What Is Burlesque? - Definition, Songs & Dancers

Instructor: Colleen Cleveland

Colleen has taught college level Game Development and Graphic Design and has a Master's in Interactive Entertainment and Masters in Media Psychology.

This lesson discusses American burlesque, its rise, its fall, and its stars of stage and screen. Here we remember the brash and bawdy women that created the mystique behind burlesque.

Defining Burlesque

Burlesque! Exotic! Erotic! Provocative! Scantily dressed women with insinuating sensuality. Bawdy women busting out of their bustiers. The ladies of burlesque were raunchy comedians and dancers with a twist, always with the earth-shattering, heart racing anticipation from the audience for just the glimpse of bare flesh.

In the dictionary, burlesque is defined as a performance art that, to get a laugh from the audience, becomes vulgar, or offensive of upper class arrogance.

All in all, to sum up what burlesque was in 1860 America, It was a variety show that made fun of the politics of the day and everything else that the lower class found snooty. Burlesque was not considered refined. It was vulgar with low class humor and filled with sexual innuendo, which made it all the more fun.

The Demise of the Popularity of Burlesque

Burlesque was a hot ticket, especially during the days of Vaudeville, but as Vaudeville began to die, so did the popularity of burlesque. Burlesque eventually began disappearing as a widespread popular art form around the 1940s.

Occasionally, burlesque resurfaced over the years in film and musicals. The musical, Gypsy was written loosely based on the life of legend, Gypsy Rose Lee The most recent film was the 1990s movie, Burlesque, with Cher and Christina Aguilera. Today, burlesque can still be seen today in independent venues in locations such as Las Vegas.

Burlesque Poster

The Music of Burlesque

Songs from burlesque were parodies of famous songs with their lyrics changed by the performers to something a little more comical and a lot more raunchy to be used in their striptease and dancing. Songs were high energy with a swing beat, using a lot of low brass which emphasized the swinging of hips as the performers sweep across the stage.

Actress Barbara Stanwyck sang 'Take it off the E string; play it on the G string' as one of stage dance pieces in Lady of Burlesque. Lady of Burlesque revolves around two burlesque performers and a ghastly murder, which was originally written in book form by performer Gypsy Rose Lee.

In the musical about Gypsy Rose Lee, Gypsy, 'Let Me Entertain You' was Gypsy's striptease song.

Not everything was about Gypsy Rose Lee, however. One of the most famous striptease songs was written in 1958 and released in 1962. 'The Stripper' climber to number 5 on the Billboard charts. 'The Stripper,' written by David Rose, can still be heard today.

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