Burly History Lesson with Lady Lou

monique aislabie

Here is a brief History of Burlesque….

In the 18th century the word ‘Burlesque’ was not associated with striptease.  Instead it was a form of humorous and exaggerated musical theatre, often in a daring style that poked fun of the politicians and celebrities of that time.

During the 1860s local theaters were in fierce competition with each other to grab the audiences attention and create a scandal.  This was also a time when women went to great lengths to hide their physical form beneath bustles, hoops and frills.  So the idea of young ladies appearing onstage in tights was a powerful challenge and bound to create the most sensational scandal of all.  Lydia Thompson mastered the first onstage tease.  She was an ambitious music-hall darling who created a burlesque troupe called “The British Blondes”. They seduced and teased the audience with a quick glimpse of their tights, a wink of the eye and other sweet and subtle sexual suggestions. And as planned her audience was shocked and outraged – so they bought tickets galore and her theatre was talked about all over the world.

In 1868 Lydia Thompson took The British Blondes to test the American market.  Again their teasing created confusion, chaos, controversy and filled theaters.  But it didn’t take long until conservative politicians decided the people were having too much fun with this scandalous behaviour.  So they passed a law against this kind  of  “indecent form of entertainment”, and forced theaters to clean up their acts.

These laws pushed Burlesque into the underground. Which meant Burlesque took on a new thrilling and dangerous persona.  The more popular this illegal underground scene became, the more the costume pieces fell of the girls and onto the stage.  You can imagine the scene amongst the smoky downtown speakeasy clubs and theaters of Manhattan and Brooklyn.  People from high society mixed with the working class as they excitedly watch these rebellious women defy the law to perform the seductive dance of Burlesque, this must have been thrilling!

It was the famous Minsky brothers who took Burlesque out of the back rooms and put it back onstage.  But the performers had to walk a fine line between teasing (which was legal) and stripping (which was illegal).  Going too far could land them in jail for corrupting public morals. Legend has it that they placed a switch at the front ticket box.  If they saw any police coming in for inspection they would flick the switch and a light would flash backstage as a warning signal.  The cast immediately switched their act to “the Boston Version” which was code for no nudity. These restrictions meant the girls had to come up with creative and innovative ways to reveal parts of their bodies while other parts remained hidden but still gave the illusion of being naked (which is in fact the ultimate tease).  If pasties covered the nipples and they wore a nude colored g-string they could argue to the authorities that they were not naked.  When a Burlesque performer was unfortunate enough to get arrested their lawyer would sometimes stand in court with the evidence (pasties and g-string) in hand and depending on how the Judge “favored” Burlesque dancers maybe she would get released without a fine.

Nowadays even though we don’t have to dodge the law in order to perform Burlesque we have the reputation for being the little misfit sister of Cabaret, we don’t follow the rules, and there are no formulas or qualifications.  Burlesque is open to artists and amateurs of various backgrounds, talents, body shapes, and points of view.  The ones who survive in this world are the performers who are passionate and creative about what he or she does and can put on a damn good show!  It is the variety of freaks, femme fatales, glamour girls, and geeks that come together to make the glittering colorful kaleidoscope of beauty through the eyes of Burlesque.