Posts Tagged ‘can-can dance’

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The history of sex in the west has a mirror in the art-world of burlesque.  Today, most see it as a bawdy comedy combined with a striptease finale.  And its true that it comes from the Italian word ‘burlesco’ or ‘burla’, meaning a joke or mockery.  But with so much to mock in Victorian England, burlesque was quite popular in London theatres from the 1830s to the 1890s.  It parodied serious theatre offerings like Shakespeare, often twisting the original scores by re-writing them with comedy lyrics.  Today, burlesque has gone through an international revival, regaining some of its status – but what is the story of burlesque?

The Victorian burlesque style was taken to New York in the 1840s.  Women wore tights, scandalous in the Victorian era.  A woman-run production that showed under-dressed hotties masquerading as sexually charged fathers and brothers, pushed boundaries.  And they were a sensation!  Public outcry and efforts to prohibit these shows simply fueled the public’s demand for more.  As New York burlesque shows were beginning to blend with the minstrel shows, the minstrel element of the shows also gave way to a new generation of black performers.  In 1890, The Creole Show débuted and re-shaped the minstrel all-male tradition with female cast members.  Other show such as Oriental America provided a scathing social commentary of America at home and abroad.
Back in London, by 1890, burlesque’s popularity had faded in favor of more wholesome fare.  Meanwhile, in Paris they had their own version of the chorus line with the can-can dance.  In the Follies Bergere and the Moulin Rouge, burlesque became striptease with ever more elaborate costumes.  Back in New York, ‘The First Real Queen of American Burlesque’ Millie DeLeon, who had a flair for the dramatic, would ‘accidentally’ forget her tights and get arrested.

Striptease came into its own during 1920s burlesque when film and radio began to rival Vaudeville. At places like The Ziegfeld Follies, the flow of booze fueled the attraction to the risqué shows.  This scene grew and led to the elevation of the art form in the 1930s as seen in the work of Josephine Baker.  In the 1940s the heavy hand of censorship struck down during wartime America.   The  world of Burlesque would be marginalized for many decades, until the 1990s when it went through a renaissance.  Today you can find major events that showcase burlesque’s high-art status in the places that invented it – London, Paris, New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New Orleans.