Glitz, glitter, and empowerment? The thrilling ride of burlesque

The used panty marketplace

Is there a bigger buzzword fluttering around our daily choices than the word “empowerment?” It seems like just about everything we do is thrust under a microscope and assessed as either a way we’re liberating ourselves, or a way we’re continuing our own racket of misery. In a year like 2020, even baking homemade bread or binge watching Jeopardy can suddenly become a loaded topic linked to our greater freedom or free will.

There are few places that hubbub rears its head more than when folks are dealing in taking their clothes off. Sex, strip clubs, selling panties, camming – you name it. They all have to deal with the constant debate about the moral fiber of these choices. 

Same goes for the world of burlesque. If you ask some people, it’s an embodiment of empowerment and a rejection of oppression, dusted in glitter and tied up in satin ribbon. Ask others, and they’ll tell you burlesque is little more than a live show designed to feed the male gaze. However, this often underestimated art form is more complicated than a simple issue of waving a wand and calling it empowering or not. 

To understand burlesque, start at the beginning

Although burlesque has found its place in the sun for the past sixty or so years, burlesque actually has roots that go back centuries. Back in the seventeenth century, the word burlesque emerged in the arts scene, coming from the Italian word burla, meaning a mockery, a joke, or ridicule.

The word used to be applied to theater and stories alike. Back then, calling something a burlesque performance meant it had a blend of “caricature, parody, travesty, and...extravaganza.” Sounds like a party I want to get invited to, if you ask me. Some people even called Shakespeare’s comedies burlesque. That may seem wild to us now, but when you watch a troupe do A Midsummer Night’s Dream bawdy justice, the comparison doesn’t seem so out of place.

The Victorian era blew new meaning into the word burlesque. It now was no longer a word to describe short stories or theater mocking society or making a commentary. Instead, it was a raunchy, early expression of laughing in the face of sex shame. At the same time as it empowered women to express their sexuality, it also let queer culture have a quiet place to rest its bones, since playing with gender expression came with the scene and women often took on the roles of men, flipping “feminine modesty” on its head.

I can only imagine how shocking it must have been at the time. It’s no surprise that, in the mid-1800s, when burlesque hopped across the pond thanks to the performer Lydia Thompson. At the turn of the century, Americans sanitized it into a family friendly event

Thankfully, the roaring twenties saved this bawdy art, and a few audacious strippers like Hinda Wausau and Gypsy Rose Lee helped transform into something closer to the raunchy art form we know today. 

Although the Great Depression almost killed the burlesque scene for good, in the 1950s, a new era of high-glam burlesque appeared thanks to striptease queens like Bettie Page and Lili St. Cyr. This new style of burlesque was more serious and glamorous. The focus was on curves, glitz, and traditional beauty ideals. When you watch one of their performances now, it may seem mild mannered and outdated by today’s standards, but back then, it was a marvel and a revolution to own your sexuality enough to strip.

As beautiful as this new version of burlesque was, there was almost no space for poking fun at or parodying contemporary culture. Instead, the focus was on glamour and allure, swapping humor for glimmering corsets.

Contemporary burlesque

With such a rich history, it’s no surprise that performers wouldn’t settle down with feather boas and leave it at that. In our modern times, this lush art form has evolved into something hard to pin down.

Neo-burlesque reared its head and exploded onto the scene coated in rhinestones in the mid-nineties. Since then, the trend has shown no signs of stopping. Burlesque is now a mainstay in cities big and small around the United States and in larger European hubs like Berlin

These days, performers can’t be pinned into one corner of burlesque. Pulling inspiration from contemporary pop culture, the 1800s, and the 1950s, performers today are free to express themselves however they please. More than just cheeky parodies and comedies, burlesque can be a collection of short-form performances or a play-length extravaganza – and sometimes, they fall into one of four spectacular niches.


Although some burlesque strayed from the path laid out by Lili St. Cyr, other performers found their home in it. The most famous of these performers is Dita Von Teese, who captures the classic vibes of mid-century burlesque with a modern twist. But she’s not alone; curvaceous queen Miss Dirty Martini is also a staple of the burlesque revival movement.

This manifestation of burlesque is all about leaning into glamour and opulence. Instead of being bawdy or humorous, these performances embrace sensuality, setting laughter to the side for their other, more niche performances


Many burlesque dancers in the revival scene also dip their toes into quirkier waters, like nerdlesque. Tipping its hat to the parodies of the 1800s, nerdlesque gives contemporary nerd culture and fandom a makeover. These modern pieces are comedies inspired by comic books, movie series, cult TV shows, and more.

There’s something at the heart of nerdlesque that tugs on a lot of nerdy femmes’ hearts. For anyone raised as or currently living life perceived as a woman, nerd culture has held a complicated space. It’s where all the people on the outside went, and anyone who didn’t fit in growing up found themselves embracing that rich fantasy world.

But if you’ve read or watched any sci-fi, you know nerddom is often a male-dominated society, where we’re on the sidelines and are passive characters, playing nothing more than the main character’s love interest or the femme fatale.

Although this has been changing recently (the latest Star Wars movies are a good example), we still feel sidelined. With nerdlesque, the power of sexuality and queerness suddenly takes the front seat, and instead of being passively viewed in a fantasy realm, performers can be the main stage, and use their sexuality to bring new life to old characters.

Plus, politics and identity aside, nerdlesque is fun. For a lot of folks, it’s an introduction into burlesque, and a great way to bridge people’s interests. Most popular on the east coast and the southern U.S., nerdlesque is crawling its way across the stage of a country, one reworked cult classic at a time.


Boys, boys, boys. Don’t believe the straight world. No conversation about burlesque is complete until you’ve given boylesque its proper due. When we talk about sexuality and performance, most people’s minds immediately hop to men observing women – or at least, masculine presenting folks observing femme performance.

Boylesque gives that notion a swirlie and steps out on the stage as a complete facet of burlesque worth adoring all on its own. In boylesque, men dance and shimmy just like every other burlesque performer, removing layer after sequined layer as they twirl around on stage. 

As a culture, we fail to celebrate the sensual capacity of men. Sure, six packs and rough hands are seen as hot by some folks, but we write off their ability to be soft and delectable eye candy. Men can only be sexy, we say, if they’re doing in a messy, cloddish Chris Hemsworth way. The art of the striptease is seldom seen as a thing that we would even want a man to do – and when he does, he better be from Chippendales. 

But once you get a taste of boylesque performers at their naughtiest, you’ll realize that boylesque may just be one of the sweetest gems of the whole burlesque scene. Because the world needs more soft, sexy, and queer fellas. As they dazzle you with their best moves, don’t be surprised to find yourself blushing.


A niche of the scene, gorelesque fills the sensationalized space between horror and sexuality. Performers combine their stripteases with blood and guts, and the shock value is supposed to be both fun and make you question the way your libido still spikes at the sight of a good dancer. Done right, it works. Once, I saw a performer named Dr. Bones do a routine so uncomfortable I squirmed in my seat. It was enthralling. A striptease from someone moving their hips while covered in sores is a strange sight – and one I think you should go check out at least once. If you don’t have any gore-specific burlesque nights in your area, head to a Halloween event, where you may luck out with one spooky performer to grace that stage.

What’s so great about it?

Burlesque is a world that draws you in and teaches dancers and viewers alike how to embrace the plush fields of their bodies. It’s hard to have a conversation about burlesque without throwing the word “empower” into the mix. 

That’s because the performances aren’t about reenforcing beauty notions that already exist, but about embracing beauty in all its forms. It helps that people who do burlesque are committing to the culture out of love for it, and a desire to fuel their audience’s fires and start a few of their own.

It’s not just about empowerment though; it’s about connecting. In an interview with BookRiot, award winning burlesque performer Dangrrr Doll put it well when she talked about what burlesque meant to her. “”Burlesque is the art of exposure,” she said. “Sure – exposure of skin, but also the exposure of intimacy, emotions, pain, beauty, and conflict. You have three to six minutes to make an impact on someone. It’s quite exciting.”

That impact drives many performers each day they head on out into the complex world of performance and dance. That intimacy with the audience is a way of sharing love and collaborating with the viewers.It’s about more than the art itself, or glitz, or money. Sometimes, the glory is about creating art and connecting through it. 

But even if we threw deep intimacy and empowerment out the window, burlesque still has merit because it’s fun. We don’t always need to justify our lives with deeper meaning. Dancing, tassels, and pasties make any night better – and in a world where we all take ourselves way too seriously, maybe rhinestones are sometimes the answer to the problem.

A space for everyone to be sexy

What’s cool about burlesque is that everyone is allowed to be sexy. When you attend a local burlesque showcase, you’ll encounter babes of all body types, abilities, skin color, sizes, and gender expressions. As long as the performer is being true to themselves, they’re doing the whole burlesque thing right.

For people who exist in layers of identity, burlesque is a place to find acceptance and bring your disparate senses of self together. Michelle L’amour has the tagline in the industry of being “The Most Naked Woman.” She got that term not just for stripping down, but for promoting the transformative power of vulnerability onstage. She lived up to that title with a powerful video talking about her struggle with alopecia, showing that her disease hasn’t stopped her from pursuing her dreams.

And her career has only improved since. She didn’t let her disease stop her, and many other folks in burlesque face similar body struggles that they don’t let define them. When people throw themselves fearlessly out there as a maker, mover, and shaker, they carve a path together where every body is a dreamy one.

Michelle L’Amour is not the only person who embraces the stage with their unique bod. In a world that frankly hates chunk, burlesque is a body positive haven. Curvy people take the stage and love their bodies just the way they are. 

Storm Marrero, a Brooklyn-born, Puerto Rico-raised singer and burlesque performer, speaks proudly of the body positivity movement within the burlesque community. “Burlesque is an act of true defiance while taking control of one’s body,” she says. “Living in the society we live in, in which women still need permission to take up space...burlesque is the biggest middle finger you’ll find.” To her, “it celebrates...identity.”

It’s hard to argue with that. But beyond embracing yourself, burlesque is also an invitation to brush past shame and self loathing, and to stop taking your body so seriously. I think we could all learn a thing or two about having more fun with our little bone house by watching performer Lillian Bustle getting down dressed as a turkey. When you liberate your body from sexuality having to be a serious, or even conventionally sexy, affair, you see yourself in a whole new light. And just maybe, sex will get a little more fun.

Not all that glitters is gold

But if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is, right? While burlesque is touted as a harbor for every sweet frame, mainstream burlesque often fails to deliver the goods. For al Dita Von Teese’s fame, she is the stereotype of white American beauty – and she’s no stranger to cultural appropriation.

Her recent set titled “opium den” is cringeworthy and out of touch, embodying the racist “Dragon Lady” stereotype of Eastern Asian women. Her performance gets even more exasperating when you realize that Eastern Asian burlesque stars are often compared to her or encouraged to esteem to her level, including Sukki Singapora, who doesn’t want to be compared to a white woman’s act. She says that “the problem with current mainstream celebrity…[is that] there’s a danger of Asian talent being whitewashed.” When you see a clip of Dita Von Teese’s 2018 Opium Den performance (which you can google), it’s easy to see where Singapora’s frustration comes from.

This observation is hard to swallow for a lot of white performers who mean well and thrive on ignorance, but the best way to move forward and create better shows is to listen and grow together. Another common critique of mainstream burlesque, specifically the revival burlesque that captures “classic” beauty, is that it services only one kind of body. While underground burlesque acts are deliciously bawdy, queer, body positive, and radically inclusive, the ones that hit our mainstream tend to feature one kind of person: a cisgender woman who is white, pale, thin, and has big boobs – the basic nightmare

Like it or not, these are the people in the burlesque scene who are uplifted, celebrated, and popularized the most. Discrimination doesn’t end at whitewashing, either. Although Miss Dirty Martini thrives on her curves, most popular burlesque acts feature thinner women. Ih mainstream burlesque, headlining acts, and television competitions, the thinner you are as a performer, the better. I rarely see a dancer whose belly has a gentle shake like mine, let alone someone thicker than me. Performances may feature a token plus-sized body, but it's rare to see them be the feature performer. It even happens in underground burlesque scenes. One of my friends was a performer with a local troupe, and as the queerest-looking, tallest, and curviest person there, they were the only one whose photo wasn’t featured in ads for their events. 

And I’ve said it before about male queerness, but in burlesque too, many queer boylesque events are seen as a novelty act, rather than genuine beauty that can stand on its own.

I’m not saying white, cis-assumed, thin, and busty performers don’t deserve their spotlights, or that they should put down their feathered mantle. Many of these performers worked hard to be where they are, and are kind and beautiful people. What I am saying though is that a good performer in the limelight works hard to uplift performers who are social overlooked, especially trans* performers of color. When you honor each other and lift the community as a whole, your performative art gets richer, and everyone is happy.

But is the problem really with burlesque?

It’s easy to pin that critique on burlesque and walk away, as if that were the meat and potatoes of the issue. The reality, as it always is, is far more complicated. If we suddenly took away burlesque, the problems burlesque exposes would still exist, but we’d be stripped (ha!) of a valuable expression of beauty, love, promise, and trust in the process.

Pinning this problem onto the sparkling lapels of women who conform to beauty standards while performing burlesque is just another way to shift the responsibility off of our society as a whole and onto a handful of women we vilify.

Sound familiar? The problem isn’t them – it’s us. There’s something deeper in our society we need to acknowledge if we’re going to move forward and celebrate all kinds of beauty. We should start by asking ourselves why certain kinds of people are more celebrated. It means having uncomfortable conversations with ourselves about why we gravitate towards one aesthetic more than others. A great way to expand your thinking is to challenge your ideas of beauty by actively seeking out different kinds of burlesque.

And some people say that burlesque is inherently not empowering, that being sexy on stage somehow rejects feminism – but any performer or fan will disagree. Choice is the most beautiful thing we have in our living, breathing bodies, and we have the agency to change our lives and be exactly who we want, no matter what that means. If we want to show our butt on stage and spin some tassels on our nips, it’s our right – and that’s the end of it. 

And that kind of empowerment and choice doesn’t only come with heavy-handed commentary burlesque. Stripping, by itself, is art. Silly burlesque performances are art. Hell, even a quality nude is art. When we let ourselves make these things for the sake of making them, free of agenda, that is empowering enough. 

Burlesque is for everyone

While people like Dita Von Teese with yellow face routines may dominate the headlines about burlesque, your local performers would like to show you a thing or two you’ve been missing. With every kind of body under the rainbow swinging fringe and doing the splits, burlesque shines when the community puts their weight behind it. 

So Dita, take the back seat. It’s time for the rest of us to get behind that burlesque wheel.