Breaking down the Stigmas


A friend of mine who had taught burlesque workshops in New York told it to me straight, “Teach from your experience, from your strengths. If you’re not a great dancer, don’t teach them how to dance. Teach what you know.” It was excellent advice, and in addition to teaching a bit about the burlesque history and what I believe are the elements of an interesting and entertaining burlesque act


As the grandmother of modern musical theater, vaudeville, and striptease, burlesque has a complicated history. If we trace its origins back to the 19th century, burlesque started out as a form of theater for the working classes that would parody aristocratic traditions such as operas and other “high brow” art forms. Overtime, the role that women’s bodies and sexuality played in selling “burlesque” to the masses increased little by little, from featuring women wearing flesh-colored tights (racy in the 1860’s), to “belly dancing” and other “sexy” dance moves, to the type of striptease anyone who has seen Gypsy is familiar with. The “neo-burlesque” scenes that exist in so many American cities today draw from this rich history, but also have the opportunity, and, I believe, the obligation, to differentiate themselves from the parts of it that are ugly and unjust.


Burlesque Audiences



  • First of all, at a burlesque show, cheer like crazy whenever you see anything you like. Do everything you can to show the performers that you think they are beautiful, brilliant, and talented.

  • Don’t only cheer for performers that are skinny, white, with little waists and big tits. One of the best compliments I ever got was from some random guy after a show who said, “Thank you for making me think something is sexy that I never thought was sexy before.” He was talking about  armpit hair. So, keep an open mind. I’ve been blown away by the different kinds of sexiness I’ve encountered in burlesque shows over the years, from performers I never expected to blow me away.

  • Similarly, if you are a straight guy, and there happens to be a male performer (gay or straight), don’t groan with disappointment or murmur something homophobic to your buddy. Ditto if there is a performer who is a queer woman. Burlesque is pretty damn gay. Get over it.

  • Needless to say, don’t grope, heckle, or harass the performers. If you want to grope someone, you should be paying them a lot more than what you probably paid to get into that burlesque show. If you have a tendency to do this when you drink, and if you have a tendency to drink when you go out, then do us all a favor and stay sober or stay home.

  • Needless to say, respect the photo-policy. It doesn’t matter if you are an “artist” or a “journalist.” When you are at a burlesque show you are a guest. Treat your hosts and their rules with respect.

  • If you’re going to write a review of a burlesque performance, focus on the artistry, creativity, and talent of the performers more than just descriptions of their bodies. After all, it’s not talent that gives someone a specific weight, height, or cup size, but it takes talent to keep six hoola hoops up in the air, to dance en pointe as you undress, to twirl tassels on your ass, or to turn a disgraced children’s show host into the vehicle for a burlesque act. Give credit where credit is due and don’t bother mentioning who has cellulite or who has big tits.

As burlesque performers, producers, and audience members, we have an obligation to create a burlesque scene that is safe for all women and queer people and otherwise socially responsible.


Burlesque Producers


  • I will likely hire an M.C. who knows how to control the crowd and can set a supportive, fun, light-hearted tone. This is so important in making sure the audience has fun and the performers have fun and feel comfortable. The ideal M.C. should be able to teach the audience (if they are new to burlesque) how to cheer and be a good audiece, as well as what is not acceptable behavior and what the consequences will be. And, they should be able to do this in a way that is funny and makes the audience feel at home. I admit that these M.C.’s are hard to find, but they are important and great and they will make your show go smoothly by setting a tone that is supportive and fun. (Also, if most of your performers are women, try to mix it up between men and women M.C.’s. There are some great female M.C.’s out there that should not be overlooked!)
  • If you are producing a burlesque show, it is your responsibility to create an environment that is safe and comfortable for your performers. That means having staff on hand ready to deal with excessively drunk, aggressive, or abusive audience members. And by “deal with,” I mean “kick out.” Burlesque performers are hardly delicate flowers who live in fear of being crushed, but we don’t like to be heckled, groped, harrassed, followed to our cars, or otherwise made to feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Anyone giving the performers (or women or queer people of people of color in the audience) a hard time needs to be ejected and banned from future shows. Plan for this just in case.
  • Look at how the space you are using is set up. Are performers given adequate privacy when they are changing their clothes? Do performers have to walk through a crowd from the stage to the dressing room? If so, is someone on hand to escort them if the crowd is a little “grabby”? Maybe you know your crowd better than some of the guest performers, so use your expertise to see what changes need to be made to accomodate performer safety and comfort.
  • Different performers have different policies regarding photographs of their performances. Some want as many photos taken all the time, in all states of undress. Others are fine with photos as long as they don’t end up on pornographic websites. Others like to have some control of what photos are taken and what they are used for. Others still just want a copy of whatever photos are taken to use on their own websites and publicity. Again, burlesque performers aren’t delicate flowers. We are realistic about nude or semi-nude photos of us getting slapped up on the internet. But, if you are producing a burlesque show, as a courtesy, check with performers in advance about their own photo-policy preferences and decide ahead of time what the policy will be. Or, if you have a specific photo-policy in place, make sure invited performers know what to expect in advance, so that those with photo-limits will be able to decide whether they feel comfortable performing at your show. Also, make sure audience members are aware of your photo policy and that it is appropriately enforced.
  • On a related note, ask performers whether they are OK with documentary photographers or videographers coming back stage to take pictures. I can’t tell you how often this happens, often with no warning.
  • Take a good long look at who you are inviting to perform. If they are mostly white, mostly skinny, and mostly young, then you’ve got some work to do. I’m not talking about tokenism. (Simone de la Ghetto has incorporated critiques of tokenism into her performances.) Reach out to performers who fall outside mainstream (Dita Von Teese) standards of beauty. (No disrespect meant to Dita, but there are many talented performers out there who don’t have “perfect bodies” or white skin.) But don’t just reach out. Really look at what you can do to make the burlesque show/scene you are creating more friendly to performers that aren’t the average (white, thin, young, able-bodied). In case you were worried, know that audiences really do like all different kinds of beauty.


Burlesque Performers



  • There is a long history of using racist stereotypes in burlesque themes and costumes and music. This is a part of burlesque’s history that we need to depart from. This means, if you’re not of Chinese ancestry, don’t do a “China Doll” number. If you’re not Native American, don’t do a “woo woo woo woo woo coyboys and Indians” number. If you’re not Latina/West Indian, don’t do a “Carmen Miranda”/”island girl” number. And, finally, if you’re not Black, don’t do a “primitive/savage” number, or an “Aunt Jemima” number, or a “ghetto princess” number. You can’t defend this by calling it “classic” or an “update on a classic.” At best, it’s culturally appropriative, at worst, it’s incredibly racist, no matter that you’re “not a racist” or “didn’t mean it that way.” Don’t take advantage of the fact that most burlesque audiences (in New York, anyway) are white (and apathetic/ignorant about racism) to perform your racist act. Just don’t do it. It’s fucked up, it’s not funny, and it’s lazy artistry. As a community of performers, we can and must do better than this.

  • If someone you’re performing with is doing a number you think is racist, don’t just ignore it. Just because the audience loved it doesn’t make it OK. Have a conversation with them telling them how you feel. Don’t be afraid of being “politically correct.”

  • Don’t be afraid to make your acts more political! Sure, it’s not for everyone, and not every act can (or should) have a “message,” but a well-constructed number that is fun, sexy, and also says something is something to be proud of. Don’t force it, but experiment with working one into your repetoir if it makes sense.

  • Be respectful of sex-workers. I mostly mean two things by this. First, being a burlesque performer does not make you a sex-worker (although, of course, there are performers who are both), so don’t go around claiming sex-worker identity just because you do burleque. It’s different. Second, don’t insult strippers just because being a burlesque performer is different from being a stripper. You are not better than a stripper just because you don’t take off all your clothes, or because you think you are more of an artist, or because you are not “in it for the money,” or whatever you are telling yourself to that effect. We can coexist supportively.

  • Strut your stuff and have fun. There are few things as awesome to see as a woman (no matter what age, shape, or size) enjoying her sexiness and working it on stage.

© 2021 by The 78 Art of Live Adult Theater & Burlesque. Proudly created by Holly Woods

  • Facebook B&W
  • Twitter B&W
  • Google+ B&W