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Burlesque Dance Definition Essay

Burlesque

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Mayor LaGuardia’s Campaign during the 1930s
against burlesque performances in New York City


     What is obscenity? According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, obscenity is the state or quality of being obscene which means that is offensive to modesty and or decency. During the 1930s and 1940s, New York City was infected with burlesque shows. During these times this shows were considered indecent and immoral by Mayor LaGuardia, his license commissioner Paul Moss, and John Sumner. Women were used as objects of entertainment. In 1934 Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia took office. Fiorello LaGuardia was a decisive and objective man. Mayor LaGuardia saw a very problematic situation for New York City when it came to this kind of performances. The targets of LaGuardia ‘s wrath were burlesque houses, where strippers had alternated turns with stand-up comics and the other acts since at least the turn of the century (Newyorkmetro.com). Clearly, LaGuardia was focused on stopping these displays of female degradation. It is important to mention that were two kinds of entertainments displays during this time. One group was the burlesque shows, which degraded females by displaying them as sexual objects. These shows were targeted towards the low income and illiterated people. The other group was called Ziegfeld Follies, which was aimed for the high elite people. This form of entertainment was a very refine and elaborated, but also did contain degrading displays. Regardless, Fiorello LaGuardia’s campaign unfairly opposed Burlesque performances instead of the Ziegfeld Follies, since it was politically easier to take action against shows that were supported by the lower class.
     What actually was Burlesque? It was a popular and inexpensive form of entertainment whose basic ingredients were girls, gags, and music (Minsky’s Burlesque,26). These shows where aimed for mostly low income and illiterate people. One of the most controversial facts that Burlesque performances confronted was when one of their actresses had an accident on stage. She had a detachable collar that as soon the audience saw her pulled off they started applauding for an encore. As Mae (the actresses) came back to bowed they clapped like crazy. For a moment Mae lost her head and decided to came back to the stage and unbuttoned her bodice as she left the stage again (Minsky’s Burlesque,34). The audience couldn’t believe what just happened that night. It is possible that the Mae’s came back fact was one of the first nudity displays at that time.

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After this period Burlesque performances change their entertainment perspective so that they will become more popular. What were the owners thinking about this issue? As Billy Minsky one of the co-owner of the enterprise said “If people want it, we’ll give it to them. When a court finds that I’ve broken some law, I’ll stop. Until then, we’ll sell tickets”(Minsky’s Burlesque,34). Obviously, Billy Minsky didn’t care anything else than the money. They started changing the scenario because they knew that at a some point the authorities like John Sumner will appear. They even set a light warned to prevent the actors of doing any suspicious movement when the bluenoses arrived to the scene (Minsky’s Burlesque,35). What was the real purpose of eliminating this shows?

Burlesque performances showed evidence that they were not only coarse and vulgar, but also indecent, immoral and lewd (Court Refuses Writing Burlesque Pleas,21). Indeed, the essence of these displays of vulgarity were considered a very sensitive topic during those times. Burlesque shows were vulgar and displayed women as an object of entertainment. Burlesque performances were more spontaneous acts that showed unprofessionalism. These performances also displayed a lack of variety and creativity since their costumes were very basic. Kathleen Spies describes how burlesque displayed women at the stage “On the burlesque stage, striptease acts alternated with comedy skits that often used women and their bodies as subject matter for jokes”(1). Clearly, this shows us that more women were degraded by these performances. These shows involved aggressive comedy and songs, but the primary attraction of burlesque was sex in the form of ribald humor and immodestly dressed women. In comparison to the Ziegfeld Follies these displays clearly were way too obscene for the audience. According to the video The Night They Raided Minsky women look more obligated to do this type of work. They looked uncomfortable since the people on the show treated them as an object. According to the article Burlesque Show Closed By Minskys clarifies that “Mayor LaGuardia advanced the opinion that burlesque was “definitely on the way out” and said that if was “by no means certain” any new licenses would be issued”(26). Evidently, Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia was against these displays. His idea of entertainment wasn’t the same as the Minsky brothers. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia found these acts vulgar and obscene for the society in New York City at that time. Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia wanted to clean all the sex-rated businesses around New York City so that parents and children can enjoy their visits to Times Square and the lower eastside. Who were the people against this type of entertainment? One of the Minskys brothers clarifies that Burlesque always skirted the borders of the law and had problems with the locals bluenoses(authorities), which drew the attention of the law as the increasing of nudity (Minsky’s Burlesque,26).
     What actually was Ziegfeld Follies? They were shows of beauty of face, form, charm and manner, personal magnetism, individuality, grace and poise. Of course, ability to either sing or dance was every day material at the Ziegfeld Follies (Ziegfeld 101). It is not easy to become part of the Ziegfeld Follies show, since the girls had to have all these qualities and abilities to enter the enterprise. Once the girls become part of the show, they had to work as hard as ‘bees’ on the stage in addition to the normal routine when they appear smiling and happy when the curtain goes up (Ziegfeld 101). The girls had to forget all their problems and responsibilities for the moment that they were on stage; the Ziegfeld follies were mostly aimed for the high-class and literate people. The Ziegfeld Follies were more into the art of entertaining, since they were able to select their own costumes plus they were intended to pick their own choreographies. According to the article Girls and Glitter in Follies of 1911 “the show began with a scene on a steamship dock, showing a customs officer at work”(9). Clearly these types of shows were more decent and well prepared than burlesque shows, which were more professional to the audience. These acts were more elaborate in different aspects, such us costumes, vocabulary and music. These were performances that displayed more elegance on stage. These acts showed more professionalism than the burlesque shows since it wasn’t obscene, but it did showed nudity. These acts had more etiquette, which means that the forms, manners, and ceremonies established by convention as acceptable or required in society, or in official life with all their glamour, which burlesque shows didn’t portray. These performances were more into the art of entertaining the audience since it was more a show of dancing and how women would portray themselves. According to the online article in mcny.org, which emphasis that “…Out of the vulgar leg-show, Ziegfeld has fashioned a thing of grace and beauty, of loveliness and charm; he knows quality and mood”(). Evidently, people at the times see the Ziegfeld Follies as a different way in comparison to the burlesque shows. It seems that the glamour and the beauty of the performance takes away the bad presence of nudity.
     Why were authorities interested in closing all the burlesque shows and not the Ziegfeld Follies? Fiorello LaGuardia had a dream “I can see the city of the future…the city of skyscrapers can have cheerful, sanitary houses, clean streets, beautiful parks, a thorough system of education, efficient hospitals, well run public markets”(Job of Mayor as LaGuardia Sees it,SM3). Apparently, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia is a strong man that deliberates with his principles. He had a dream of a better place to life for his people. Mayor LaGuardia wanted a place where there is no obscenity or any kind of degradation.
     What was the real issue during Mayor LaGuardia’s campaign, which did not eliminate both performances since both contained nudity. It was not fair for the Minsky brothers to be forced to close their businesses while the Ziegfeld Follies were still open without any problem. This probably was because Mayor LaGuardia knew that it was going to be easier to eliminate them first, since this show was aimed mostly for low-income people, while Ziegfelf Follies were supported by the elite people of the city. It seems to be that it was easier to eliminate Burlesque shows than the Ziedfeld Follies from the a political perspective. Mayor LaGuardia knew that if he would’ve attacked the Ziegfeld Follies instead of the Burlesque shows, he would’ve had more problems with the elite. Also Mayor LaGuardia was part of the high class of the city so he knew that he would have had his colleagues against him and that would affect his campaign. Mayor LaGuardia should had used his power as a mayor of an important city as New York to attack both performances without any fear to loose his re-election, since he would be right to exterminate all these degrading displays. Temporarily, the Ziegfeld Follies were open without any problem. It is important to get rid of both displays, since both were affecting the cultural perspective and were not appropriate for the time. If these shows wouldn’t be eliminated they would cause social damage because these performances would corrupt the people’s perspective in how to raise their children in choosing what is good or bad. People would teach their children to accept the fact that degrading women is normal, since these places were highly visited areas where people had to pass by and were aware of their presence.
     In conclusion, Fiorello LaGuardia’s campaign unfairly opposed Burlesque performances instead of the Ziegfeld Follies, since it was politically easier to take action against shows that were supported by the lower class. After the fact, women in Burlesque were able to expose themselves. The owner of the Burlesque enterprise did not care about what type of show they’ll persuade, they just cared about the money. The Ziegfeld Follies was the glamour version of Burlesque, but basically the same context of degrading women showing them as objects on stage. In my opinion, Mayor LaGuardia’s decision to abolish Burlesque show was a political strategy, since if Mayor LaGuardia would have choosen the Ziegfeld Follies; he would have ended up with the high-elite people against him. It wouldn’t be favorable for his campaign and for a possible re-election. Burlesque and the Ziegfeld Follies had not done anything good for the people in New York. Instead, they created an image where women were treated as objects and used as jokes.






















Work Cited
1. “Burlesque Show Closed by Minskys”. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. New York
Times. Nov 26, 1937
2. “Court Refuses Writin Pleas Clarifies”. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. New York
Times. Sep 30, 1932
3. “Girls and Glitter in Follies of 1911”. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. New York
Times. Jun 27, 1911
4. “Minsky’s Burlesque”. Booklet
5. “Opening Night, Ziegfeld Follies”. www.mcny.org
6. Spies, Kathleen. “Girls and Gags: Sexual Display and Humor in Reginald Morsh’s
Burlesque Images”. EBSCOHOST
7. “The Job of Mayor As LaGuardia Sees It”. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
New York Times. Sep 17, 1933
8. Tomasky, Michael. www.newyorktimes.com. August 24, 1998




Required burlesque reading, courtesy of Dr. Lucky. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

“I didn’t know you still perform,” a young performer said to me at BurlyCon in 2011.  I felt a twang of sadness, that feeling of regret that comes from finally beginning to experience the consequences of choices you have made.  The truth is, I decided to move away from hustling for gigs a few years ago.  Some would call this “semi retirement,” but I never put a label on it.  There was no fanfare, no announcements on Facebook (for that would inevitably come with another proclamation about “coming out of semi-retirement” every time I stepped on a stage.)  Instead, I made a deliberate choice to think about the future:  the future of burlesque and what it has and will become, as well as my own future, including other life-long ways to be a creative being and a performance practitioner.  Tigger! has told me that he wants to die on stage, and I applaud that resolve, dedication, and clarity of vision.  But that’s probably the last place I want to be when I die.

Dr. Lucky ©Chris K Photographer

Close your eyes.  Imagine the most fantastic show you can possible dream.  Allow yourself the luxury to let your mind’s eye play through the film:  don’t stop when you think it’s getting to expensive, too elaborate, too extravagant or even technically impossible.  (Now open your eyes so you can continue reading this!)  Does that fantastic dream involve stripping at a stage-less dive bar in the Lower East Side with an office-turned-dressing room and patrons who may or may not care about your performance?  Or at a swanky dinner theatre where top dollar is being paid by patrons but, again, you have to change in an office-turned-dressing room while patrons judge you as they pick at their overpriced steak?  “Of course not,” you retort, “those are money gigs.  They pay the rent.  You are being rhetorical, Lucky, and a little presumptuous.  Not everyone has a PhD.  Some of us have to work.”  Of course.  But hear me out.

When are we ever going to get over letting “money gigs” rule our decisions for our artistic choices?  When is this generation of incredibly talented and beautiful artists going to stop thinking that the more Swarovski crystals they put on their dress, the better their “art”?  When are we going to stop obsessing over creating that act that will get us booked, or get us into BHOF, and instead create that which has never been seen before?  When are we going to stop obsessing over our bodies and our Facebook self promotion and start thinking about what we put our energy into?

“When are we ever going to get over letting “money gigs” rule our decisions for our artistic choices?  When is this generation of incredibly talented and beautiful artists going to stop thinking that the more Swarovski crystals they put on their dress, the better their “art”?”

Burlesque does not foster thinking about the long term.  Burlesque is all about immediate gratification, those 5 glittering minutes on stage, preparing for the next show, the next festival, the next “idea” you can’t wait to get started on.  It does not encourage planning for the future or financial security or investing or planning a family or any of the other things many of us got into a fringe expression of self to avoid in the first place.  No one I know wants to be a suit.  Of course.  But as I watch myself and my colleagues age and burlesque change, I have to ask myself:  What are we doing?

I love burlesque’s creativity, its gumption, its anything goes mind set.  I LOVE DIY.  Burlesque was once completely DIY, but this, too, is a dying part of the art as professional designers and prop makers become the norm, even for brand new performers, some of whom have their own gown designers before they’ve even stepped on stage.  This is all beyond ludicrous, but most importantly it misses the whole point of what, to me, makes burlesque interesting:  self invention, creativity, and doing everything – and I mean everything — yourself.  I love burlesque’s scrappy, “we can do this” mindset but I don’t like spaces with no or substandard dressing rooms or stages.  This may be a NYC problem, one that is inevitably related to the expense of real estate.  But throwing burlesque like spaghetti against a wall and seeing what “sticks,” even when a venue is completely an unacceptable space for live performance, does not enrich the art form.  Just because a venue wants you to do a show there does not mean you should.

“…when I see self-possessed, strong women doubting themselves, wondering why they aren’t getting booked and deciding it’s because of their costumes or their bodies or because they are not good enough, it’s time to turn the magnifying glass around.  You are not the problem.  The problem is burlesque.

I love the idea of burlesque but not necessarily what it may (or has) become.  It’s all rhinestones and boned corsets and feather fans that cost at least a month’s rent, while performers bend over backwards (literally) or suck off producers (sometimes literally) to get booked for a free gig in a shitty bar.  This is “making it.”  I don’t want one single part of that.  I still love performing, and I will continue to do so, as well as produce shows, teach burlesque, and think and write about it.  I am not throwing in the towel on burlesque as a whole; I’m just more selective these days.  For when I see self-possessed, strong women doubting themselves, wondering why they aren’t getting booked and deciding it’s because of their costumes or their bodies or because they are not good enough, it’s time to turn the magnifying glass around.  You are not the problem.  The problem is burlesque.

Dr. Lucky. ©Ves Pitts

For those of us going on 15 or 20 plus years of performing in burlesque and nightclubs, I doubt any one of us ever thought this subculture would blow up into an international phenomenon.  We did it as a lark, we did it because it was an extension of what we did at home (playing dress up, being an exhibitionist, acting out, etc.), we did it because we were railing against the system.  (Remember the ad campaigns for The Gap in the 1990s?  Remember those commercials featuring stone-faced, still beautiful young people dressed exactly the same as one another, Gap’s not-so-subtle brainwashing us into conformity?  I think burlesque was responding to that.  “I was born in the ‘90s,” you whine.  Well, fuck you.  Go look it up.  And get back to me in 20 years when you are old, too.)  It is exciting to be a part of this movement which has become hugely popular, and incredible to see what people come up with when they are given the broad parameters of burlesque possibility.  And, of course, there are many people who have successfully turned their fun time into a full-time career.

I completely agree with most of what Kate Valentine wrote in her “State of the Union” Address, except for her division between “professionals” and “amateurs.”  This seems to want to differentiate between talent levels, and it has become clear the more I travel that there are plenty of “amateurs” who do burlesque full time, and many amazing, talented performers who don’t do it full time.  This might be because they don’t sit on social media all day every day blowing smoke up their own asses.  Or they may have other careers – perhaps by necessity or perhaps by choice – and though they may be “professional” compared to the newbie turned “full time” Kitten Le New, technically they are a “hobbyist.”  [Note to self:  check to see if this name is real before posting!  I personally don’t know or have anything against Kitten Le New].

“I don’t want to spend my life hustling to get on stage for a few minutes.  I want to imagine another way, another way to be a creative and artistic human being, a way to celebrate the body and free expression and glamorous excess.”

No one should have to apologize for having a meaningful career that limits them from constantly hustling or endlessly updating social media, the two necessarily requirements for all “professional” burlesque performers.  Because burlesque is inherently an amateur art form (which doesn’t mean there aren’t professional performers and that it doesn’t take great skill, practice, and talent to get there), it will always have a constant influx of new talent that both invigorates and waters down the quality.  (Please note:  This will not be your standard “newbie” bash, for everyone was a newbie once.  Besides, if you discourage new performers, the art will not grow.)

In most other art forms you have to learn it before you do it.  Burlesque has no such apprenticeship program –the “stage kitten” is a temporary position, not a true training ground.  New and old performers vie for the few performance spots there are, or produce their own shows so that they can get more stage time.  And then their time is divided, much like the performer who has a day job, whether rewarding or obligatory, and therefore by definition, there are no full-time, professional burlesque performers.  Full time performers are also producers, agents, designers, choreographers, teachers, etc.

I don’t want to spend my life hustling to get on stage for a few minutes.  I want to imagine another way, another way to be a creative and artistic human being, a way to celebrate the body and free expression and glamorous excess.  This has required spending some physical and mental energy on thinking about the future, what such an artistic production could look like, and how to possibly get there.  And this future-looking methodology contradicts the very ontology of burlesque.  Burlesque fosters a love of the short term attention span.  Burlesque is in and of the moment.

“No one should have to apologize for having a meaningful career that limits them from constantly hustling or endlessly updating social media, the two necessarily requirements for all “professional” burlesque performers.”

I remember getting an email booking inquiry in the early 2000s from a producer asking if I would do one act for 50 bucks.  At the time, I had been performing maybe for 5 years.  I turned him down, thinking 50 bucks wasn’t enough for me to get into drag.  Now, performers are clamoring for those $50 gigs.  We have not gotten a raise in over a decade.  In fact, pay has gone down.  And still there are those willing to take those gigs, or have to take those gigs because they don’t have “day jobs.”  (Though, if you see my argument above, all performers are, by definition, part time performers.)  I do not blame those performers who, at all costs, want to get on stage.  I blame the art form, an art form that has become over focused on appearance and self promotion.  (This, of course, could be said of actors or musicians or models, or practically any other art form that capitalizes on the body as its primary tool.  But what makes burlesque different is to see it change so radically in its life span.)

Dr. Lucky. ©Don Spiro

This relates to one of the philosophical and practical “problems” with burlesque:  it capitalizes on and depends on glamour and excess while in the real lives of its performers, most are struggling to survive.  They take the subway home from gigs because they can’t afford a cab while their giant bags are filled with beautiful gowns that cost 4 digits.  As Guy Debord would put it, it’s a society based on the spectacle.  But not all that glitters is gold.

In the end, I don’t know whether burlesque can support itself, or if it will self implode, collapsing into itself like a black hole.  So when I think about the future, I don’t necessarily think about burlesque fulfilling all my creative visions or filling my wallet with cash.  It’s too fickle, too much like a teenager, too willing to change its mind on a whim.  In the meantime, I enjoy the ride, and appreciate all the beautiful creatures and beautiful creations that abound.  I’ve gotten to travel, headline and host festivals, talk to students and reporters about my perspective and experience.  It indeed is a glorious fantasy world.  But its grounding in reality is not its forte, though, admittedly, I would never want it to be.  It will be interesting to see what the future holds.  Because some of us showgirls are looking to the future.

P.S.  Dr. Lucky is available for bookings, hosting, and lectures at doctorofburlesque@yahoo.com.  See more at www.doctorofburlesque.com.

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