Burlesque, an art form in which performers combine sexual dance moves with parodied themes, theatrical music, and extravagant costumes for a dramatic performance, has been known internationally since the 1700s.
Over the last several decades, there has been a notable decline in burlesque culture as societal interest has shifted to on-demand sexual outlets such as pornography websites and strip clubs.
“We didn’t need it anymore,” Philadelphia-based burlesque producer and performer Timaree Schmit said. “We just want the tease – you go straight for that.”
Now, Philadelphia’s burlesque scene is gaining popularity and growing exponentially, Schmit said. Schmit, who has a PhD in sexuality, began to get involved with Philadelphia burlesque in 2008, and she recounts at the time there were only a few well-known groups that would perform together, known as troupes, in the city. These groups included the internationally renowned Peek-A-Boo Revue, which required performers to have an extensive background in dance, and the queer-centric Liberty City Kings Drag and Burlesque troupe.
“When people feel they have a niche – like there are others who are like them but they’re not necessarily front and center – they might form a troupe together,” Schmit, whose stage name is HoneyTree EvilEye, said.
In recent years, the scene has been shifting away from the traditional troupe organizational scheme and focusing more on providing opportunities to individual performers. Dancers can be booked individually for shows and act as freelancers, exercising their creative freedom by formulating their own acts.
“It was very common in 2009 to book people I had never seen perform before because that was my opportunity to see them,” Schmit said. “At this point, I have a weekly show and four monthly shows, and I have seen hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people in this city who are now doing this to degrees of varying success and varying levels of commitment.”
In its earliest days, burlesque was a means of mocking aristocracy and combatting classism. Originating from the Italian word “burla,” meaning “joke,” Schmit said a burlesque is an art form rooted in overturning social norms.
“At its heart, burlesque is about being silly about serious things and acting super serious about nothing,” Schmit said.
Natalie Higgins, who has been performing burlesque for several years under the stage name Alabaster, said classical burlesque incorporate slow, bump-and-grind movements, theatrical faces, and the glitz and glam of feathers, rhinestones, and sequins. The neo-burlesque scene implements modern music and choreographed dance routines for a more artistic model of burlesque.
In the neo-burlesque era, everything is the performer’s own creation, Higgins said. She has selected all the music and outfits for her acts and thinks up her own routines.
“It’ll just be music that I find myself listening to randomly,” she said. “The second that I visualize myself removing an item of clothing at a specific point in the song I’m like, ‘This would be a good number!’”
“You really do have a lot of creativity with it because you have the people that have rhinestone literally everything that they own, and then there are people like me who have neither the patience nor the time to do so,” Higgins added. “I end up using a lot of stuff from my closet that I wear on a regular basis a lot of the time. I have an H&M bodysuit that is my favorite thing to strip out of.”
According to Schmit, there is no one way to do burlesque correctly. She said she thinks a performer should hone in on a part of them that already exists, like their creativity, confidence, or uniqueness, and play up those characteristics on stage.
“An art form should be constantly changing and having its boundaries pushed as opposed to ‘this is how we do the thing,’” Schmit said. “I recommend people figure out who they are as a performer and that requires playing around.”
Schmit said her favorite part of burlesque is its open-endedness and versatility. She said she can use her performances to express anything, from addressing her emotional struggles and depression to making the audience laugh through silly routines.
“There’s a spontaneity of it and it just starts seeping into your everyday life,” Higgins said. “I’m currently in the process of trying to figure out how to turn myself into a gigantic tornado.”
Higgins said she thrives on burlesque’s tease aspect and the key to performing is having the ability to connect with your audience.
“You feel like you’re hypnotizing people,” she said. “It’s power for a second. You feel like you’re holding a group of people in the palm of your hand.”
Schmit said that while it’s important for a performer to be comfortable with having people looking at her body, burlesque can be beneficial in growing positive body image because of the art form’s celebratory nature.
“The audience isn’t weird and holding back their applause and waiting for you to earn their approval,” Schmit said. “They’re excited for the performer, they want performers to succeed.”
Despite the positive aspects, the performers agree burlesque has its drawbacks.
Higgins, who is in the process of earning her Master’s in human sexuality, said it can be difficult to find time for burlesque performances around her day job. She added performing can be emotionally draining when she’s having a bad day or not feeling particularly sexy or confident.
Schmit said burlesque isn’t the most lucrative job and a performer has to be good at networking for bookings, as dancers are self-employed. Additionally, she said burlesque, like strip clubs, carries a stigma.
Even though there are differences between burlesque and stripping, like burlesque performers not getting completely nude, the burlesque scene doesn’t try to distance itself from stripping.
“We’re just doing a different thing, but it’s all in the same sector,” she said.
Burlesque scenes vary greatly from city to city, but Schmit describes Philadelphia burlesquers as weird, rad, and extremely welcoming to new performers.
“We’re overwhelmingly queer, overwhelmingly politically progressive,” she said.
Higgins’ advice for anyone interested in pursuing burlesque is to not be afraid to embarrass themselves in the process.
“Do all the audience participation, talk to all the performers and let them know how incredibly inspiring you find them,” she said. “You have to not be afraid to take some risks. You’re going to look stupid sometimes but the second you feel like you’re looking stupid you’re probably doing things big enough that the audience thinks it looks normal.”
Schmit said two noteworthy Philadelphia burlesque shows coming up in August are 6SEX6, a burlesque show with a rock and metal soundtrack, on the 29th and Agitated!, a politics-themed performance on August 30th.
More information about Philadelphia’s upcoming burlesque shows can be found on Schmit’s event tracking website, burlesqueadelphia.com.