Let Me Strip It Down for You

I finally managed to have a discussion with my mother that I’d long been dreading. Somehow, I talked to her about getting on stage and taking my clothes off in front of a room full of strangers. The talk went much better than expected. By the end of it, she was even enthusiastic.

So what was this stripped down endeavor that I was so anxious for my mom to see? Darling, it’s burlesque!

Ah, burlesque. That titillating stage show that harkens back to a simpler time when a woman slowly peeling off an elbow-length glove was considered erotic. Today’s burlesque shows are a mix of dance, comedy, and striptease. Some incorporate political or satirical messages, and some are just an excuse for girls to wear glittery costumes (and there is NO shame if that’s your motivation!)

Some debate if burlesque is or isn’t “stripping.” I personally don’t have a problem when people identify it as such; after all, burlesque is literally the art of the striptease. But it’s important to understand the motivations behind the neo-burlesque movement (today’s public burlesque shows) and what a woman is and is not doing when she’s on that stage.

(Disclaimer—I don’t claim to speak for all burlesque dancers. Everyone’s motivations are their own, and I can only share my own experiences.)

First of all,  burlesque performers don’t get fully nude. That’s the point—it’s a “tease.” Some might argue that with free porn literally at everyone’s fingertips via a Smartphone, it makes no sense for a strip show to not offer the full Monty (so to speak). If that’s your feeling, you are completely missing the point. Burlesque is about the journey, not the destination!

I doubt there is a single burlesque performer who gets on stage today and thinks she is thrilling the audience by removing a glove or a stocking. It’s how she conducts that removal that makes it so interesting, and that’s where a simple striptease becomes an art form.

(Another disclaimer—I’m using the pronoun “she” exclusively on purpose. While there are “boylesque” shows and some troupes that include male acts, burlesque shows overwhelmingly feature female performers. Examining the art from a Trans or genderless point of view would be a fascinating discussion, but it’s not my experience and not something I feel I have enough knowledge about to comment on.)

I found burlesque when I was looking for something to satisfy my dancing needs after college, as it’s shockingly hard to find adult dance studios in my largely rural area. (Apparently it’s prim and proper ballet or naughty burlesque—You get no middle ground around here!) I think that’s common—many women come to burlesque with either a dance or theater background, looking for a creative outlet, and this combines dance, acting (somewhat), musicianship, fashion design and aesthetics all in one glittery ball!

But many women also come to burlesque when they have something to say, even if they don’t realize it at first.

A large part of a burlesque performance, in fact the overarching idea that allows a woman to get up on that stage, is the idea that she has permission to do so. Burlesque removes the taboo surrounding stripping—it’s not something done in a dark, seedy bar that reeks of stale beer and depression. Burlesque is in your face (sometimes literally) and it’s a celebration of women—all shapes, sizes, ages, and colors.

By getting up on that stage, a woman is empowering herself and the audience to celebrate sexiness. A typical strip club performance is done by a female for a male audience—she is an object presented for his enjoyment. Burlesque turns that concept on its head and smacks it in the ass on the way by.

And here’s the crux of it—modern burlesque is feminist as fuck.

Holding that idea up above all the rest is ultimately how I got my mom on board with my new hobby. I’ve been involved with burlesque for a few years now; I started out by taking cabaret classes, fell in love with the movement and the honest sexiness of it all and ended up performing in my first show as a student within a month. As soon as a spot opened up on the performance troupe I jumped at the chance to audition and I’ve never looked back!

I showed my mom video of a few routines and the resulting gasps and admonishments of “Samantha!!” were enough to convince me that this was something my mother was best left out of. And yet...the more I got into burlesque, the prouder I became of what I was doing and the more I felt compelled to share it with one of the most important women in my life.

Two things ultimately led me to having an honest, sit-down conversation with my mother about what burlesque is and why I do it: the election of Trump and the defunding of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland in my home state of Iowa.

I began by talking to her about an upcoming show that I wanted her to attend, and when her inevitable hesitancy kicked in I just changed the topic. I brought up our darling President, as I know in that regard my mother and I share the exact same sentiment. As predicted, that set her indignation meter off the charts, so I let her rant for a bit. She finally touched on the topic I was hoping she would—the current administration’s continued efforts to legislate a woman’s body, capped off with a particularly fine point here in Iowa because of the attempts at new restrictions on abortion rights and the continual attempts to defund Planned Parenthood.

I waited until she was really worked up and then said, “Let me stop you right there. Everything you’re saying is exactly why I do burlesque. It’s my way of protesting these things. I’m doing it for myself, and when I get up there and take my top off, it’s MY choice. No MAN is telling me what I can or can’t do with my body. It’s a big Fuck You, if you will.”

Dead silence for about 15 seconds.... Then my mom said, “Alright. More power to you girl. I’ll come to this with an open mind.”

It was a sweet, sweet victory for me and furthers how I feel about burlesque in general—it’s an art form that requires an open mind and can reveal the most honest and liberated expressions for both the performer and the audience.

That’s MY journey, my reason for burlesque. I started as an excuse to exercise my dance passions and stayed because I was so taken with the fearlessness of all the badass women I get to be around. But ask 10 different women why they do burlesque and you’ll hear 10 different reasons. Being able to make this art form truly your own is one of the best parts about it, in my opinion.

The one thread that runs throughout the entire community, however, is feminism. Whether a woman is looking to straight up smash the patriarchy, or is trying to find out more about herself, overcome past traumas, celebrate a newfound love of her body, maybe FIND a love of her body and it’s capabilities…whatever the exact reason, I maintain that modern burlesque is inextricably tied to feminism. I’d like to explore these ideas in more detail, so stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of this series, where we’ll take a brief look at the history of burlesque and how it became a pillar of feminism (for it wasn’t always) and a deeper dive into why exactly burlesque is the ultimate feminist expression (including a refutation of those who say it’s the exact opposite!)

Want to learn more about burlesque? Read Part II of this series in "Exploiting Fantasy."