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That “Dark Prettiness” of Burlesque


Long before the globalization of the libido, there were cabarets, and the burlesque genre continues to transgress the most hetero-normative societies with humor and pleasure.

What is socially peripheral is so frequently symbolically central.

– Peter Stallybrass & Allon White

Twenty years since its last resurgence, burlesque remains contentious: for some it is reactionary, for others it is liberating. Either way, its manner of making hegemonic normalcy appear odd is fascinating: cabaret performances are always a celebration. With their transgressive and flexible nature (the form has adapted to different cultures and circumstances over more than a century), this performance genre enjoys a delightful illegitimacy that dances between heavy velvet curtains and oscillates between humor and tease.

Long before the globalization of the libido there were cabarets, and always with aim for style. The most interesting factor is that, despite sexual globalization (the feminine figure with certain features, free pornography and the striptease dives that sprang up practically all over the world), cabaret has always found a crack through which to emerge and continue transforming the accepted logic with role play, sexualized bodies and that “horrible prettiness” that Robert C. Allen refers to in his book about burlesque.


It is not easy to define burlesque as a self-contained term, precisely because it overflows the lines of definition. But it is a tradition that can trace its origins back to the success of Lydia Thompson in the UK, who became a pioneer of the burlesque scene in New York in the mid-19th century, until its decline in the mid-20th century and its resurgence, as neo-burlesque, in the 1990s. It could be said that it is a fluid form of performance that reinvents itself with the change of eras and paradigms, and that its most conclusive characteristics are humor and teasing.

The humor is achieved via techniques of exaggeration, the reversal of expectations and interference with the audience. The provocation or teasing is achieved using extravagant and very revealing disguises and, after the 1920s, with some form of stripping (although almost never completely naked, and only as a way of implying sexuality and not as sexual gratification). In this sense burlesque is one of the purest forms of eroticism. The characters that perform are never passive sexual objects (as occurs in pornography, for example) but rather empowered characters that carry out and lead a fantasy that is never expected to come true.


On the other hand, cabaret is one of the only spaces that exist where the binary (man/woman, heterosexual/homosexual) hierarchy does not have a predefined place and which, even by subverting those principles, it can provide comfort to a hetero-normative audience (through humor). There is a certain intimacy (perhaps achieved by the dim lighting, the sexy and exaggerated scenery and of course the humor) that is not confrontational and as a result creates a certain kind of wellbeing. The cabaret actor is a kind of hybrid-self who celebrates the queer and the periphery of all that we call identity.

Burlesque has always been around as an attempt to fragment society (we are all included, and all that separates us in a cabaret unites us). Crucially, humor, by being a vehicle of criticism and subversion, is also an ingredient of temperance in such a direct performance. With this in mind we could say that cabaret, that genre that is so hybrid and flexible, is a refuge for all that we think separates us from the other and one of the only places that is left for us to celebrate stimulus and comfort in the face of differences.

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