The stage was small and the lights were red, but the Victorian velvet couches were filled with people of the most average variety. After all, it was a theater, not a strip club. Between the young waitress sitting on the couch beside me to take drink order and giving her number in case we wanted reservations for later, I asked my companion, “What are the rules about nudity?” He merely looked confused at the mention of rules in such a sexy, friendly, and elegant space. Burlesque shows posses an ambiguity that shimmies a tightrope between class and camp, between striptease and vaudeville, between theater and sex.
The heart of Burlesque is sex. You can’t take it out of a Burlesque performance, but it can’t cross theatrical limits (legally at least). Obscenity and vulgarity are avoided, as the point is to spoof and (to a limited extent) titillate, not to offend. Think of Bettie Page’s song and dance number. She has a mischievous smile as she shakes her hips and shoulders slowly and stretches her legs. It is clearly a show of the female form rather than dancing expertise. Her exaggerated slow movements are a spoof of a dance, and turning her back to the audience to shake her butt is the punch line. Burlesque airs out sex, and has from its beginning been a place to relax but not destroy society’s moral standards.
Naked or Nude?
Strip clubs are legally bound that the strippers wear a certain amount of clothes, from panties and pasties, to nothing here in New York state as long as no alcohol is served. On the other hand, an unclothed person can walk across a stage in the course of a play without being arrested; that person is nude, not naked. The nude difference is when lack of clothing is aesthetic and theatrical, which Burlesque is. But anyone who has seen a Burlesque show realizes that what is being flaunted on stage is naked, pure and simple.
Burlesque performers typically wear elaborate, themed layers that are removed. This element is a recent addition to what was and is humorous theatrical entertainment. The striptease originated at the Moulin Rouge in 1890s Paris, and subsequently became a part of some Burlesque across Europe. It was only in America that Burlesque became associated with a variety show in which a strip tease is the chief attraction. Today neo-Burlesque retains the music hall atmosphere and features vaudeville acts, and the focus is still on the dancing girls. Shows often have contortionists, singers, or magicians to entertain the audience, although the latter might very well have a sexy slant.
Silly, elaborate and suggestive, a burlesque show makes for fun night on the town. But are they naked or nude? Is it camp or classy? Assuming those performers shimmy the line, it’s the delicate balance that is the whole charm of Burlesque.