use of the particular name. Rarely will a performer be so established as to warrant legal proceedings over branding issues.

FAQ You! Choosing a stage name

How do I choose a ‘burlesque name’ to perform under?

Choosing a name can be tricky and performers typically go through two or three versions of a name before settling. It’s a good idea to let it grow organically – try something which you feel suits you and then ask others to help tweak it.

Be careful what you pick as certain names will ‘pigeon hole’ you and once your name is established it is not advisable to change it. If there is any possibility that you might like to expand in to other genres, be sure your stage name allows for this.

Make sure your name is not misleading. Potential bookers need to understand what they will get when they book you – certain names will imply you have specialized skills or abilities i.e. ‘Trinny Trapeze’ would imply trapeze skills and ‘Lady Tease’ would imply strip-tease skills, etc. The most memorable names are often puns, alliterative or onomatopoeic, so take your time over it. In the spirit of burlesque, names which are puns or evoke double-entendre are highly appropriate and attractive.

It is also important to avoid choosing a name that could be confused with another already in use. Established performers can be upset by new performers using similar sounding, meaning or even the same name which is confusingly similar. This is understandable and should be avoided. It benefits no-one to have confusion between identities. You may also be infringing on a registered trademark in some cases, which can lead to criminal prosecution in extreme circumstances. To help avoid clashes, do be sure to do your research. Perhaps start with our Performer Directory – the MoB Speakeasy – to ensure that nobody else listed is already using it or a confusingly similar one; also perform a search on the internet of your intended name including variations in spelling and then perhaps also ask on our forums too.

Certain semantic and phonic clashes are inevitable but most can be avoided by not using obvious clichés and common place names and words which are frequently found in the genre’s lexicon. Marketing Tip: Using commonly used names and words would also make it difficult for internet search engines to pick your name out from all the other possible references too.

FAQ You! How do I start performing?

How do I get involved in performing Burlesque?

First of all, do a bit of research to find out what tickles you the most. Discover the variety and history of it all. The online forums host a plethora of magazine articles here which should help, and a short history of burlesque can be found here. Whether you fancy being a performer, muse, photographer, critic, artist, stage manager, costumer, stylist or all round enthusiast, the Ministry of Burlesque can help you get started and provide guidance along the way. Why not come to our acclaimed shows or check our local clubs and scene groups too?

Anyone wishing to join in the fun of the burlesque scene and make new friends should join the Ministry of Burlesque community . The MoB is a community set up to help new-comers get started, enthusiasts to meet and chat about their favourite things and to help professional performers and promoters network with one another. With over 20,000 unique visitors every day, the MoB Forums are the online hub of the burlesque world.

Choose your styles wisely to suit your personality (are you comfortable revealing your derriere or political persuasions to strangers?), body shape (do you feel good styled this way?) and lifestyle (do you have a job or career that might conflict with some styles?) and be sure to be loyal to what you want to do – not simply what others seem to be doing. Once you have some ideas, why not take up tuition  with the us? The MoB offer affordable, professional tuition from experienced and insured instructors who will teach you the essential burlesque basics, presentation skills and various style techniques – as well as specialist skills and promotional methods.


FAQ You! Hiring Talent

Where can I hire professional performers/producers?

Currently, there are only a handful of burlesque performers who are considered by the wider entertainment industry to be ‘professional  artists’ or genuine producers. These people are indeed few and are rare gems often with many imitators – but  there is a glorious ever-growing circuit of hobbyist and amateur performers, many of whom are gifted and extremely creative.  These people will be the stars of tomorrow.

Since modern burlesque is a niche and newly emerged industry it is wise to therefore be wary of people making grandiose claims to experience and industry knowledge. There are very few professional stars and even fewer professional producers and educators in this genre, world wide.

The rise in the genres’ popularity has led to a boom in new first-time performers taking to the stage as well as promoters and agencies looking to cash in, this is natural. Of course the growing popularity of burlesque has been wonderful boost of new life and energy to the genre but in tandem, there is also a bandwagon. With so many newcomers competing for status, opportunity and work, there has been increasing room for exploitation. The people who end up paying for this, are the customers (quite literally).

When choosing whom to work with, consider the following points:

How long have they really been operating? Burlesque is a specialized craft and a niche industry ( I keep saying this I know…). Whether it is an agency, teacher, promoter or a performer stating ‘ten years of business’, this might actually mean nine years and 10 months of operating in the adult industry and a few weeks under a new rebranded ‘burlesque’ image.

Ask for references from reputable clients and seek evidence from past press and media involvement. Have they produced any notable starlets or even stars? Have they produced anything at all beyond a webpage/self-advert?

 You get what you pay for. To perform burlesques well, it takes years of experience, natural aptitude and a professional attitude. To be considered ‘expert’ in anything it is estimated that ten thousand hours of practice must be acquired.  Burlesque is no different and few can make anywhere near this claim. I have 18 years experience as a model, nearly ten years performing in burlesque specifically and now five years of full time research and operation as a producer and agent – yet the term ‘expert’ is still something to strive for!

Those among the small professional set of burlesque artists command their high fees accordingly. Be wary of agencies or performers offering to undercut established entertainers. Decide what you want and then be sure to get it – not a  vague substitute. You can contact us for advice on booking (after all, I am the ‘cat who gets the cream of burlesque’) or visit our production company here.

FAQ You! Finding Teachers

Where can I find reputable teachers?

Taking up lessons from reputable teachers is an excellent way to start out, but do research your options – the person who happens to be most local or inexpensive may not be the best choice.  There is no ’standarisation’ or regulatory body to ensure safety and even basic skill. Be careful in choosing a class to attend as it’s not just you money that counts – it’s your quality of learning, fun, health and safety too. With the rise in popularity of burlesque, more and more people are looking to join in the on-stage fun. This has seen a concomitant increase in people offering to give ‘burlesque lessons’, not all of whom are in a position to honestly do so. MoB are available for consultation and direction and reputable teachers are available through our Coaching services.

Here are some pointers based on community feedback and experience. My hope is that you can learn from others’ mishaps:

The diversity of the genre. Burlesque is a diverse genre involving many skills, styles and should be available to everyone. Any teacher who seems to be selling their particular specialty (i.e. striptease) as burlesque, has misunderstood what they are purporting to teach. How are they going to address characterization? Prop comedy? Making satire accessible? If the title of the class is literally wrong, we can be confident that the content will fall short too.

 The importance of insured, experienced and qualified instructors cannot be emphasized enough. You are likely to be engaging in moderate to upbeat exercise and teachers must be properly trained, insured and knowledgeable about the possibility of injury or strain. Your specific needs and any limitations of movement are important in your learning – and must be considered by any instructor. Also, be wary of anyone who uses any kind of ‘self-confidence coaching’ psychobabble without appropriate certification or experience – they could be doing you more harm than good.

 How experienced are they – really? Make sure your prospective teacher also has adequate experience themselves in the burlesque world. You will want to ask for advice on putting your new skills in to action, and your first steps toward building a good reputation are crucial.

Ask any teacher about their own successful careers as Burlesque performers – i.e. how many years experience have they specifically in this genre? Have they travelled internationally? Whom do they work with? Which reputable agencies can provide corroboration of this? None? Oh dear…

 Burlesque is a craft – not an adjective applied to any random class featuring a feather boa or buzzwords. The importance of having both teaching experience and performing experience are not to be underestimated. How will a teacher provide you with direction and advice if they have none to give?

Do ask for specifics, don’t be shy. Any genuine instructor will be thrilled that you are taking your education seriously enough to ask.

FAQ YOU! What is Burlesque? Really?

Based on the many years of answering popular questions the Ministry of Burlesque has compiled carefully considered answers to those tricky and frequently asked questions of modern burlesque, new performers and the ever curious press.

FAQ such as:

  • What is Burlesque? Really?

‘Burlesque’ has come to mean a number of things (it can be a noun, adjective and verb!) but overall, it is used to apply to something which is  performed in an exaggerated or ‘topsy-turvy’ style, often grotesquely so – with intended provocation.

Traditionally, it is a theatrical genre of musical comedy but it is often misunderstood today and wrongly used as a synonym for other (related) forms such as striptease (which is an art form in it’s own right). So let me share what I have learned…

Firstly, to burlesque something, is to make fun of it – to tease and lampoon it with theatrical flair. The literal definition is ‘to satirise’, ‘make mockery of’ or ‘to send up’. So, in it’s classical theatrical genre (going back hundreds, and arguably thousands of years), it is similar to the Travesty and pantomime as it is based on elaborate caricature and censure. Its  theatrical motifs include wordplay (e.g. punning, alternative lyrics, innuendo), sexually suggestive costuming (especially suggestive of female nudity),  overtones of historical, political and social satire with keen attention to the subversion of gender roles.

But although this ‘classical’ form is perhaps a little antiquated in comparison to what most people think of as ‘burlesque’ today it is indeed still alive and is regularly demonstrated, especially across the British scene and industry (MoB holds this as our particular specialty) and my own acts almost always payed homage this remit with a satirical or subversive gender comment as the base of each piece.

Secondly, it is crucial to appreciate that burlesque was (and still is) all about reinvention and challenge – the reinvention and challenge of societal norms and also the notions and protocols of theatre arts itself.

The form has continually undergone various re-interpretations to make it relevant for it’s audience and true to its legacy it continues to morph and respond  to issues of beauty, body and gender today – some with satire and others less so. From post-modern ideas about how men and women ‘ought’ to look and behave to ‘meta’ analytical drag-within-drag  and on to the less satirical more fashion inspired cabaret pieces often based on beautiful dramatic stripteases (known most for the novelty set pieces and expensive couture costume).

However it manifests burlesque will inspire as it is both beautiful in it’s ugliness and ugly in its presented beauty. It demonstrates that grotesque and glamour are two ends of the same spectrum – where any particular act lies, is in the interpretation of the beholder. This is why burlesque is an art form – it challenges the viewer to examine ‘ideals’ much closer and often with stark bare-bottommed honesty.

So, what we mean in the modern sense of the word, is a wider genre of ‘burlesque’ which  is overall, best described as ’suggestive performance art’. This wider genre encompasses many contrasting styles stemming from its classical satirical roots but also takes influence from 19th century showgirls such as those exiguous ladies of the Moulin Rouge et al. The more popular, modern styles today  involving striptease actually come from a recent 20th century American reworking – where the context of performance was no longer rooted in satirical theatre but adult entertainment. This new form of burlesque is performed with varying degrees of glamour, satire or ’shock’ value according to performer speciality.

The form has a rich history spanning the age of known history and culture. The classical genre has been popular in Britain for centuries and was popularised in the Late Regency and Victorian eras;  it spread to the USA nearly a hundred and fifty years ago in the 1860s but was entirely adapted in to a new form altogether.

This modern burlesque genre comprises of two main forms: the Traditional British Burlesque and the relatively modern American Burlesque Striptease (I have coined and use these terms to differentiate these sub-genres. This is for two reasons – 1) to maintain consistency of expectation in our clients 2) so that new performers realise there is an important satirical legacy to honour.

British Burlesque and American Burlesque are therefore two distinctly different forms, with very different histories but a shared moment in time.

British Burlesque is not American Burlesque or Striptease ‘as performed by Brits’. The British Burlesque act was more a Victorian sensation of women in breeches, dressed as archetypal or famous men making lewd and often controversial speeches and sending up the patriarchy through song and innuendo.

In the American form, the term ‘burlesque’ was used by early 20th century proprietors to describe the comic variety shows in which a striptease act would also perform. Eventually a blend of the comic and the striptease emerged with varying degrees of nudity and adult content. American Burlesque Striptease  is a hybrid form of two different styles – burlesque and striptease. Borrowing from the style of 19th century burlesquers (of the classical  and British tradition), the strippers adopted the gimmicks and comical parodying that characterize this sort of performance.

It should emphasised that the terms ‘burlesque’ and ‘striptease’ are not synonymous nor interchangeable and yet are often confused.  Striptease is an art-form in its own right although it is often used by modern burlesque performers who combine the two genres. Unfortunately there has been a tendency for some to use the word ‘burlesque’ as a handy media-friendly rebrand and buzzword – rather than understanding or upholding the genre itself leading to confusion and a watering down of the genre’s impact.

From performer to performer, you can expect to find a mix of satirical, bawdy, sensual, circus, political, risqué, classical, avant-garde and curiosity style acts. Each performer will employ a personalised interpretation of the term ‘burlesque’ which leads to the great variety of styles within the wider, modern genre. As the art form has undergone various reinterpretations it continues to employ many contrasting skills and is performed by both men and women drawing on different cultural and historical influences.

So… How risqué is Burlesque? Is it the same as Stripping?

In a nutshell, no.  But in saying this, we need to be clear in our semantics. Although a particular burlesque  routine may contain or even be based on striptease, it is generally not regarded as synonymous with stripping itself. It is not an issue of ’sanitising’ strip acts, it’s simply that they are performed for different reasons and effects. (Besides, many burlesque acts are deliberately shocking or challenging in nature – nude or fully clothed). Striptease is also a form in it’s own right and it is unfair to rob it of it’s identity by forcing a buffoon in to the scenario.

To explain why  there is often confusion we need to look at the history.
The term ‘burlesque’ means ‘to satirise’ and actually refers to an ancient theatrical tradition common to many cultures. In the West, this theatrical tradition arguably reached its apogee during the Victorian and Edwardian era and was largely, begun as a middle class entertainment. Although often bawdy and suggestive, it did not involve stripping  – and still doesn’t in it’s traditional form and yes, there are practitioners of this ilk today.


‘Burlesque’ is a classic theatre-form which in it’s true essence, is ‘Spectacular Satire’. Both splendid and thought provoking, burlesque is the home of high-brow musical comedy, ironic iconography, playful punning and bawdy ‘Brit Wit’. It is a sophisticated ancestor of the modern pantomime.  In Great Britain, burlesquing has remained relatively unchanged in 500 years and it’s history is steeped in powerful social change and icons of female empowerment. Among it’s most famous we count Geoffrey Chaucer, Eliza Vestris, J.R Planche, Gilbert & Sullivan, Lydia Thompson, The Western Brothers, Carry On and Monty Python.

Burlesques are traditionally performed by both men and women and are a type of elaborate censure based on social or historical caricatures. In this traditional form, burlesque tends to produce performance concepts that are often full of risqué suggestion, social commentary and bawdy gags. Such titillations were always as intelligent as they were saucy with the ‘tease’ often being one of verbal jest and jocularity.

The confusion over the burlesque content and it’s comparison to the stripping world comes as the form was reinterpreted to be less satirical and more risqué for it’s new American audiences, at the beginning of 20th century. Burlesque as practiced in Britain often relied upon the strict social class divisions of the day, with each class ‘burlesquing’ another. In America’s less class oriented society, the satire was largely dropped in favour of the bawdy bits. The term  ‘burlesque’ was then, some fifty years later used by new proprietors outside of the family-based vaudeville circuit, to describe the more adult-based variety shows in which a striptease act, or scantily-clad chorus line would also perform alongside comics.  Loosely speaking, in early 20th century America, traditional British burlesque was taken out of  ‘theatre land’, stripped of it’s previous identity, led down a back alley and then up some stairs to a ‘gentleman’s club’. Some of the theatrics were retained along with the bawdy humour. Borrowing from the style of 19th century burlesquers (of the classical British tradition), the strippers adopted the gimmicks and comical parodying that characterize this sort of performance. It was here that the term began to pick up its commonly perceived connection with adult entertainment.

So, burlesque in its earlier ‘classical’ sense, although often bawdy, actually had nothing to do with stripping or striptease – until recent days. By adapting to modern phrasing, we can confidently state that there are two forms of burlesque popular today – the traditional British form (often termed by academics as ‘classical burlesque’) and the much newer American burlesque striptease. Of course, as with any forms that share a point in history, you will often find elements from both genres overlapping in the modern burlesque performance.

It is also generally accepted that where striptease does occur in a burlesque performance, the striptease is designed as a transformation of character by costume, meaning that it is contextually relevant to the burlesque narrative. Otherwise, it is not technically a burlesque – it is a striptease. Again, it is worth emphasizing that just as burlesque and striptease are separate art-forms, so strip-tease differs from the styles of stripping that you’d see in adult entertainment venues. At the risk of over-simplifying, although both focus on teasing, the differences lie in intention of outcome and the levels of nudity, where the former rarely ends in actual nudity and the intention is to entertain rather than to sexually arouse.

The styles performed today are often a mix of the older British and the modern American styles. Some do feature striptease, others do not. Each performer has his / her specialty and preference and therefore utilizes their individual skills to deliver varying degrees of humour or risqué intent.

Considering the history and modern transformation of meaning, a 21st century burlesque can now loosely be defined as ‘suggestive performance art’. If you are concerned about the level of suggestiveness when booking an act, simply ask for clarification.


If using, citing or referencing please credit ‘K. L. Allan, Ministry of Burlesque’ and cite www.kittie.me.uk


Traditional British Burlesque: Funny HaHa or Funny Peculiar?

17/10/08 British Burlesque: Funny HaHa or Funny Peculiar
or, Tickle My Fancy !  –  A Guide To ‘Traditional British’ Burlesque

Amidst the renaissance of the showgirl-striptease and all that glitters, the art of traditional burlesque theatre is in danger of becoming totally misunderstood –  removed from it’s own genre by the blinding sequins and diamante….. This article is an attempt to draw attention away (just for a moment) from the fleeting frenzy of all things frilly, unravel the misconceptions and cast a spotlight upon the magnificence of what traditional burlesquing really was – and still is.

Firstly, it must be understood that there is a problem with the ‘b word’ itself. It can be an adjective, a verb and a noun – a name for many faces. The meaning is diverse and it morphs according to where you are in the world, the context in which you happen across it and the angle from which you glimpse it.

Fundamentally, to burlesque literally means to make fun of, send up or satirise. The etymology of the word comes from old Italian ‘burla’ meaning ‘joke’, and the French ‘esque’ meaning ‘in the style of’. So to burlesque something is to do so in a joking style.  The literal meaning of burlesque can be found in many lexicons – “The trial was a burlesque of justice” and so on.

Secondly, burlesque has become a genre with many styles within it – and many forms associated with it.

Just as music can be represented by many styles  (e.g. baroque, electro-synth, classical, hip-hop or barber-shop…), so to can burlesque. Another perhaps more close example would be the artform of circus where performers could be aerialists, clowns or animal trainers…).  A third example could be dance (ballet, street, Thai finger dance…).  So to can burlesque can be represented by a myriad of contrasting specialisms – but no ‘one’ specialisms is in itself  a definition of ‘burlesque’. This is because burlesque is an intention.

But representative specialisms – are underpinned by the defining caveat of their genre.

For example, striptease is a form in it’s own right with many different styles and, certain styles of striptease have recently (20th century) become an identifiable part of the wider burlesque genre. However, burlesque remains defined by burlesque, not by the associated use of striptease, circus, dance, music or any other form.

As an entertainment genre today, the ‘b word’ is applied and often misapplied to many different performance styles. This is because the word is undergoing change and adaption according to current popular trends – but as with any trend, there is bandwagon which must be let to pass. For too many, the word ‘burlesque’ is merely a media buzz word or in some instances,  a marketing gimmick employed to boost reputation or appeal of some failing tangential product. Either scenario, does no justice to the rich history, the diversity of styles across eras and oceans, the importance of it’s stars nor the significance of it’s content – then or now – in any of burlesque’s lavishly provocative forms.

Whichever style of ‘burlesque’ you follow or specialise in you will know it not necessarily by it’s name – but by it’s effect. It will absolutely seduce you. But for this essay, I am taking a more peculiar glance at the world of the original theatrical form – the  ‘classical burlesque’.

What is Classical Burlesque? What is it not?
I’ve often heard performers tag their heroines or even their own style as ‘classical’ – in referring to their homage to early-mid 20th century American styles. But this is misleading if one is to consider that burlesque did not begin in the 20th century (as many mistakenly believe). It also did not begin in America. This American 20th century form, is actually a reinterpreted British Victorian export and to boot, the Victorian form was a thousand years or so away from being classically anything, quite the opposite –  so the use of the word ‘classical’ is specious at best.

The ‘classical’ aspect highlights the genre’s roots in the classics. The earliest known written burlesque plays are by Aristophanes dating round 400 BC (the term ‘burlesque’ is applied in academic retrospect of course (as Aristophanes would have been speaking ancient greek and not 19th century European jargon). This philosopher-comic was a celebrity satirist of his day, sending up the gods, the myths and the people of his lifetime. His comedies and those inspired by his work have endured. They are in fact, still played out today by niche classical companies, but they were in mainstream popular theatres just as recently as the 19th century.

Over the millennia, this form migrated across the globe and advanced according to different social and cultural demands and this form of sending up the politics and societal norms arguably reached it’s apogee during the 19th century – where it also in sent up the ‘classical’ arts themselves, e.g. drama, ballet and opera.  Here is it enjoyed high production values, the influence of then modern trends and contemporary jokes – it took on the role of sending up then modern Britain and all her whims and fancies with women in the lead roles, often in drag and mocking the patriarchy.  Again the resulting endurance and influence in popular culture (both here and abroad) have been as rich and puissant as Victoria’s Empire itself.

So, in long standing theatrical terms, ‘burlesque’ is a form of satirical comedy which largely developed out of social and political debate drawing influence from popular entertainments of it’s day – and it completely revolutionised the very notions and protocols of theatre, turning them on their bonneted noggins.

Victorian or ‘traditional British burlesque’

So how to sum it up… a 19th century burlesque was perhaps best described as a send up of a known literary, historical or artistic work. It was a kind of ‘high brow pantomime’. Well perhaps not high brow but certainly not the low brow many assume – patrons needed to familiar with the original classics, the plays and the operas in order to get the joke of the burlesque version. Today, the underpinning of send-up and satire is just a relevant where women continue to display themselves in a way that challenges the accepted norm or expectation of society.

Burlesques are devised, planned and written to affect change in opinion or provoke a reaction. They are performed to tease – to make fun of some idea or notion whilst the costuming and casting of the performers are also notoriously subversive and often risqué.

The form was always known simply as ‘burlesque’ (or occasionally ‘burletta’ when performed in shorter sketches) but given the current popular use of the term in reference to 20th century American burlesque, striptease, exotic dance and pinups, it makes sense to keep with ‘traditional (British) burlesque’ – to save confusion with this more recent stylistic attribution.

It is subject to many modern myths, often of marketing. Although bawdy, it does not by it’s nature, involve stripping. The lexical crossover and confusion between this form and the modern striptease style, has come through an early 20th century marketing strategy where the term was used by the American adult industry and then, increasingly glamorised over time. As a result, a new style of ‘burlesque’ has now certainly emerged in it’s own right, one which takes the form of elaborately costumed, choreographed showgirls who perform magnificent striptease acts – and many often do so without the defining satirical attributes of the classical burlesque itself. In this instance, these acts are in fact striptease, a form on it’s own right. but found under the general genre of burlesque.  The American burlesque acts which do exemplify burlesque theatre tend to be those who portray exaggerated stereotypes of gender ideals (often exaggerated sexualised women) and often with a humorous context or narrative in which they lose their attire.

Largely unchanged in 250 years, the British theatre tradition of burlesquing exemplifies the very essence of what makes British humour so peculiar to Brits. We laugh best when we are ‘not supposed to’. So what is it about the British sense of humour that makes burlesque such a peculiarity? We rib, jest, pun and make fun given any opportunity. We are a nation of self-effacers and eye pokers with a repressed penchant for guilty pleasures.  It therefore comes as no surprise that we just love to dress up, act out and get naughty – and the bigger the taboo, the bigger the laugh. British humour has always been bawdy and burlesque was certainly no different – in fact it seized the bawdy bull by the hornies.

To fully appreciate the importance and significance of classical burlesquing in British entertainment, and why it is now so misunderstood (and overlooked)  we must thoroughly examine it’s roots, it’s history and it’s misadventures in language and time. So putting on our retrospectacles (not the rose tinted variety) and looking back, the story of classical burlesque in Britain is actually one of social commentary, taboo breaking and enterprising female empowerment.

Myths and Misadventure
British burlesquing has a rich and impressive history spanning 500 years of poetry, literature, theatre (the focus of this essay) and  now cabaret too but it is often subject to selective or even ‘revised’ histories. We can count Chaucer, J.R. Planché, Eliza Vestris, H.J Byron, Gilbert & Sullivan, Lydia Thompson and even Monty Python in it’s lineage. Many of the misconceptions about burlesque in general, come from a combination of retrospective prejudice, selective memoirs, PR releases over journalism and sadly, blatant false advertising.

Low Brow: Many assertions state that burlesque was ‘low brow’ or aimed at ‘low-brow’ audiences. But this is an odd conclusion given that burlesques were ‘spoofs’ of known operas and literary works, meaning that to get the jokes, the burlesque audiences would have had to be au fait with the originals. Furthermore, the evidence shows that burlesques of 18th and early 19th centuries were written by and performed for Middle Class audiences. Later, with the advancement of working class Music Halls, burlesques were performed there too.  It is often assumed that the working class audiences would not have understood anything beyond the low brow – and therefore the form itself must have aimed ‘low’.

Classical burlesque theatre was actually born of middle class writers, satirists, journalists and entrepreneurs. Having always been a popular culture entertainment (it never was ‘underground’ or ‘alternative’),  the form did not necessarily contain anything of an ‘adult-only’ nature, although it was certainly frisky and full of double-entendre.

It was also performed by men and women alike and was considered witty, intellectual and ‘edgy’ enjoying support from top Oxford scholars and critics. It was a subversive, creative and boundary breaking performance style – and it still is.

Sex/Adult Industry: The links between the concept of ‘burlesque’ and the sex/adult industry, is fairly recent  – i.e. in the past 100 years – and is a contentious issue for some. It also only applies to the American reinterpretation – and has never been linked to classical burlesque. The general burlesque term became associated with sex, through it’s application to American strip shows in the early 20th century which bloomed during the Depression and lasted until the 1960s.  This short time span is often (perhaps ironically) claimed as the ‘Golden Era’ but this assignation also only applies to the new American burlesque style that was created in this time.

Sadly, it appears that much of the glamorous image of this era is actually only visible through rose-tinted retro-spectacles. Evidence suggests that many of the women performing in these shows had no alternatives, were illterate, in poverty with some further involved in drugs and vice with the clubs themselves being run by crime syndicates. Few had the ultra glamorous lifestyle we have come to think of in association with these iconic dancers such as Gypsy Rose Lee. This new style of ‘adult only’ burlesque, is a distinct style of it’s own and is probably best described as hybrid form of stripping and burlesque – i.e. ‘burlesque-striptease’ with striptease remaining a craft in it’s own right too.

Female Empowerment: According to cultural reinterpretation and continental drifts, current trends would have you believe that burlesque is about ‘female empowerment through sexual confidence’ – quite specifically. This assertion may indeed be one of celebration and a wonderful thing in itself, but it certainly detracts from the actual point of classical burlesque. When burlesquing, a person is empowered – to express an idea. Ironically, classical burlesque with some historical peculiarity, seems to have been an industry run by comediennes – where the women, quite literally wore the trousers – as will be shortly discussed.

British Burlesque – A Classical Tradition or a Traditional Classic?
As has been discussed, in terms of what we mean by the British tradition of ‘classical burlesque theatre’, we are talking about a form which evolved out of a soupy cocktail of social politics, entrepreneurialism and a national obsession with puns where British burlesquing enjoyed it’s ‘golden era’ in the 19th century where no expense was spared on spectacle.

Traditionally, a burlesque show was a cheeky satire of a known opera, play or historical event. It had a plot, a cast, a witty musical score, detailed historically accurate costumes, elaborate sets, clever dialogue – and a sharp point to it all. In a country where Italian operas and theatre plays were often a privilege for the few, it’s not hard to see why the Italian word for ‘mockery’ would at this time become an English turn of phrase in theatre and a verb meaning to ‘to mock (Italian opera)’.

Bored of the sober-serious nature of operas, writers developed laugh-out-loud spoofs  packed full of political puns and social shtick. So here, the ‘burlesque theatre’ was christened – in name and personality, subverting the need for respect and making a mockery of it’s deeply established roots. The audible yawns became roars of laughter. Burlesque was thus, a wayward offspring cut from the same cloth as it’s classical parents; but instead of following suit (pun intended), it turned on it’s heel and presented a well bred, delicately gloved middle finger to it’s critics and audiences alike.

It’s power to make bold political, religious and social commentary was also not overlooked. Considering that laughter is a reaction – not an emotion as many assume – we can appreciate that humour has always allowed us to explore even the most taboo of subjects. Therefore, the power to burlesque something is the power to have it frankly discussed – in public and as a spectacle. Wrapped in costume and characterised by theatre, a taboo is thus sugar-coated. It is a seductively provoking idea – often disregarding of political correctness and coupled with musical ingenuity. All this, sprinkled with the incessant use of the immortal ‘pun’ makes up the backbone of the traditional British (or classical) burlesque.

The act of burlesquing is an act entirely based on caricature-style-characterisation, lampooning society trends and issues. Through it’s own history on stage, burlesque theatre has already transcended demographics and poked fun at everything and everyone with equal fervour.

Time Line
But where did it all begin? And where did it’s lexical misadventure begin? No doubt, for arguments sake, burlesquing originally began when the first man (probably a woman really) decided to take the pee-pee out of his cave-neighbour’s haircut by fashioning a dead stoat on his head and mincing around for the amusement of others, but flippant speculation aside, the British form has an exceptionally vast history which has transcended continents and centuries of cultural difference. See here for a more comprehensive History of Burlesque.
The form was first notably set to lewd tones on the comedy stages of Athens in 400 BC by Aristophanes and later refined through the poetry of Hipponax of Ephesus in 6th Century – and no doubt through many unsung others peculiar to their own loci and eras of influence. In fact Empress Theodora, a 6th Century Byzantine burlesque comedienne turned Empress of the Empire and later canonised as a Saint, is another who could be said to have left her mark on burlesque history. She is credited as the ‘first feminist’ for her trouble. One could even argue that some religious doctrines are in fact burlesques of others. Besides, who ever said that God didn’t have a sense of dry irony – perhaps one day a cult of Ironic Fundamentalism will sweep the globe?

Similarly as the Greeks but only after we took the time to start quipping, in Britain our fixation with poetic burlesquing can be seen in the 14th century verse and prose ‘The Canterbury Tales’ by Geoffrey Chaucer. In further understanding Britain’s bawdy burlesque backdrop, we need to examine where it began to take shape as a new theatrical genre in it’s own right. The form took shape in the 18th century through caricaturists, satirists and the ‘burletta’ playwrights O’Hara and O’Keefe. The form gained popularity and distinct style in the 19th century through elaborate stage craft and high production values and as a result, it’s punchy attitude has endured in our arts, media and tabloid headlines ever since.

It was easily the late 18th and early 19th century burlesques of the great operas (i.e. Moncreiff’s ‘Giovanni in London’ – a burlesque of ‘Don Giovanni’) that started a cultural revolution of all singing and dancing, slapstick, gender-bending, toe-tapping Travesties. It may surprise many female empowerment protagonists to learn that in burlesque, the real unsung heroes and heroines were undoubtedly found backstage as well as on stage. The pioneers of the old satirical form are truly inspirational. For example, in 1817, opera singer Eliza Vestris became arguably, the first burlesque star when she played Don Giovanni in Moncreiff’s famous burlesque. In 1831 Eliza also became the first woman to control her own theatre – one which she dedicated to burlesque (The Olympic Theatre, Wych Street). In her employ, Eliza commissioned the best. She commissioned Mr. James Robinson Planché (a satirical writer for Punch magazine) to write burlesques for her theatre. Planché also pioneered the art of historical accuracy in costuming in British theatre and his wife too, went on to write shows for Eliza’s theatre.

Subverting the gender-roles and norms even further Madame Vestris continued to tread the boards herself, dressed as a ‘principal boy’ clad in figure-hugging ankle worthy breeches. Her legs are reputed to have inspired many poems and plaster replicas that gentleman could keep at home, although the casts stopped (for decency’s sake) ‘just above the knee’. So here we have Eliza – a star, a male impersonator, an entrepreneur, a producer, a manager and a woman. Now that’s ‘girl power’. Her legacy as a celebrity and cult beauty figure is even noted in the essays and memoirs of the notorious mid nineteenth century ‘faux Spanish dancer’ seductress-turned-Countess Lola Montez, who advises women of Vestris’ personal secrets to a beautiful complexion.

The early 19th century works (i.e. Vestris and Planché’s ‘Olympic Revels’ and his ‘Baron Factotum – The Great Grand Lord Everything’) were also the inspiration behind much of the subsequent work of Gilbert and Sullivan and their operettas. Burlesque therefore, is often regarded as an ancestor of musical theatre itself. Gilbert and Sullivan were practical jokers and damnable proud of their own burlesquing. For example, in ‘Iolanthe’, Queen Victoria is cheekily portrayed as the Queen of Fairies chasing after her magical lover (John Brown).

In the 1860s, British burlesque star, Lydia Thompson took burlesque to the USA and landed in favour with the wealthy New York set – those equivalent to the British middle class. Having exhausted her stardom in Britain (and having tired of the European continent), she had set sail for the USA with an all girl troupe known as the ‘British Blondes’. Legend has it, however, that none of these women were actually blond and so became the first peroxide blondes. Lydia and co adapted the jokes for American trends and enjoyed rave success with their shows including their Greek style burlesque of ‘Ixion’ in which, like their contemporaries back home, they ‘quite incidentally’ displayed their shapely curves by cross dressing in scanty boyish attire.

As the first to successfully introduce burlesque to America (many including Vestris had tried with disastrous effect), Lydia and co were intrepid adventurers, but their form was short lived. As is the case with most British comedy exports, the satire was largely lost in translation and here the genre developed a rather wayward and more provocative sister genre.

Looking back at the British history, it’s also important to point out that although a showbiz star and a trailblazer in many respects, Lydia eventually came back to the UK penniless and died a pauper in 1908. She now lies, 100 years on in a forgotten, unmarked grave in Kensal Green, London. Her ruinous end also has remarkable parallels with those before her including Vestris and Montez.

During the mid 19th Century, entertainment in Britain was becoming more accessible to people of the poorer social classes and it appeared in the form of the ‘free and easy’ – or ‘music rooms’. These rooms were where pub patrons could each take a ‘turn’ and entertain one another after a few drinks. In order to capitalise on the popularity of this new social escapism and to circumnavigate the licensing laws, proprietors designed and commissioned purpose built buildings for the drinking masses of the working classes – The Music Halls. These halls provided everything – affordable booze, orchestra and a variety show (with one notorious Hall in Glasgow stretching the limits of science by also cramming in a wax-works, a freak-show and an exotic zoo, no less! This is the Britannia Panopticon).

In these new establishments, the burlesque acts found a new source of work and their craft evolved to fit the variety bills of the Music Halls as well as the theatre shows. Instead of full length stage shows, the acts became akin to short characterised sketches and ‘turns’ with each designed to subvert the establishment, cause breeches of the peace (pun intended) and to send up the toffs. Much to the applause of their new socially repressed audiences.

Of course, where there is a party there must be a pooper. The more hilarity the acts provoked, the more upset the moral authorities became.  Anything so arousing or titillating was deemed improper – especially when coupled with a cross-dressing cast of women in tights. Declaring acts as “the very suburbs of hell itself” the self appointed ‘Vigilance Society’ who, in fear of public moral health, sought to shut down the Music Halls. But, despite their efforts, the entertainer’s power to influence ensured the place of burlesque and bawdy variety in the next century where another trailblazer took a leap forward in social history.

Here is where Edwardian favourite, Vesta Tilley (another ‘boy’ impersonator), made another first – she went on to perform by Royal Command in 1912. Famous for her songs, her attitude and her artistic credibility where she actually padded her curves to appear more manly in order to achieve believable male characters, Vesta has remained a symbol of female independence ever since.

Moving beyond the musical halls and theatre, British burlesque was still going from strength to strength in the early 20th century. From the 1920s to 1950s, the Western Brothers entertained as mock ‘cads’ and aristocratic ‘silly asses’ to huge appeal. They were a lyrically sophisticated burlesque duo who specifically lampooned the upper classes. They were so successful that by 1937 they were BBC Radio stars and in 1953, they were in fact the faces used to ‘usher in the era of television’. Ironically, it was TV that killed their career.

The decline of burlesque in Britian is a curious story. The physical theatrical form played victim to the same events as all other kinds of live entertainment. At the dawn of WWI and then WWII, many of the halls and theatres closed with many being requisitioned for home-front purposes and were never re-opened. At the same time, the invention of and rise in popularity of early cinema, saw preference for the new comfortable and inexpensive movie theatres over the cramped halls and bills of the Music Halls. Gradually, the remaining halls closed.

However, the actual death of burlesque’ is merely a macabre myth. It didn’t depart, but it did channel a new medium (pun intended). It lived on and still lives today. Looking at British entertainment, we can see that burlesque has always been at the forefront of cutting edge comedy and how it easily adapted to accommodate the changing times and new mediums of show-business – i.e. film and television.

For over fifty years now, the TV sketch show has often been host to burlesques. When the variety theatres closed, we started tuning in to comedy shows like ‘Morecambe and Wise’ (who rather fittingly, perform a burlesque of ‘stripping’ in their breakfast sketch, performed to David Rose’s ‘The Stripper’!).

Archetypal British comedy films are based on burlesque principals. Think ‘Carry On’. Think ‘Monty Python’. They are caricature based send ups full of puns, silly songs, innuendo and exiguous costumes which ‘right on cue’ would burst off setting us up for well timed bawdy gags, knob jokes and bosoms a plenty.
In fact, according to numerous independent polls, Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’ has been voted the funniest film ever made. This is quite a finding because it proves the endurance of the burlesque form.  This film is arguably the pinnacle of Western culture burlesque – it is a bawdy satire of the life of Jesus Christ.  Thanks to Eric Idle, it even comes complete with it’s own iconic, ironic theme song – and no doubt holy ring tone now too.

The acts are too numerous to mention but 1980s comedienne, Pamela Stephenson surely deserves a mention for her celebrity pop spoofs. All be it with less of a musical focus than the classical tradition, our televisions are bursting with this humour. Most recently we can see the craft of burlesquing in the award winning antics of master character actor, Sasha Baron-Cohen as ‘Ali G’ and ‘Borat’. Think too of comedy duo Mitchell and Webb’s inimitable spoof characters and the impressionist and lyrical comedian, Peter Serafinowicz.  Every sketch in Little Britain is an elaborate caricature, satire-based send up of some aspect of Modern Britain.

In each case the performers are, like their forerunners, invoking satire, parody and humour and using the devices of costume, caricature, wordplay and music according to their styles of delivery.

Beyond the Breeches of Time
Since it’s not-so humble beginnings in British theatre, the form has been subject to much cultural reinterpretation in different countries, across centuries and continents but yet, it still permeates our culture today as it always has done.
In addition to those few classical burlesque performers today who perform across the live cabaret, burlesque-striptease and comedy circuits, we have more and more west-end theatre also taking stock of both the classic and reinterpreted burlesque forms. True to it’s roots, the new musical ‘Spamalot’ (based on Monty Python’s ‘Holy Grail’) rightly declares itself ‘a buoyant burlesque of musical cliché’.  And so the theatrical tradition clearly lives on in the modern era of television.

The form is alive and well but it is also now perhaps experiencing a ‘circle of life’ moment. The exportation of burlesquing to America in the 1860s meant that it was to be re-interpreted and eventually brought back over as new form – and it has. We must be careful to celebrate but not confuse the two.
In stating that one is a Traditional British or Classical Burlesque performer, one is implying that she or he is torch bearer for the ‘Power of Bygone Breeches’ – a specific craft with an important past. As with every generation, the form is undergoing yet further advances in both medium and influence – from multi-cultural material to internet networking and ideas sharing – and so 21st century burlesque has more power than ever.

So, is Burlesque Funny Ha Ha or Funny Peculiar? I’d wager it’s both. It’s funny by it’s very action, it has peculiar cultural variances but most importantly, it is also peculiar to each and every one of us – in our own funny ways.

If using, citing or referencing please credit ‘Kirsty Lucinda Allan, Ministry of Burlesque’.