Real Burlesque Is So Much Sexier Than the Movie

The bawdy true history of burlesque.

What’s missing from the new movie Burlesque is, to put it bluntly, the sex. Real-deal burlesque—whether it was in Vaudeville or at the Moulin Rouge, in the gentleman’s clubs of the ‘50s and ‘60s, or, more recently, onstage at the Slipper Room, the Velvet Hammer Burlesque, or the Va Va Voom Room—has always been about the raunchy, the dirty, and, when it’s really good, the wild excess of erotic imagination. Rest assured, you’ll find none of that in the new Cher movie. Instead, we’ve got Ali, a pure-hearted country girl with a great set of pipes played by Christina Aguilera, who takes a journey to Hollywood that you’d have to have died a century ago not to know by heart.

In the movie version, we have the big dreams, the long bus ride, the want ads, and the first glimpse of the stars on Hollywood Boulevard. And then there’s the club, whose “burlesque” acts open up a new world to our pretty bumpkin. It’s a little difficult to understand exactly what it is that Ali falls so hard for in the first scenes, where she gazes in awe at the dancing girls on stage. Is it the jazz hands? The Bob Fosse-style dance numbers that bear so little resemblance to actual burlesque? Or has she just never seen a pair of lacy underpants before? Whatever it is, it hits Ali like a ton of bricks, and she’s forever sworn to pursuing a life as a burlesque dancer. She succeeds, of course, and soon enough, the movie becomes a series of Christina Aguilera music videos, with the occasional nod to something that might resemble actual burlesque.

Burlesque performers

Which is too bad, since lately, actual burlesque has become a huge cultural trend, with numerous books and documentaries coming out, including New Burlesque, Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind, Burlesque: From Gaslight to Spotlight, and The Velvet Hammer Burlesque. In some ways burlesque fits the modern moment: It’s inherently spoof and parody, sharing an attitude with so much of late-night television. But its appeal also lies in the way that it is opposite from the clean technological lives we lead. Dirty Martini is one of the stars of what’s now known as the neo-burlesque movement. As she puts it, people are “fed up with the lack of glamour in the modern world.”

Burlesque has changed a lot over the years. When Martini found collections of old burlesque film reels in the cult section of Kim’s Video in the early ‘90s, she was looking to bring old burlesque to this century of feminist empowerment. “It’s this great outlet, to get dressed up in glamorous costumes, and go crazy and do a floorshow. Burlesque opens up the possibility that every woman can put on a show, every woman can feel great about how she looks.”

Martini’s focus on the possibilities for women are built into the history of burlesque. In his 1995 book, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture, Robert G. Allen writes that burlesque “forever changed the role of the woman on the American stage and later influenced her role on the screen. … The very sight of a female body not covered by the accepted costume of bourgeois respectability forcefully if playfully called attention to the entire question of the ‘place’ of woman in American society.”

Sassy, dirty-talking, aggressive women on stage offer a release from standard social roles, through laughter and lechery and late-night good times. But there’s an even wilder side to burlesque. Dream Rockwell, who founded the circus troupe the Lucent Dossier Experience in 2005, says that everything this experimental group of performers does is burlesque. And by burlesque she means, “the breaking of social boundaries, the emerging of the human soul through art, sensuality and provocative self expression,” all of it inspired by “the trashy traveling whimsy of vaudeville.” Rajiv Jain, a performer with Lucent Dossier, says that he’s pushed himself further than he ever thought he could when he’s onstage with the group. “The stage is a place of suspended reality,” he says. “And the sensual realm is this magic, otherworldly space where you can experiment and face down your fears.”

Although the new Cher movie does not quite capture this magic, other modern productions do. Dirty Martini was one of a gang of American burlesque performers to star in a movie made by Mathieu Amalric, who played Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Amalric’s film, La Tournée, is loosely based on a novel by Colette, who was herself a dancing girl. Amalric stars as a fallen television producer who runs off to the U.S. and takes up with a group of dancers. He then brings them to France, where they tour the country, winning over skeptical crowds. Amalric won the award for best director at Cannes last year, and the French press went crazy for it. * Unfortunately, though, there are no plans to release it in the U.S. right now. There is one other contender: Alan Moore is writing a screenplay based on the second issue of the magazine, Dodgem Logic, that he started up last year. Issue 2 features several burlesque stars on its cover, and (unconfirmed) rumor has it they’ve been recruited to star in a burlesque film. Colette, Alan Moore, today’s burlesque stars—these are the people we want telling us about burlesque in all its risqué abandon.

The word burlesque for a long time meant comedic imitation or exaggeration, in both theater and literature. To “burlesque” someone is to spoof them with bawdy, earthy jokes and barbs. If the film Burlesque never really goes there, it seems, at least, as though it might inspire audiences to do so. Aguilera plays an oddly prudish burlesque star. Though she dates a handsome and wealthy guy who frequents the club (and threatens its survival), it’s made abundantly clear that she is not sleeping with him. That pleasure is reserved for her model-hot roommate. When these two were finally on the verge of getting it on, a woman in the audience yelled, “Take it off, girl!” to howls of laughter. “I know I would!”

Dirty Martini says that in her definition, burlesque is “a short format theater piece that involves some sort of nudity or sexuality, and comedy, and that’s done late at night.” Well, Burlesque doesn’t exactly fit the bill, which is, reportedly, why Dita Von Teese, known for her relationship with Marilyn Manson as well as fetish modeling and a burlesque act, has put together a counterpart: a burlesque review to be performed at the Roxy in Hollywood Dec. 13-15. “I think Dita said, ‘Hollywood wants everyone to think that’s burlesque, so I’m going to show Hollywood what burlesque really is,’ ” says Martini, who will appear in the show. The burlesque community remains skeptical of the film, but in the words of performer Honi Harlow, “Hey, if it gets more people coming to our shows, then I’m for it.”

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Correction, Jan. 3, 2011: This article originally stated that La Tournée won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It did not. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)