Burlesque first appeared in the U.S. in the 1840s, reaching the height of its popularity by the 1930s with stripper celebs like Gypsy Rose Lee and Blaze Starr and comedians like Mae West and Jackie Gleason. Though burlesque never fully recovered from Prohibition, it saw a resurgence in the 90s, developing somewhat of a cult following. Today, in New York, burlesque isn’t just alive and well, it’s blowing up.
“Burlesque is the island of misfit toys,” explains New York-based performer and producer Brad Lawrence. “In an age where therapy and access to every sexual fetish under the sun are equally commonplace, more people are finding out they belong on the island all the time.”
That island’s got everything “from circus acts to scripted comedy and film parodies, all with a healthy dose of playful nudity,” Lawrence says. You may find sword swallowers, fire-eaters, contortionists and ballerinas – just put the word “sexy” in front of each specialty. There are many levels of involvement and a variety of outlets for a number of different skills, from underground comedies, indie theaters and festival circuits to high-end acts reminiscent of Cirque de Soleil.
There’s Joe “The Shark” Naftali’s Sharkbite Sideshow, combining burlesque, sideshow, magic and pole dancing. (Oddly enough, Sharkbite donates part of ticket sales to protecting endangered sharks because sure, why not?) Hotsy Totsy at R Bar, the brainchild of Lawrence and wife Cyndi Freeman, honors more traditional burlesque with fully scripted, hilariously modern takes on pop culture where performers play both roles of stripper and comic. Hotsy Totsy’s set in the fictional Home For Wayward Girls and Fallen Women. Male callers range from Don Draper to Doctor Who to The Dude from The Big Lebowski. For a more intense experience there’s Bare, hosted by Peter Aguero, featuring seasoned storytellers sharing their most harrowing stories coupled with interpretive burlesque. The Slipper Room and Duane Park are popular burlesque venues. Then, of course, there are the fetish parties and sex clubs.
Burlesque examines the beauty of the body and one’s own comfort in it – which is, as the tenets of the art form would dictate, sexy in and of itself. It’s no surprise that this kind of entertainment would grow in popularity in a city like New York, and in this DIY age, new sub-forms are being established, like nerdlesque and boylesque. So, if you’re looking to break in to burlesque, there’s no reason to think you can’t. In addition to immersing oneself in the scene, there’s The School of Burlesque for women and Go-Go Harder for men to get you going.
The foundation on which burlesque is built is, of course, as much of a draw for aspiring performers as it is for spectators. “Everybody wants to feel sexy,” Lawrence says. “Everybody wants to feel comfortable being themselves and feel like what makes them weird in one context can make them normal in another. These are the things burlesque celebrates.”