Real Burlesque Is So Much Sexier Than the Movie
The bawdy true history of burlesque.
What's missing from the new movie Burlesque is, to put it bluntly, the sex. Real-deal burlesque—whether it was in Vaudeville or at the Moulin Rouge, in the gentleman's clubs of the '50s and '60s, or, more recently, onstage at the Slipper Room, the Velvet Hammer Burlesque, or the Va Va Voom Room—has always been about the raunchy, the dirty, and, when it's really good, the wild excess of erotic imagination. Rest assured, you'll find none of that in the new Cher movie. Instead, we've got Ali, a pure-hearted country girl with a great set of pipes played by Christina Aguilera, who takes a journey to Hollywood that you'd have to have died a century ago not to know by heart.
In the movie version, we have the big dreams, the long bus ride, the want ads, and the first glimpse of the stars on Hollywood Boulevard. And then there's the club, whose "burlesque" acts open up a new world to our pretty bumpkin. It's a little difficult to understand exactly what it is that Ali falls so hard for in the first scenes, where she gazes in awe at the dancing girls on stage. Is it the jazz hands? The Bob Fosse-style dance numbers that bear so little resemblance to actual burlesque? Or has she just never seen a pair of lacy underpants before? Whatever it is, it hits Ali like a ton of bricks, and she's forever sworn to pursuing a life as a burlesque dancer. She succeeds, of course, and soon enough, the movie becomes a series of Christina Aguilera music videos, with the occasional nod to something that might resemble actual burlesque.
Which is too bad, since lately, actual burlesque has become a huge cultural trend, with numerous books and documentaries coming out, including New Burlesque, Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind, Burlesque: From Gaslight to Spotlight, and The Velvet Hammer Burlesque. In some ways burlesque fits the modern moment: It's inherently spoof and parody, sharing an attitude with so much of late-night television. But its appeal also lies in the way that it is opposite from the clean technological lives we lead. Dirty Martini is one of the stars of what's now known as the neo-burlesque movement. As she puts it, people are "fed up with the lack of glamour in the modern world."
Burlesque has changed a lot over the years. When Martini found collections of old burlesque film reels in the cult section of Kim's Video in the early '90s, she was looking to bring old burlesque to this century of feminist empowerment. "It's this great outlet, to get dressed up in glamorous costumes, and go crazy and do a floorshow. Burlesque opens up the possibility that every woman can put on a show, every woman can feel great about how she looks."
Martini's focus on the possibilities for women are built into the history of burlesque. In his 1995 book, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture, Robert G. Allen writes that burlesque "forever changed the role of the woman on the American stage and later influenced her role on the screen. … The very sight of a female body not covered by the accepted costume of bourgeois respectability forcefully if playfully called attention to the entire question of the 'place' of woman in American society."
Photograph of burlesque performers by Steffen Kugler/Getty Images.