Burlesque performers of Eugene’s Broadway Revue discuss the history and complexity of this tantalizing performance art.
Words by Lindsay McWilliams, Photos by Kassi Gaffney
To the waltz of “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, Dahlia Murder leaps and bounds across the stage wearing an orange 1960s dress. She is an image of feminine beauty, her locks of hair bouncing as she moves. After undressing herself, she reveals the prop in her hands: an electric razor. She raises it to her head and the audience roars as dark tufts of hair fall slowly onto the stage floor.
“It was something I’d been daydreaming about for a long time and had to build up the confidence to do,” says Murder. “It was a surprise to the audience. I try to shake people up a bit.”
This is the same woman who, at seven months pregnant, performed with a picture of Earth painted on her stomach, as if she were “a goddess to the universe.”
“It really makes my heart feel soft and exposed when a woman will come up to me after a show and say, ‘That made me feel beautiful, too.’”
As a performer in the Broadway Revue Burlesque Show, Murder sees herself as more than a striptease dancer— she is an artist and exhibitionist who makes her audience think.
The Broadway Revue has run every Sunday night at Luckey’s Club for the past 12 years, making it the longest-running burlesque show in Eugene, Oregon. It certainly has elements of what many would recognize as “classic burlesque”: the feather boas, the tightly wound corsets, and rhinestoned nipple pasties. But it also features the comical, the dark, and the thought-provoking. Each woman in the show has a completely different approach to burlesque, but they all take pride in the fact that they carry on a legacy, one that began in the 1800s.
Beautiful women have been pushing societal boundaries by teasing their audiences for entertainment since the early 19th century. Liz Goldwyn’s book Pretty Things, and a handful of other burlesque bibles, credit the birth of American burlesque to The British Blondes, an English troupe that came to New York in 1868. They were, “credited with shifting the emphasis of burlesque performance from comic sketches to displays of overt female sexuality.” At the time, these acts of “overt sexuality” included wearing tights (a new and scandalous invention at the time), but didn’t involve the removal of clothing.
Burlesque is traditionally described as a parody, an absurd or exaggerated imitation, often in the context of theater or literature. More recently, burlesque has been defined as a variety show of sorts that can include striptease. The definition is very open-ended and interpreted by performers and troupes in different ways.
Burlesque dancers continued to be a part of variety shows, but with the rise of the higher-end Vaudeville in the 1920s, burlesque became the poor man’s entertainment. Legendary performers and burlesque queens came from this era, like Gypsy Rose Lee and Zorita to a name couple. It drew audiences and sustained revenue by showcasing women who wore less clothing than their Vaudevillian competitors.
“It was the girls who weren’t the right body type, who weren’t pretty enough,” Taylor Maiden says, a performer in the Broadway Revue. “They said, ‘We want to dance, too. And if we have to take our clothes off to do it, we’ll do it.’”
Thus, burlesque became associated with stripping. Because of burlesque’s scandalous nature, New York Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia spearheaded the movement to rid his city of it. In 1939, he denied the renewal of licenses to burlesque theaters, including the famous Minsky Brothers theaters, beginning the demise of the classic striptease art. From then on, anything involving stripping moved to the seedier, liquor-serving nightclubs, where dancers faced more pressure to show total nudity. That is, until “neo-burlesque” emerged in the 1990s, which is what you will see when attending a burlesque performance today.
In The Burlesque Handbook, neo-burlesque dancer Jo Weldon explains that neo-burlesque stemmed from the need for an alternative to strip joints, a form of entertainment and adult humor that could be performed at extravagant parties. Though it drew from traditions of the old burlesque, it was also influenced by current subcultures of drag and fetish.
“I never really knew what burlesque was other than stripping,” says Maiden, recalling her thoughts before learning about burlesque in a theater history class at the University of Oregon. “I thought, Oh, you’re a stripper, but in fancier clothes.”
Maiden’s expressive speech and elegant gestures reveal the itch to perform that runs through her at all times. As a girl who dreamed of being a Rockette and graduated with a degree in theatre arts, she was attracted to the theatrics of burlesque.
“Growing up in theatre, I also fell in love with the tech-side of things: the costuming, the lighting, the sound, the stage-painting,” Maiden says. “And with burlesque, you get to do all of that.”
She remarks that she can rarely hear a song on the radio without having a set planned for it by the time it is over.
On any given night at the Broadway Revue, each dancer performs three sets of her choosing. Within each set, she picks a song, creates choreography, and crafts her costume and props, all on her own. The girls refer to being in the show as a full-time job, even though it only runs once a week.
Along with the responsibility comes great freedom. Sunday Mourning, a performer who has been with Broadway Revue for five years, likes the spontaneity of coming up with her own ideas. She often won’t decide on what to perform until the day of, simply based on hearing a song that she thinks will be fun to dance to do.
“I’ve performed with other people who have requested that I do a certain act and it makes me not want to do their show at all,” says Mourning, a quiet and thoughtful woman in her twenties. “These are the things that make our show unique.”
The diversity of acts seen at Broadway Revue is unmatched in the Northwest, Maiden says. All in the same night, the audience could see a sultry jazz performance, a hip-hop routine complete with twerking in lingerie, and a more abstract statement piece in which Mourning dances to an unsettling song with a television on her head.
No act is ever turned down.
Attending a burlesque show, it can be easy to forget about what audiences may have come to see in the first place: the stripping. Surely the removal of clothing happens in nearly every set, but it can be treated rather differently than in, say, a strip club. It may or may not be the focus of a burlesque performance, and may or may not be sexual at all.
“Sometimes it’s really not about having a sexual tone. Sometimes it’s about stripping away secrets, being revealing, being open, being genuine,” Mourning acknowledges. “It’s really common to see a classic burlesque act be suggestive, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Mourning even has an act where she is dressed as a mime, pretending to do a classic burlesque dance without taking any of her clothes off. She sees it as a comical way to make fun of the expectation that burlesque dancers have to be sexual.
For dancers, it is a rather empowering act to strip in front of an audience, especially in an area like burlesque, where self-confidence is encouraged regardless of your body type. Shows like the Broadway Revue display a diversity of figures on stage.
“Honestly, I think it makes people more uncomfortable than the fact that there’s nudity — women saying, ‘I am who I am. You can love me or not. I don’t care,’” Maiden says.
She argues that the new wave of feminism and body-acceptance accounts for the resurgence of burlesque in society today.
Maiden, who has at times struggled with her body image on stage, says she would like to see more diversity in mainstream burlesque. A black-haired, tattooed and classically curvaceous woman, Maiden admits to having felt bigger than other girls she has seen performing burlesque. Sure, Dita Von Teese is beautiful, and so are the women in the 2010 movie Burlesque, but much of the burlesque world does not adhere to those standards of perfection. Maiden cites a woman in the Broadway Revue who has a prosthetic foot and often works the removal of the appendage into her acts as a gimmick.
The new burlesque is also open to genders of all kinds, with “boylesque” becoming increasingly popular and shows being created for the LGBQTIA community as well. A “queer burlesque” show is also underway locally, at The Wayward Lamb in downtown Eugene.
However, because stripping in front of an audience isn’t 100 percent socially acceptable just yet, the reality is that some performers have to keep their burlesque lives hidden. Bayou Bettie, another Broadway Revue dancer, used to be a teacher at an elementary school in Portland, Oregon, along with doing burlesque in the evenings. She tried to keep her two lives as separate as possible. But one night, while getting ready to perform, Bettie looked out into the audience and noticed one of her coworkers. She debated over whether to ignore it and shy away from it, or just go way over-the-top.
“I ended up jumping offstage, sitting on her lap and twirling tassels in her face,” Bettie laughs. “I just decided to go for it, and now there’s no secret at all.”
Most women in the Broadway Revue have other jobs, “Muggle jobs” as they call them, as burlesque cannot be counted on to pay the bills. Many are mothers as well. There are some, however, who make their living doing burlesque. In any case, it is a starving artist’s passion, and most burlesque dancers don’t expect to make big money doing it, says Maiden.
Like all artists, burlesque dancers receive criticism for their work. On one end, there’s Sunday Mourning, who often performs strange, disturbing, or thought-provoking sets. She has been criticized for not being what the audience expects, resisting the sexy showgirl model of classic burlesque. On the other end, burlesque performers are often criticized for being comparable to strippers, demeaning themselves for attention or money. But Dahlia Murder knows what to say to this.
“To think that a woman would take her clothes off just to be judged sexually is a limiting concept,” she says. “Women and men can express themselves through nudity ultimately in a very vulnerable way. It’s our own closed mind that allows us to think that when people are displaying themselves physically, that it’s always superficially — that they want to be seen.”
Another component of neo-burlesque, different from that of the 1920s, is the sense of community that has been created among performers. Giant burlesque festivals are popping up in major cities all over the world, including the Oregon Burlesque Festival in Portland. With the use of social media, burlesque dancers can travel to guest-star in neighboring shows and meet other performers within the burlesque niche.
Today’s burlesque performers aren’t necessarily breaking deeply entrenched societal boundaries like they once did, but they continue to draw crowds for their retro appeal — a peak into the risqué entertainment of the 19th century. Nostalgia is found in their red lips, embellished garters, and pin-up hairdos. The subculture shares an intimacy with its history, paying homage to burlesque queens gone by, inspired by the outcasts of a different era.
Bayou Bettie finds comfort in these ties to her burlesque ancestors.
“There are moments when, even if I’m nervous about money or getting onstage, or how the show’s going to look or how anything is going to be,” she says. “I kind of have this special place deep down in my heart where I remember: I belong to a very unique group of people who have been dealing with this for over 100 years.”