Burlesque performances are growing in popularity in major cities across the UK. But is it an art form that transcends debates about the sex industry, or just glorified stripping for kooky outsiders? Kieran Yates enters the tantalizing world of nipple tassels to find out…
I walk into the ornate building of Decades at Proud Cabaret in East London, newly refurbished and dripping with decadence, kitted out in the style of a 1920s speakeasy. You get the feeling a gaggle of flappers are going to come up and shimmy behind you at any moment — which of course, during the show, they do.
Founded by the infamous businessman Alex Proud, he uses his welcoming address to insist that female managers have been key to the success of the night, a contribution that appears to be central to Burlesque — and it’s true that female touches (no pun intended) are felt everywhere.
The art of Burlesque — or ‘The tantalizing tease’ — has been a strong force in Europe since the late 17th century. The word derives from the Italian burlesco, which itself derives from the Italian burla — a joke, ridicule or mockery. Shakespeare’s comic female prostitutes in plays like Measure for Measure (‘Kate Keepdown’ and ‘Mistress overdone’) and Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’ were some of the early English characters that approach their sexuality with a playfulness and wit which mirror the approach to Burlesque today. The point at which it really took off was in the Victorian era, and most fittingly, in the period of Decadence in Britain in the early 18th Century. These days, the lines are blurred between burlesque the art form and its frequent comparisons to stripping or lapdancing.
by Arthur Furrowfield + robin