What is Burlesque

The history and styles of burlesque


A close friend went to a burlesque night recently at The Lowry Theatre. She was apprehensive to say the least about what she was in for.

To save further stress, should any of you find yourselves heading towards a burlesque night – here’s Becky from Blush Dance with a beginners guide to the history and different styles of burlesque.


Over to you Becky ……


Becky Blush Dance

When I first started teaching and performing burlesque, not many could pronounce it let alone define it.

My explanation of burlesque became; “classy, glamorous cabaret with a hint of striptease”.

Nowadays I don’t need this introduction. However, its sub-genres have grown with it’s popularity. What do you think when I say burlesque?

  • Pussy Cat Dolls?
  • Christina Aguilera?
  • Nipple tassels or artistic parodies?
  • Corsets or alternative cabaret.


Pussycat Dolls


The more I explore the world of burlesque the more styles and versions I have found.

Whilst this is fantastic as a choreographer of burlesque routines, it can sometimes leave an audience confused, when they expect feather fans and Pussy Cat Dolls, but actually get tassels or edgy and quirky.


In an attempt to avoid confusion I have simplified, as best I can, a few genres. Please don’t take this as written, many artists would argue there are more/less sub genres of burlesque. See it merely as a dummies guide to burlesque, a small amount of history and a chance to be the savvy know it all at your next burlesque show!


Victorian British Burlesque

This originates from the 1860’s. It embraced the display of shapely, scantily-clad women. These starlets challenged the norm at the time as they often appeared underdressed, displaying their tights, as opposed to ‘proper ladies’ who went to great lengths to hide their physical form beneath bustles, hoops and frills.


Burlesque beauties of the 1890s


1890's Burlesque


This style is less striptease, more mock-up or parody of the theatrical operas and plays at the time. This is where burlesque originated and the word translated means ‘to send up’.


American Burlesque

American burlesque flourished when Lydia Thompson’s troupe, ‘British Blondes’ visited New York in 1868.

As British burlesque grew less popular, American burlesque grew to challenge vaudeville shows. Striptease slowly became the focus for American burlesque by the 1930’s. Popular early striptease burlesque stars include Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, Tempest Storm.




It is from these glamorous vintage artists that burlesque starlets take their inspiration. If you see a typical American burlesque revue show expect a celebration of female nudity, with classy, glamorous striptease, extravagant costumes, feathers and elaborate tease acts.


Becky Blush Dance


American Burlesque


Whilst you can still catch Victorian and American burlesque shows in the present day, more modern forms of burlesque, known as neo-burlesque are appearing, here are a couple definitions:


Commercial Burlesque

Commercial Burlesque best describes what we see on TV or film. Think Christina Aguilera and the Pussy Cat Dolls. It is entertaining, aesthetically pleasing and usually less strip, more scantily-clad sass, attitude and heaps of feminine power. Set to a modern soundtrack, or a modern twist on vintage songs.


Commercial Burlesque


Christina Aguilera



Alternative burlesque

Alternative burlesque is less mainstream entertainment, containing extreme acts such as cirque burlesque (fire eaters, bed of nails artists) and grotesque burlesque, (horror).


Alternative Burlesque


Alternative acts aim to challenge beauty, commercial and stereotypes. They’re drawing on how burlesque was used in the early days, and are often more activist, edgy, and underground.

Hopefully that’s shed some light on burlesque …… and acted as a bit of inspiration for all you gorgeous sassy ladies.


Becky x


Photographs: Blush Dance, Pussycat Dolls – Flickr by bensonkua, Christina Aguilera -  Flickr by D.S.B, Wikipedia.

This blog post is sponsored by Blush Dance


Other articles by Becky:

The best exercise for fat loss

Introducing Blush Dance








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