One Pasty At A Time: My Dive Into Burlesque

“It’s… a means to introduce women who are shy about their bodies to enjoy the power of playful and/or confrontational exhibitionism, as well as creativity and self- expression through self-initiated performance.”

““ Jo Boobs Whedon

[Slightly NSFW pictures after the cut.]

I’ve spent the better bulk of my life in a constant state of anxiety and fear. Call it the “once a poor, Southern, white-trash kid, always a poor, Southern, white-trash kid” syndrome. It’s a reaction to life as opposed to an embracing, a response that is buried so deep in my core, I don’t think there’s any getting rid of it at this point.

Now, this is great to joke around about after a third glass of wine, but the harsher mental state it produces can wear a bit on the spirit. This last year, I felt myself consumed by this anxiety, whether it related to my job, my writing, my body, my relationship, my finances, or my emotional and intellectual growth. I was always certain that I was just coming up short, that at any moment, people would discover my authentic self, that tangled-haired, buck-toothed kid, with the shoes too small, who hid in books and would punch your lights out because that’s how polite southern women do. Somehow being adequate for everyone else took an ungodly precedence in my life and the only way I find myself coping was to continue denying myself the things that I loved – even without knowing why I loved them, because of said continually-felt inadequacy. It was so much easier to love things from afar, fawning over them for what they were, never considering myself as a potential part of it. And of course, in this case, when I say it, I mean burlesque.

Miz Ginger Snapz, profiled by Ms. Magzine

Burlesque, or as its known these days, Neo-Burlesque, is music, comedy, and the attraction of sex, thats kept America audiences laughing from 1868 and into the 1960s. Burlesque originally existed as an umbrella term, combining many forms of entertainment, though as culture shifted into the pre-prohibition Victorian era, burlesque became an art that combined sexuality and erotica with over-exaggeration and striptease shows. Brought from the U.K. in the late 1860s by performer Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes, burlesque spoofed theatrical productions, spinning itself into satire, comedy, performance art, music, and “adult entertainment,” all with the help of beautiful women in delicious, ornate lingerie and costume. Variety shows became packed with troupes and individual performers, piggybacking on travesty, vaudeville, music hall culture, and unfortunately, the minstrel show. Performers like Lili St CyrToni EllingGypsy Rose Lee, Bettie Page, Kitten Natividad, Josephine BakerLittle Egypt, and Tempest Storm filled the circuit and became names on the scene, even while some historians have omitted them.

Without question, however, burlesque’s principal legacy as a cultural form was its establishment of patterns of gender representation that forever changed the role of the woman on the American stage and later influenced her role on the screen… The very sight of a female body not covered by the accepted costume of bourgeois respectability forcefully if playfully called attention to the entire question of the “place” of woman in American society.
– Robert G. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture.

The Dirty Martini at The Miss Exotic World Pageant

These days, Neo-Burlesque is an offshoot on burlesque, reviving the traditional forms by encompassing full-on comedy, dance, and dark humor, all with a dash of the absolutely fabulous. As with the earlier burlesque, neo-burlesque is more focused on the “tease” in “striptease” than the “strip.” While burlesque’s emphasis isn’t necessarily about nudity, there can be nudity, though its usually insinuated by the idea that there is something else there. Something hidden behind the lush costumes and dramatic surrounding, beyond the sparkle and extravagant glamor. Burlesque has also opened the doors on the types of performers and its endless. Sure, everyone knows burlesque poster girl extraordinaire, Dita Von Teese, but there is also Alotta Boutte (one of the founders of the first all-black burlesque troop, Harlem Shake Burlesque), Tangerine Jones, Margaret Cho, Viva La Muerte, Calamity Chang (who now runs Dim Sum Burlesque), The Dirty Martini, Vagina JenkinsWorld Famous Bob, Tura Santana (rest in peace), Sui Cidal Lilly, and Selena Luna. Hell, Cher and Christina Aguilera took a swing at it in the aptly-named 2010 film, Burlesque, where a small town girl ventures to Los Angeles and does all the things a small town girl trying to make it in the big city normally does and voila! Cher! Sequins! Jazz Hands! Burlesque!


Okay, so the film may have not been so successful, but it shows that burlesque has seen a revival since the early ’90s when it popped up in New York in places like Billie Madley’s Cinema, The Dutch Weismann’s Follies, leading to troupes like Cabaret Red Light, The Velvet Hammer, The Shim-Shamettes , even Boylesque (an all male troupe), in places like Berlin, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Burlesque MCs like Murray Hill, Diggy Bones, and Feisty Strumpet have become crucial to acts and there are even annual burlesque conventions like the Miss Exotic World Pageant and The Vancouver International Burlesque Festival. While it may still fly under major radars, its certain that burlesque is here to stay, that is to say, if it ever really went away.

The Fabulous Toni Elling
They (I actually don’t know who they are) say that change takes time. Or that change only happens when necessary. Or when you’re ready. Whichever phrase seems most apt, I still can’t tell you what exactly changed in me one day. All I know is that I’d quietly loved burlesque for years: the fantasy, the mystery, the dancing, the gorgeous lushness of it all and the sequins. Oh, god, the sequins! Maybe it came from corresponding with Jo herself on something completely unrelated. Maybe it was all the New Years noise. Whatever it was, all I knew is that a day and a few dollars later, I was signed up for burlesque lessons.


I’m starting at the center of the action: The New York School of Burlesque. Led by headmistress, Jo “Boobs” Whedon and staffed by performers like Gal Friday, Jezebel Express, and Peekaboo Pointe, I’ll be going the beginner’s route, getting all the history, choreography, costuming, makeup, theatrical skill building, and of course, confidence building, that a brand-spanking-new lady like me needs. And I need it. I need to move beyond the computer screen, from behind the curtain, to stop worrying if I am taking up too much space or talking too much or hiding behind all the things I hide behind. I need to feel comfortable in my own skin, comfortable making waves and being a bit of a show off. I need to be comfortable being me.

Margaret Cho at The Miss Exotic World Pageant.

Of course, I’m terrified of letting go and being judged. But I want to, no – I need to let go. I want to stand in front of everyone, in the smallest, sparkliest pair of pasties, nipple tassels, and g-string, and bare the birthmarks, the pudgy tummy, the self-harm scars, the fear, and the authentic, tangled-hair, buck-toothed kid, with the shoes too small self, who hid in books and would punch your lights out because that’s how polite southern women do, and just let go.

Maybe these lessons will get me there, maybe not. Either way, it’s the first time I have had the feeling of being utterly terrified and energized, and for all the feminist intellectualizing I’ve compacted into my brain, I’ve yet to really apply any of it to the person I want to be. It’s time to move beyond the limits I set up for myself, one small sequin at a time.

And I will fan dance.



12 replies on “One Pasty At A Time: My Dive Into Burlesque”

I hesitate to say anything because I can see that burlesque is a motivating force for you, Coco, and I totally respect that if that’s the way you want to go.  Good for you.

That being said, I just don’t get it.

I’ve just never been that interested in burlesque, and perhaps its to my detriment, but every time I load up a video on good ‘ole YouTube to check it out, give it just that one more chance, I just don’t even find it interesting enough to finish watching the video.  Its like watered-down and supposedly “empowered” stripping.  That’s not interesting to me.  And maybe the history of it is powerful to women and helps them understand themselves better by donning a ton of makeup and supposedly sexy/trampy clothing.  I’m just not sure that it would help me understand my femininity any more that making my own work (painting) does.  I would guess that the woman doing the dancing might find it exhilarating and thrilling to a degree, but I, as a woman, don’t.  Who is it you’re dancing for?  And if its not a man, if it is your feminine self, what else could you be expressing that through, perhaps another medium, that isn’t already filtered through the male gaze?  What’s even scarier than dressing up for men and acting trashy?  And remember, this is in the same vein of variety shows that produced the minstrel show, and that’s certainly not a place where African American people are looking for identity.  But then again, its just not my thing.

Curious to keep reading your development and what it does for you.

You mention several times that you dont find it interesting or that some women may find it thrilling, but as a woman, you dont. Or that dressing up would me. Thats absolutely fine. But you state that its dressing up trashy. What’s trashy? Also, whats trampy clothing? I guess Im just very curious to know what it means.

Even if I was dancing for men, is there something inherently wrong in it, say if one is making money? I feel very conflicted giving a definite yes or no with this, but I do think that I’m not sure how this translates into being scary and trashy. While I cant say I necessarily see burlesque as sex work, it does ask the question of how sex work or any form of using ones body for public indulgence (nude modeling, modeling, stripping-etc.) is perceived and how those who participate are perceived as well. I just did an interview with Audacia Ray, where those things are all discussed, leaving even more questions than answers. Check it out.

As far as burlesque’s unfortunate involvement in minstrel shows, its something that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. However, it hasnt stopped dancers like Vagina Jones or Alotta Boutte, and while its no where in my authority to say whether or not its a safe environment for a women of color, there are many spheres that have equally disturbing histories. Take reproductive rights, a field that was built on the backs of poor women of color, such as the testing and sterilization. Its a horrendous history. Does it negate the place of the reproductive health movement now? No. Is it a history that should be acknowledged so it doesnt repeat itself today? Yes.

So the only way to know is to go bravely into burlesque and never look back. And it wouldnt be nearly as fun if I wasnt all going to document it here.


Hm.  As for trashy/trampy, I’d definitely preface by saying that my definition is mine, as these loaded words are pretty hard to define for anyone.  And, interestingly enough, in looking up the definition of trashy (online, mind you), one of the synonymous words that came up was “worthless.”  And this is certainly not what I meant, especially in reference to anyone’s interest in burlesque.  I guess for me trashy/trampy would encompass over-revealing, in the sense that perhaps revealing too much allows the subject to become de-energized.  I think what might be more interesting than booby tassels and big feather boas might be unshaven bodies, no makeup, and hair that is really messed up like you mention in the article.  I’d rather see underneath the sequins, and find the real buck-toothed kid, not the dressed up one.  The dressed up one brings attention to the stuff, the glitter etc etc, and I find those objects to be trashy–ie, they represent that image of “beauty,” as defined by whom, exactly?   Look at celebrities today, the girls on fashion mags, etc.  They are wearing some of the same skimpy clothes and tons of makeup.  I don’t have a problem with skimpy clothes themselves, but this burlesque thing seems like its trying so hard to help women redefine themselves somehow, but its in the same language as the fashion mags.  Historically, I can certainly see its significance in the female body revealed as taboo, but what about today, when the opposite is true?  Might it be more interesting to put the clothes back on, just to see where that act leaves the feminine identity?  Might that be a more appropriate reaction, according to the historical moment?  And don’t get me wrong, I am so not advocating going back to tight-lipped 50s style everything-women-did.  I’m just asking the question theoretically, because I find it ideologically interesting.  Its the clothes/costumes (as symbolic objects–think Barthes’ Mythologies) that turn me off, not the women (doing burlesque).

I’m not sure about right or wrong in selling or giving sex or strip-teasing.  I had a childhood friend who went into the porn industry, and I along with some other friends tried to talk her out of it.  But, she did it because she said she liked to do it, and she liked the money, and at the end of the day I can’t argue with that–it’s her business.  I wouldn’t necessarily say that burlesque is sex work, because every lady I know who does it, seems to get a great deal of personal satisfaction out of it, so who is it really for?  The rest of the sex work seems to me (and I’m really just guessing, I’m so not on the inside of any of this stuff) like its done out of some kind of economic, financial, or perhaps even emotional necessity or yearning.  I can’t speak to it, so maybe I shouldn’t at all.  But to me it seems like a bit of a leap to put burlesque in the same group as sex work.

And I absolutely think everything historically threatening and difficult should be out there for us to look at and discuss.  In no way in my first comment was I saying that I didn’t want to hear about it, because otherwise I wouldn’t have even bothered to comment. :)

I’m so curious about what you meant when you said “scary” in the same sentence as “trashy.”  I’d love to know how those two words relate for you.  The scary stuff is what I’d love to see, and I’m not sure that’s what burlesque gets to.

What’s even scarier than dressing up for men and acting trashy?

This is what I meant in my response with scary/trashy- its from your first comment.

I find your using trashy as a way to describe “over revealing” problematic. Its a word that I’ve heard tossed around on women who have bucked the norm, so forgive me if it leaves a very bitter taste in my mouth, especially coming from another woman. While I understand where you are coming, especially regarding the taboo-ness that female nudity once represented and how that fits in the dynamic today, to call something trashy because it “encompass over-revealing, in the sense that perhaps revealing too much allows the subject to become de-energized”, seems like an unexamined response wrapped up in some nice words. To me, trashy is just a word people throw around when something makes them uncomfortable. As my mom has said, Trashy is just a nicer word for when someone is calling you slutty.

You also mention you are more interested in unshaven parts than the “glamour ” of it all (especially if packaged in a fashion mag type of empowerment). The thing that appeals to me so much about burlesque is that while there is a lot of playing into a dynamic of “normal” beauty, there are also dancers like vagina jones, world famous bob, and selena luna who defy those  norms by being plus sized, queer, or disabled. Many burlesque dancers are not people who would normally be considered beautiful in many privileged standards ( I recommend reading Margaret Cho’s take on her burlesque tour, Sensuous Woman, where she talks about being in a very similar position and finding acceptance of her body by realizing she was worthy of parading around naked and more so, she was just worthy.) .And simply put, when it comes down to it, I’m interested in things like pasties, glitter, and heavy stage makeup. I’m interested in fan dances and costumes. These things dont discount my  positions, my intelligence, or who I am as a feminist or even a person.They are just things I like.

But I think we also are coming from different places. In no way am I going to try and convince you otherwise on your experience with these things. And thats fine. I respect the fact that you are willing to engage and challenge me by providing another side, a side which I have even found myself on. But as my life has changed, I have found that things are not so black and white and that the only way I will ever know the answer to this question is to experience it myself, not just think I know about it from afar, which is why I have decided to dive headfirst into burlesque.

And on that note, I leave everyone with my favorite quote ever:

I make jokes about it, but it’s the truth that I kind of patterned my look after the town tramp. I didn’t know what she was, just this woman who was blond and piled her hair up, wore high heels and tight skirts, and, boy, she was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. Momma used to say, “Aw, she’s just trash,” and I thought, That’s what I want to be when I grow up. Trash.” – Dolly Parton


Actually I asked because I was curious about your own idea about what “scary” is and how it relates in this context–not to hear my own words repeated back to me.

And I’m thankful for the conversation too, because any kind of critical discourse on anything seems to be a little hard to find these days.  But I did mean what I said about the subject becoming “de-energized,” whether or not that seemed “un-examined” to you.  To me, the glitter and costuming does seem to be like an empty appliqué–and yet loaded with a meaning of what it means to be pretty or sexy to men firstly, then everyone else (other women, the feminine self, etc).  The masking takes the power away from the woman, in the act of transformation, as in hiding, whatever it is that still isn’t readily consumable by others without it (the makeup, etc).  I find that problematic.  Having someone else’s definition of sexy applied to my body and having to enact a sequence of bodily movements in order to become “sexy” as defined by some outside force, which I can’t really define or understand, isn’t comfortable for me.  It doesn’t necessarily make me feel safe, as a woman who is still being controlled by ambiguous outside forces, like the male gaze.  And I find it curious that women with feminist leanings choose to go headfirst into that contradictory place, but hey, whatever titillates (pun intended) you…


I think one of the key elements you are missing here is that some women DO feel sexy with the glitter and the dance, regardless of who may or may not be watching. It has nothing to do with being filtered through a man’s eyes, it is about seeing yourself dressed up and thinking “Damn I look good!” and then dancing and thinking “Damn, I feel good!” People are different, just because you wouldn’t feel sexy doing burlesque, doesn’t mean it’s impossible for other women.

Right…hence the different perspectives one gets when talking with different people.  I brought this up to talk about it, not to convince anyone of anything different that they feel.  I’d refer you to read more carefully what was said above.  I think its an interesting to question to ask–where does the glitter come from?  Who made it, who gave it power?  I realize some women enjoying wearing it, but its an interesting theoretical question all the same.

1. You ask Coco, “what else could you be expressing that through, perhaps another medium, that isn’t already filtered through the male gaze?” And I’d like to suggest that she has been doing that already here, in this space, and point you to her oeuvre of 144 articles (and counting) here on Persephone Magazine, a woman-centric blog, including a number of pieces that consist of dynamic political study, insightful interviews with influential women leaders, and (like this piece) honest and vulnerable self-assessment. Coco’s adding to her repertoire of modes of feminist expression by taking on burlesque, not finding it, nor undermining it.

2. I’m not sure calling something the author of the piece is enthusiastic about “trashy” is very conducive to a constructive discussion between peers. You say you respect if Coco wants to do it, but calling it “trashy” isn’t respectful.

Those issues aside, and to the point of your questions, I’ve had similar questions myself in the past, and I found a number of resources online that discuss the juncture of burlesque and feminism, both its problematic issues (such as the male-gaze type ones that you mentioned) and the many ways women have found empowerment and self-love in the field. Rather than reiterate what first-hand accounts have said, I’ll just say I found them informative and helpful when considering those questions myself, and if you’re interested, those links point to some of the ones I found that best addressed my questions.

I’m totally with you in looking forward to Coco’s own reflections on these issues, because I think her past work has more than proven her dedication to honest assessment (of herself and the world around her), as well as her commitment to the empowerment of women, and I think we will be able to enjoy a unique perspective from her as she encounters this new form of expression.

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