A Beginner’s Guide to Burlesque History

We’ve seen and heard about Burlesque either by chance, or thanks to the modern celebrities who popularized Burlesque with the modern “Neo-Burlesque”scene, such as  Dita Von Teese (DVT). While others might of stumbled upon the information somehow online. In any case, you ended up on this post. I wanted to look in to the early history of Burlesque performance and where it is now.

Before writing this and doing my research, I knew that this type of performance has never ceased to exist, and striptease is its cousin, which is not really respected as much due to the inferences in to prostitution/trafficking/drugs/pimps/violence etc. may have shadowed its appreciation. This short history of the art of Burlesque and what I found out should provide you with the general knowledge, all in one place. Let’s take a trip down memory lane.



Thanks to the modern internet sources, Wikipedia says, “Burlesque is a literary, dramatic or musical work intended to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner or spirit of serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects. The word derives from the Italian burlesco, which, in turn, is derived from the Italian burla – a joke, ridicule or mockery.” In the early days of its existence, these shows were like three or so act plays/operas, with intermission.

When and where did Burlesque begin?

The above definition is exactly what Burlesque was, it was basically a comedy or satire of a story. What it ended up being was not exactly how it began. Burlesque was the late 1800s version of what comedy skit shows such as Mad TV and Saturday Night Live in the US and comedy show equivalents in the rest of the world are. Though unlike these modern shows, they were parodies of popular plays and operas of the time. Specifically in Victorian England, this type of performance was popular, and specialty venues existed for such entertainment.

The US Burlesque scene didn’t take too long to pick up on the genre, and with the help of notable performer, Lydia Thompson, English performer whose shows and performances made their way through cities across the country around the 1860s. By this time, the English burlesque transformed in to Edwardian Musical Comedy, while the scene in the US took a more provocative turn, of course all in time. Miss Thompson was one of the early performers who pushed the boundaries of what was allowed for women’s public image, with plays where she and other lady performers wore tights, dressed in drag, and challenged the times.

Lydia ThompsonLydia Thompson in costume.

British BlondesLydia and as the poster above British Blondes popularized Burlesque in the US.


Here’s a nice video of photo tribute to the sensation which brought Burlesque to the US.

Transition From Show to Striptease

During the Chicago World Fair in 1893, the boundaries of what Americans saw as provocative on stage was the belly dancers or as they were called “Little Egypts”. Their provocative Hoochie coochie dances were very popular.

Example of the original Little Egypt and the naughty dance.

The early 1900s performer women were on stage with comedians and contributed to the act with sexy poses and actions, funny yet sexy. This drew the crowds and kept people coming back. There was liquor and smoking, a very different time. With drastic times and need for audience, humans do what they do best, adapt. Sex sells, and showing a bit of skin helped employ women and pay their bills, it’s as simple as that. My findings don’t exactly tell me how the removal of clothing and stripping happened, or how shows morphed in to just that, music and clothing removal, but I did find that the performances were still comedic. It’s speculated that a wardrobe malfunction or something of the sort caused the trend of performance for the future.

With a few open performance houses during the Great Depression, performers pushed the boundaries between performance and sleaziness that could land them in jail for corruption of the public morale. A lot of the performances were shadowed by strippers, who popularized flimsy undies and pasties to prevent shutdown by the police, and landing in jail.

Here’s a great video of some Burlesque, none of the performers’ names stood out to me.

Stripping in to Popularity

The performances didn’t always stay just as they were, some of the Burlesque performers of the mid-twentieth century went on to acting or becoming notable for their style of performance.

Notable Dancers

They’re in no notable order, just a few that I am familiar with and a couple I found through my research.

Sally Rand


sally rand (blog)

Blaze Starr



Tempest Storm


tempest storm

Virginia Bell






Noel Toy



Bettie Page



Evelyn West


the vintage cat

Lili St. Cyr



Gypsy Rose Lee



Ann Corio


Ann Corio

Couldn’t find a youtube video of her performances.


Here’s Bettie Page’s voice, so lovely

Here’s the Teasarama (1955) Film with different acts and performances by Bettie Page, Tempest Storm, etc.

I have yet to watch some films on burlesque. If anyone knows of any good ones worth noting, please share!

How did I hear about it?

I first heard about Burlesque it because of DVT, I think I saw her on Eurovision in 2009, and was blown away by her presence on stage. I hardly looked in to it because I didn’t think about glamor nor did I truly believe I could achieve it myself (I was a freshmen in college and in a confused transitional period of my life) . It was also a few years after I quit modern dance to became a high school cheerleader, and left that too after a couple of years. My dance experience and performance altogether was 5 years, and I regret leaving modern dance. I had an amazing choreographer and she kept our group in tip top shape, with vigorous ballerina exercises and practice, practice, practice! I took away a lot from that experience, and after all these years, I am coming back to my appreciation of the performing arts as well as appreciation of femininity and beauty, or as Dita would say “glamour”. I did take a couple of belly dance classes, and really enjoyed those. I don’t think I could ever become a Burlesque performer, but I definitely appreciate the work that’s put in to creating a show.

Future of Burlesque

Neo-Burlesque exists now, it is the next chapter in the Burlesque performance book. There are schools devoted to teaching women how to gain confidence and learn the basics of the Burlesque performance. One I know of is The New York School of Burlesque. I was considering taking some classes there.

The classic fans and pasties are still staples of the performace, and each dancer creates her show, by choreographing the striptease and music. You might think, isn’t this good old stripping? Yes and no. Yes, they are removing their clothing, but No, there isn’t money being thrown at them nor is there a pole or complete nudity. I would say it’s much more tasteful. It celebrates female sensuality and form, no matter your weight/race/hair color/etc. Its about a performance, the costumes, the music, and the crowd response.

Here’s a little peak at Dita’s routine with a giant martini glass. Her costumes are fantastic!

I hope you enjoyed reading!




Without these handy online sources, I wouldn’t be able to compile this post.










  1. Pingback: STRIPTEASE BURLESQUE – Osez vous déshabiller ! | Ici ou Ailleurs

  2. Pingback: Little Beginnings | obscura:

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