Burlesque. If you were anything like me during my first stages of acquaintance with this term, you dreamt up visions of showgirls, feather fans, glitter, glamour, and Dita Von Teese in a martini glass. All of these things, of course, are very much ‘burlesque’, they are what most people envisage when the term ‘burlesque’ is brought into conversation (which does not happen frequently enough!). However, recently, what comes to the forefront of my mind when I hear the term has changed.
A fortunate series of events has led me to find my feet in the comedy vein of burlesque. As it so happens, the Latin root of the word ‘burlesque’ comes from the Latin word burlare: to laugh, to make fun of. That is not to say I do not enjoy watching ‘classic’ acts—I very much enjoy them all! However, there is a special place in my heart for those women who can get up on stage and reveal not only their pasties, but their sense of humour. A joke is a scary thing to share with an audience, a joke that may or may not be at your own expense. What if they do not find it funny? What if they just don’t ‘get’ it?
However, the many scruples I have had before performing a comedy act pale in comparison to the amount of times I have felt an overwhelming sense of pride in being a burlesque performer, after watching fellow female performers get up on stage and poke fun at the aspects of society that hold women back.
I, not long ago, saw an act by Chloe CatAssTrophy (Palmerston North) that made me feel this kind of pride. Without giving away too much of her act, all I will say is that Chloe poked fun at the pressure a lot of women feel to deny themselves the pleasure of certain foods in order to be a particular size and fit a certain garment. I get the feeling there was not one woman in the audience that night who could not relate to the scenario Chloe’s act depicted (and no doubt some men). Not only was she carrying out an enjoyable burlesque performance, she was also pointing out the absurdity of the fact that we as women quite often deny ourselves certain pleasures because we feel the need to interfere with our body’s natural shape to impress other people.
An act I especially admire from a bygone era is one by the Barrison Sisters of the 1890’s. It poked fun at the usage of a term commonly used in place of the word ‘vagina’. As an individual with a vagina myself, I have often found myself pondering how the term ‘pussy’ came to be used in its place. The Barrison Sisters, whether intentionally or not, pointed out the absurdity of the analogy through their act. They teased the audience throughout the routine, saying, “Would you like to see my pussy?”. The ‘reveal’ is lifting their skirts to uncover live kittens, somehow attached to their crotches. This is an act that reminds me why I enjoy burlesque as much as I do, it is a platform on which we can, in the most theatrical and ridiculous ways possible, point out to an audience the absurdity of customs which are taken for granted as the ‘norm’.
You will notice the similarity between my last two examples—they are both acts which present the audience with issues which concern women in particular, addressed in a comical and ‘over the top’ fashion. That is not to say that burlesque should be the domain of women only—each individual performer no matter what gender has something valuable to contribute! However, what I am saying is that burlesque as an industry is different from any other entertainment industry, in that it gives women a strong platform to express themselves and their opinions. Just look at singer Miley Cyrus for an example, the woman is constantly vilified in the media, even by individuals in the same industry as her, for flouting convention and behaving in an ‘un-lady-like’ fashion. Do you think if she were in the burlesque industry she would be receiving this level of criticism?
I think she may be receiving accolades!
As well as being a platform for women to, in a comical and/or theatrical fashion, point out the absurdity of customs we all feel pressure to adhere to, burlesque has given me the opportunity to make other women laugh. You may wonder why I have used the word ‘women’ rather than ‘people’. Of course I enjoy making everyone laugh, that is what I enjoy doing most! However, having another woman laugh at my act gives me a certain kind of gratification that nothing else can, not even hooting or hollering. An example I like to give is my ‘onesie’ act. How many women have been on the phone to their partner, probably late at night, when their partner has asked “What are you wearing?”, hoping to take the conversation in a more sexual direction? I believe many women have probably been in this situation! I myself have had this happen to me a few times, often while traveling, and I will admit that in those situations, I tend to lie. I am never just lounging around looking sexy and sultry in a see-through negligee. I am more likely to be in flannelette pyjama bottoms and an old t-shirt, or even a ‘onesie’.
I ran with this idea and so it is what my ‘onesie’ act is about. When a woman laughs during this act, it is as if in that moment we are both sharing a laugh together at the absurdity of the situation. It is as if we are both acknowledging, at the very same moment, me through my act and her through her laughter, the sheer absurdity of the fact we both feel we cannot express our sexual side without being in a ‘sexy’ outfit, hence why we lie. It is possible that men can relate to this scenario also, however, in my lifetime I have found that it is often women who really need to see and be entertained by this kind of self-deprecating humour the most.
Burlesque and comedy is a match made in heaven because it is true for both of them that anything goes! The best aspect of burlesque and comedy’s marriage has to be however, the fact it gives women that opportunity to make people laugh with the aid of the widest range of tools possible, whether it be our bodies, voice, costume, music, concept, or dialogue, that we use to give the audience an enjoyable comedy performance and express our opinion.
Viva La Burlesque Vida!
Pastie Politics Issue 1
Isabella Darling has been glued to the stage since she first appeared on it in 2011 with Ayla’s Angels Burlesque. Her (possibly sacrilegious) sequin adorned religious persona was but a taste of things to come! Since that first performance, Isabella has found her feet in the comedy vein of burlesque, aiming to make the audience laugh using her theatrical style and self-deprecating sense of humour.
Isabella is known mainly in the New Zealand burlesque scene for her act in which she portrays a certain fairy tale character as you have never seen her before. Isabella is a different breed of ‘show girl’, rather than a girl that is for show, she is a girl who has something to show, whether it be a character she has worked on, a theatrical expression of opinion or a comedy act. Having won the title of Miss Tassels South Island 2014 and the Miss Burlesque New Zealand 2014 title, she is set on bringing her brand of humour to the masses.