I suppose I have to address this one some time during the 31 days of Burlesque......but if you ever want to start an argument at a burlesque show, just try asking "what is burlesque?" because it's about as contentious as "what is art?"
I mean, if aliens came to our planet and asked "what's football?" most people would be able to tell them in one or two sentences, and probably without much argument from fellow humans sitting around them (obviously I'm talking proper football here, played with feet not hands). Provided the aliens didn't ask a supplementary about the offside rule, the conversation and answering of their initial question would be pretty straightforward.
But "what is burlesque?" Blimey.
It's a question every burlesque performer, promoter and fan has been asked many, many times, usually after they've just told someone what they do or where they've been on a Saturday night. And yet, how many of us can give a succinct answer without worrying if fellow burlesquers would agree with our standpoint? I imagine pretty few.
So many people have expressed views about what they consider burlesque to be that I honestly don't think I could do any better. Here are some of my favourite explanations:
In essense, the purpose of burlesque is 'to entertain through provocation'.
Literally speaking, 'to burlesque' means 'to send up, satirise or make mockery of' but today, burlesque is best (and loosely) described as 'provocative performance art'.
Kittie Klaw, Founder of the Ministry of Burlesque (from the Foreword of 'Strange & Beautiful: A Photographic Study of UK Burlesque Performers')
(For lots more about burlesque, it's history back to the Ancient Greeks, developments in the UK and USA, check out Kittie's essay: Burlesque in Briefs: a History of Burlesque).
Many dictionary and encyclopedia entries for burlesque refer to the literary tradition and historical theatrical definitions of burlesque, definitions which in their own are slightly archaic. When the word burlesque is used as a verb, certainly it's understood to mean that exaggeration and parody are being used; however, for nearly one hundred years, burlesque as a noun has referred to shows that contain variety, comedy and girlie numbers as well. Striptease has been part of burlesque since the 1920s, and it is a huge component of neo-burlesque.
Burlesque is making and having fun, usually in a short dance that either begins or ends with some kind of nudity.
Julie Atlas Muz Miss Exotic World 2006 (pg 19 'The Burlesque Handbook').
It's the 'usually' that's important in that sentence, because some burlesque involves no dancing and/or no nudity or stripping.
A (burlesque) routine generally presents some kind of narrative, however abstract, but there is always a transformation.
Tigger! Mr Exotic World 2006 (pg 20 'The Burlesque Handbook')
Again, not everyone would agree that burlesque requires narrative and/or transformation but I'd say (and then wait to get shouted at) that story-telling and transformation are what separate burlesque and burlesque dancing, not that there's anything bad about either, it's just in my books they're two separate things....and most of what was represented in 'Burlesque' the Cher and Christina Aguilera movie was 'burlesque dancing' as opposed to 'burlesque'. The same goes for the Pussy Cat Dolls burlesque dancing.
I think the following definition could be my favourite, though I can see it leaving a newbie totally confused ;)
The performer has under five minutes to reveal him or herself physically and emotionally, in a way that surprises, amuses and titillates me.
Kate Valentine, aka Miss Astrid and Founder of the Va Va Voom Room (pg 19 'The Burlesque Handbook')
Another important voice on burlesque and to be honest, probably the person who's done the most in recent years to bring burlesque to the public's notice is Dita Von Teese. You'll find some burlesquers don't agree with her views about burlesque v. stripping (Dita happily calls herself a stripper but some performers do everything possible to distance themselves from the label and indeed some burlesquers don't strip at all).
Dita gave this interview to CBS which illustrates a lot about what American showgirl burlesque is, the fantasy and the glamour:
So have I gotten away without placing my cards on the table? No? What, you want me to pin down a definition of what burlesque is as well?!
I suppose if you tried to pin me down I'd say burlesque is a genre of performance that encompasses many different styles and many different talents. It's about self-expression and freedom of expression. It can be comedic or dance-based, or both, or neither. It can include performing talents from other fields such as magic or circus-skills, singing etc. It's usually a live performance in front of an audience but sometimes can be filmed with or without one. In my books the very best burlesque has a narrative and involves a transformation of some kind (even if the transformation is as basic as going from being dressed to undressed). I hope that it challenges or parodies norms; that like the best jokes sets up expectations and then confounds them. But most of all, I believe that burlesque should be entertainment (even if it makes you cry, and I often do at the very best burlesque).
I'm going to leave the last words to a burlesque performer of over 30 years, founder of the London Academy of Burlesque, the only recognised British Burlesque Legend and woman I had the great pleasure to be taught by when I first started out, Jo King aka Goodtime Mama Jojo: