Burlesque is an art form that conjures up very different images for different people. There is often a question in many minds as to what exactly it is.
“For those unfamiliar, burlesque can, on the surface, seem no different than stripping. While striptease is also used in burlesque there is a distinction between the two. In burlesque, performers use their bodies as a tool to confront an audience, often using the striptease to challenge sexual objectification, orientation and other social taboos” – Sean Scheidt. Despite the common assumptions and misconceptions about burlesque, it actually has it’s roots planted firmly in the comedy world. It’s true purpose and history might come as a surprise to many.

The History of Burlesque

Burlesque is a musical, dramatic or literary work intended to cause laughter by caricaturing serious works, or by the outlandish treatment of their subjects. The word burlesque derives from the Italian burlesco, deriving from the word burla, which means a joke or mockery. Dating back to the 16th century with Francesco Berni’s Opere burlesche, the word itself was interchangeable with parody and was intentionally ridiculous in its absurd imitations. Some examples of early literary burlesque are Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and Samuel Butler’s Hudibras. Musical burlesque: Richard Strauss’s 1890 Burleske for piano and orchestra. And early theatrical burlesque include W. S. Gilbert’s Robert the Devil and the Ruy Blas and the Blasé Roué.

Classic Vaudeville/Burlesque Variety Show


By the 18th century throughout Europe, the word burlesque was used to describe musical works that combined serious and comedic elements together. Slapstick and crude characterizations now dominated as farce and grotesque exaggerations found their way into German-language operettas such as Die lustigen Weiber von Wien written by Johann Strauss II and Cleopatra, oder Durch drei Jahrtausende, by Ziehrer.

Vintage Burlesque Performance

From the 1830’s to the 1890’s, Victorian burlesque also called travesty or extravaganza, became popular in London. Derived in part from English pantomime, it adapted well known operas, plays and ballets into a musical comedic play, mocking the original work, often in a risqué manner. Written to popular music, the songs later mixed in opera, operetta, music hall and revue music. Some shows had original music composed for them. This new style of English burlesque made its successful debut in New York in the 1840’s. Prior to 1870 burlesque shows were typically one-act pieces running less than an hour. Upon arrival in New York, a British troupe called Lydia Thompson and the British Blondes initially carried over Victorian style traditions. However elements of popular minstrel shows and variety shows were soon incorporated. Composed of multiple parts: songs and comic sketches, male acrobatic and magician acts, a chorus number along with an English style political satire and ending with a boxing match or exotic dancer.

Comical one woman show!

By the end of the 19th century burlesque began to wain in popularity in Europe as it gained popularity in America. There were two National circuits of burlesque shows, along with several resident troupes. By the early 1900’s nudity played a greater role in many acts, and shows would have several dancers working with one or two comedians and an MC. Some of the comics who appeared in burlesque early in their careers were Jackie Gleason, Mae West, Eddie Cantor, Abbott and Costello, W. C. Fields, Sid Caesar, Red Skelton and Sophie Tucker. Many burlesque performers crossed over into vaudeville and vice versa.

Burlesque fan dance

The free flowing alcohol contributed to the brazen nature of the scene and helped it thrive. However Prohibition led Burlesque to a quiet period where it essentially went underground until its recent resurgence on both sides of the Atlantic. Burlesque-style scenes re-appeared on the silver screen in classic films like Cabaret, All That Jazz and the more recent film Burlesque, staring pop stars Cher and Christina Aguilera. Sometimes referred to as Neo-Burlesque, the nostalgia for the classic American style and its modern cult following has created new stars like Dita Von Teese, Julie Atlas Muz and Agitprop groups like Cabaret Red Light. There are also annual conventions such as Vancouver International Burlesque Festival and the Miss Exotic World Pageant.

Video from the motion picture Burlesque

This humorous yet sultry art form has even influenced Atomic’s very own Cherry Bombs. Created by Nikki Marvin, this dance troupe specializes in Charleston, Chorus Line, 1940’s Jazz, 1960’s Go-Go and Burlesque. Embracing the vintage dances and styles from the 1920’s-1960’s, the Cherry Bombs are reminiscent of the golden era of Hollywood. Through their classes and shows, they share their affinity for vintage culture all over the country. Upcoming performances are on November 29th and also on December 11th at the Yost theater in Santa Ana. For more information visit http://atomiccherrybombs.com/.