my concerns about burlesque

I’ve written about this before, but not in a proper post. In this post I try to articulate some of the reasons why burlesque performances at swing dance events (lindy hop and blues) make me feel uncomfortable. This isn’t the end of my thinking, and I do want to make the point, first, that badass burlesque performers are seriously badass.


Burlesque has been having something of a surge in popularity within swing dancing scenes in Australia (and overseas I suppose) for a few years now. Burlesque is actually quite a big scene in Sydney, and there’re a range of regular events featuring burlesque shows (including Black Cherry and Gurlesque) as well as a stream of workshops, classes and so on. There are a number of burlesque performers who are also lindy hoppers, but they tend to be people who came to lindy _after_ burlesque (or carny stuff). There are more ‘swing’ dancers into burlesque, but when I say ‘swing’, I’m mostly referring to the neo-swing/rockabilly/rock n roll/goth crossover scene which is larger and more firmly established than the lindy scene.
So I’ve seen a range of burlesque acts, with a range of politics and presentation and framing styles. I’m by no means an aficionado and I’ve never taken a burlesque class of any type. But I have seen acts that range from your standard tits-out (eventually) tease show to more sophisticated (politically speaking) cabaret and circus-skills type performance.
But what I want to talk about is burlesque within the context of a swing or lindy hop scene. When I say ‘swing or lindy hop’ I’m talking about the dancers who’re into recreating 1920s, 30s and 40s dances rather than neo swing/rockabilly cross over stuff. Though it’s a little difficult to do that in Sydney where there’s so much cross-polination. With the hardcore lindy/swing scene, though, the emphasis is more on dancing than costume, and the standard of dancing tends to be much higher.
I am often unsure of the burlesque shows I see at swing events. I want to cheer and be appreciative, I want to celebrate women learning mad skillz, choreographing routines, running businesses and celebrating the sheer orsm of the female form (and sexuality). But I’m not entirely convinced by the majority of shows that I see. For the most part, when I see a burlesque show at a swing event (and there’re more and more these days), I see women who aren’t exactly super-skilled, and whose shows aren’t exactly unique or professionally choreographed. This often means that they don’t quite manage the properly professional performance that burlesque requires. I mean, if I’m going to buy the argument that burlesque is empowering or a celebration of women’s sexuality, I need to see confident, polished acts and performances. Performances that function on more levels than just ‘here, get off on this’.
In the more sophisticated acts the tension is established not solely through anticipation (the ‘tease’) but through the presentation of a performance of sexuality, where it is quite clear that we are invited to suspend belief, or to adopt a role as ‘audience’ in what is, essentially, a performance of gendered, sexual relations. I mean, I’m not at all cool with the idea of a bunch of men going along to watch a woman or two getting their gear off and flaunt their bits, simply for the audience’s pleasure. Not if that’s all there is to the story.
Because that’s not feminist. Not at all. Not even in a post-second wave feminist social context. Because, of course, we’re not living in a post-patriarchy. Images of women in mainstream culture – fuck, in subcultures too – still tend to favour Mulvey’s male gaze, and we see women’s bodies almost always in reference to a sexualised ideal. In this context, a dodgy, single-layered (and unprofessional) burlesque act is really just an extension of an ordinary strip show, just with shittier pay, crapper performance skills and some bullshit line that this is somehow ’empowering’ the performers. I’m also a little fucking reluctant to accept that – by extension – this performance is somehow empowering me. Because it’s fucking not.
I go to a great deal of trouble on the social dance floor, in lindy hop and other jazz dances, to establish my public persona, or to perform a gendered identity that deviates from, that totally fucks up the idea that I am most fulfilled or powerful or beautiful or desirable when I’m admired and desired as an object by a man.
… I guess I’m not as cool and calm about this issue as I’d thought…
I think that this is the root of my frustration: poorly realised burlesque, in a swing setting, reminds us that women are sexualised by our society, and that our bodies are continually presented and represented as objects to be consumed by a male gaze.
bspic.jpg
(picture stoled from here but of course an iconic photo of Bessie Smith).
As I said, I do a lot of discursive, practical and thinking work to find myself role models – ways of being a woman – that do not work this way. I seek out women like Bessie Smith who made it clear that heterosexuality was dull, that physical strength was powerful, and that musical and creative independence was an essential part of womanhood. I also look to women like Josephine Baker, who may have performed in a garland of bananas, but who also tipped conventional ideas about women on their head. She used comedy and a hyper-sexualised, bizarre presentation of race and gender to fuck up gender norms of her day. And film footage of her dancing is still provocative and unsettling to the status quo (you can check her out in this bit of a documentary). I’ve written about this a bunch of times before, including in this post.
So when I see women getting up in front of a crowd of mildly embarrassed swing dancers, wearing a few spangles and then proceeding to conceal-and-reveal them with varying degrees of proficiency, I think ‘what the fuck?! Imma gonna have to work extra hard to wipe that image out of the minds of this crowd after this. Everything I’m going to do on the dance floor (and as a DJ and event manager) is once again going to be in reference to this fucked up, commodified, sexualised, disempowering image’. And for the good Goddess’s sake, I’d much rather work to produce a new set of genders and gender roles, ones which might include sexualised bodies, but which are not set up in opposition to (or marginalised by) an idealised sexualised female body. Which is – in these particular shows – white, young, hetero, etc etc etc.
I also have trouble with these dodgy burlesque shows because I see the way they make men in the audience feel uncomfortable. They might very well find these women attractive (because they are), but they’ve also spent the last few years being re-socialised by the heteronormativity of lindy hop which suggests that women aren’t just there to be looked at. The men in these audiences are also products of a 21st century culture which asks men to position this sort of sexualised display-and-consumption within all-male spaces. So I suppose, on the one hand, these shows approach some sort of empowerment by inviting men to openly acknowledge their desire for sexually confident women. But in reality, these aren’t actually sexually confident women. They’re women trying to present a sexually confident facade. And not quite bringing it off. And at any rate, there’s not exactly a shortage of spaces in which men can acknowledge their sexual desire for women.
There’s also the fact that these women performers are not really in a position to play with the queer (and necessarily transgressive) gaze presented by performing to a crowd of men and women. The Australian swing scene is quite homophobic, and while women dancers are quite good at cheering on their sisters on stage, they’re not comfortable with expressing sexual desire/titillation/whatevs for another woman. Not even in a performance or ‘made up’ setting. I think that these shows, particularly in regards to male audiences, ask men (and not women) to adopt a role as desiring subject for a powerless object. Quite a lot of men don’t really like the idea that they’re participating in the objectification of women’s bodies, and quite a few men would really rather support and participate in feminist projects which do the opposite.
In contrast, there’re very good burlesque shows which do all the tricky, slippery stuff that make burlesque (potentially) a site for gender play and subversion. Gurlesque, with its women-only crowds immediately tips over the heteronormativity necessitated by patriarchy. Shows that involve acrobatics or serious skills (hoops, knives, rope work, etc), are also undoing the idea of passive-woman as desirable-woman. And a clever returned-gaze or audience participation is equally powerful.
So I think what I’m saying is that I’m not ok with burlesque at lindy hop events. Or blues dancing events. Unless it is that second sort of show. But it’s difficult to distinguish between the two; do you ask to preview the performance before you put it in your program?
There’s also a tradition in Australian lindy hop of accepting and encouraging performances by dancers during your weekend. Including visiting or local dancers demonstrates welcomingness, and it also works quite nicely in a weekend’s program to have the odd performance to break up the social dancing. And, in the final analysis, most dancers really enjoying watching performances. Particularly because they really enjoy the interaction of a performance – clapping, cheering, shouting – and enjoy seeing dancing from other communities. This pleasure, though, is usually tempered during a burlesque performance. The room is often uncomfortably quiet, the setting large, open, airy and inappropriate for burlesque (which often plays with line-of-sight and the fourth wall of the conventional stage). The audience is unsure of when to cheer, how to cheer, and even if they should cheer.
I think that if I was running a weekend event and approached by a burlesque performer interested in doing a show during the weekend, I would be very careful in including them in my program. I’d preview their show first, and I’d only include acts which were both professional and also very clearly subversive or transgressive. I’d be this picky because I think that feminism is something that we do everyday, in ordinary, everyday settings. It’s not (just) about marches and protests and legislation. It’s also about how you style your swivel, whether you dance alone or not, how you get to and from events, and how you manage the program of your event. I have found that there are lots and lots of little ways to do good, solid community work in running dance events, and I see feminist work as community work – good for women, good for men, good for all of us. Or else it’s not feminist, not in my mind.
I think I have more to say about this, but I want to think a bit more and perhaps post again later. At the moment, I’m torn between wanting to support women performers unequivocably, and wanting to actually further the cause of feminism. And, in the end, I sure as fuck don’t want to support activities that undermine all the stuff I – and other women and men – have worked to achieve in gender performance in contemporary swing dance culture.

1 thought on “my concerns about burlesque”

  1. Hi, I’ve been following your blog for several months now and I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoy and appreciate what you do. Your blog is one of the finest DJ/lindy blogs in the world.
    Honestly, I had never really considered the meaning behind burlesque performances at swing events. I dance on the east coast of the United States and the only burlesque performances I’ve seen were ones by Sharon Davis. Burlesque is starting to catch on in other circles, but it has not yet spread to our scenes.
    Thank you for sharing these thoughts with us all. I don’t have anything to add to the discussion other than to say that I agree. I’ll be sharing this post with my friends and on my blog.

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