Here, in the place where I am being hosted, almost every evening there is an event usually called "burlesque".

  • Is "burlesque" normally used by Americans?
  • How is the word used generally? In what context do we refer to this word?
  • Are you in Texas perchance? And yes, we differentiate it from stripping (for some reason). – cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Apr 20 '12 at 18:36

Okay, this is not going to be easy to explain, because it isn’t totally pleasant as a subject and certainly not one you’ll find in an English class. But here goes nothing.

Most of the time in the US, a burlesque means a type of sex show. The second meaning of a bastardized parody is acceptable, but nine out of ten times an American thinks of the show.

Burlesque has been around for a very long time; originally it was a stage show where a woman would sing suggestive torch songs and do tricks for the audience, especially in the early vaudeville days or in saloons. (It wasn’t much different from the cancan dancers and shows that used to be a part of French cabaret a century or so ago.) As time went on it got more elaborate and evolved into the showgirls of Vegas or small-time clubs you’d see in NYC in the 30s and 40s, some stripping, some not. For the non-strippers, go back and watch the Gene Kelly movie Cover Girl; it was pretty close to that. For reference what the other racier girl was like, google the names Blaze Starr, Gypsy Rose Lee, or Bettie Page. It will be enlightening.

These girls were usually entertainment for all-men clubs and in about half the cases they were strippers, though back then they were a lot less about aggressive pole dancing and lap dances than teasing horny men in the audience with showing a little skin and singing and dancing. It was more about the promise of sex than the raw modern stuff you see in a nudie bar today (like a naked woman spreading her legs and gyrating her vulva right in fromt of you), and women built entire alter egos around their acts (Blaze Starr even had an ocelot in hers.) The work they did was not terribly respectable for its day, mind, since it was the lower end of live entertainment: most dancers and pretty girls got into it to pay the bills either because they couldn’t act or they couldn’t get work in a normal dance troupe, and back then employment was more limited in general for girls. As the 60s came the milieu pretty much disappeared, since men discovered g-strings, go-go dancers, and mud wrestling much more to the point and didn’t bother with any pretense of a show.

As the 70s and 80s came, so did implants, porn shops where you’d pop in a quarter to get a dance, and sometimes outright prostitution. My Dad used to work near 42nd street in NYC when I was a little girl, and although today it is clean and tourist friendly, when I was small it was riddled with drugs, hookers, perverts, and girly shows for miles. It was so bad that my father used to tell me to bury his head into his shoulder so I would not see the debauchery, and he held me tight to keep me, his baby, away from the crackheads and whores (don’t ask what they used to say.) It wasn’t until Giuliani threw them all out of the city that anything changed, and later in the 90s when crime rates nationwide dropped in the top five cities that finally it got better.

Fast forward to now. Burlesque is taking off again in a new form; until I was in high school its closest relative in America that was still alive was a drag show. Now it is very popular in New York, LA, Miami, DC, Philly, and a few other places. The young generation seem to be taking it on with some differences from their parents’ and grandparents’ day: men and women both perform. Women are all shapes and sizes, and the boys, too. You do wiggle and shake up there, but you have to put on a show as well. No lap dances, but plenty of teasing. The action is interactive, and though she is wearing little more than some feathers and a smile, she will sass you if you get too fresh with her. Drinks and dates welcome, as are alter egos like Jessica Rabbit.


Obviously an American is the best person to answer this question. But for what it's worth, I'll simply quote the dictionary (Chambers) since you do not seem to have looked it up.

An entertainment combining often coarse jokes, striptease, songs and dancing (N American)

So this meaning seems to be specific to the Americans. These other meanings of the word are all I was familiar with before reading the dictionary.

  • A ludicrous imitation

  • A piece of literature, of acting, or other performance that mocks its original by grotesque exaggeration or by combining the dignified with the low or the familiar

  • +1, but I cannot accept because you do not say nothing in order the word usage. (Note: I'm not sure if in preceding sentence I had to use 'nothing' or 'anything'. I'm French.) – Elberich Schneider Apr 20 '12 at 19:18
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    @AngloSaxon: Does your question have anything about the word usage? How am I supposed to know? – Bravo Apr 20 '12 at 19:31
  • Pheraphs was the title (Usage ...) no enough? – Elberich Schneider Apr 20 '12 at 19:43
  • No @AngloSaxon, you need to clearly list the questions down :) You could bullets (hyphens) for clarity. – Bravo Apr 20 '12 at 19:44
  • Please, could you edit my question to give more emphasize on word usage. I do not undertand how I should use the bullet to do this. – Elberich Schneider Apr 20 '12 at 19:50

Merriam-Webster Unabridged gives three senses for the noun form of burlesque:

1 a : a literary composition or dramatic representation that ridicules something by means of grotesque exaggeration or comic imitation {the literature of burlesque} b : a work (as a play or novel) of this kind {a first-class burlesque in response to Scott's "Ivanhoe" -- Harvey Breit}

2 : a grotesque likeness or exaggerated imitation : CARICATURE {he has become a perversion of its ideals and a burlesque of his own earlier hopes -- J.W.Aldridge}

3 : theatrical entertainment of a broadly humorous often earthy character consisting of comic skits, striptease acts, and songs and dances {one often thinks of burlesque only as a striptease, but it's more than that}

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