Culture | Burlesque struts its stuff

Montreal’s revival of a centuries-old sexy performance art

There’s a new hot number traipsingw around Montreal these days – whether in the form of a SSMU mini-course, an international festival, or a spectacle somewhere along St. Laurent, burlesque is taking the stage again as a popular form of art and entertainment.

What exactly is burlesque, and where did it come from? Although commonly thought of as a striptease, burlesque is much more than pasties (those little nipple covers), tassels, and a pair of high heels. In fact, the term burlesque originates from British musical comedy shows in the 18th century, considered risqué for double entendres based on popular operas and art, and for casting females for male lead roles.

Such entertainment was largely aimed at a middle class audience with knowledge of contemporary art and literature, on which the spoofs and satire were based. Burlesque is a type of entertainment based on exaggeration, satire, caricature, and “suggestive performance art,” according to Kittie, a British performer and founder of the popular web site, The Ministry of Burlesque.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the term and its production changed shape in the American context, becoming more of a variety show with elements of striptease, and American burlesque remains distinct from the classic British variety to this day. Classical burlesque may be bawdy and suggestive, but it is American burlesque that really started to show some skin. Both genres, however, share the central goal of playing with conventional notions of theatre, teasing, mocking, and generally turning things upside down.

While the two are often conflated, burlesque and striptease are not synonymous. American burlesque draws on the British history of satire and tease, occasionally making striptease into a satirical social or political commentary, and modern burlesque performances can greatly vary based upon the historical and cultural influences of each performer. According to Kittie, “At the risk of over-simplifying, although both focus on teasing, the differences lie in the intension of outcome and the levels of nudity, where the former [burlesque] rarely ends in actual nudity, and the intention is to entertain rather than to sexually arouse.”

Montreal of the forties and fifties was known for its lively night scene, and in particular for one famous burlesque stripper, Lili St. Cyr – famous in particular for her use of bubble baths as part of stage performances. Born in Minneapolis in 1918 as Willis Marie Van Schaak, she eventually made her way through Los Angeles, Montreal, Miami, Vegas, and finally back to Hollywood, where she died at 80 on January 29, 1999. From 1944 to the early fifties, St. Cyr was a regular performer at the Gayety Theatre, but the election of Jean Drapeau as mayor saw the eventual disintegration of downtown’s jazz clubs and burlesque nightclubs.

Today, we seem to be in the midst of a Montreal burlesque revival. In September, the first Montreal Burlesque Festival took place with performers from throughout the international scene, including Miss Exotic World 2009, Kalani Kokonuts. According to their web site’s description, their shows are “more focused on the ‘tease’ in ‘striptease’ than the ‘strip.’ New Burlesque tends to put the emphasis on style and tends to be sexy rather than sexual, often involving humor.” The Festival even included a Lili St. Cyr Award for the most imaginative performance. Local performers included the (in)famous Michelle L’Amour, Miss Sugarpuss, Mademoiselle Oui Oui Encore, Scarlett James, Seksa Lee and L Diable (co-founders of Team Burlesque, a local troupe).

Here at McGill, SSMU’s picked up on the burlesque trend by offering a nine-week mini-course (among other dance courses such as ballroom, belly dancing, bollywood, breakdancing, hip hop, latin, salsa, and swing). In addition, JoyToyz has a six-week course in Striptease and Burlesque, taught by Velma Candyass, a member of the Dead Dolls Dancers and Travesty Theatre.

To learn more about burlesque history, check out Kittie’s web site or Team Burlesque’s blog about Montreal events at