It's nearly impossible to give a one-size-fits-all answer to the question, "What is a burlesque show?". I have performed in venues across Australia and internationally, and my response to anyone who enquires is always the same: "Whatever you're expecting, it's probably not that".
That said, I will provide an overview of what a burlesque show might entail.
The LOCATION: Burlesque Venues
A burlesque show needs a location, and most typically, you will find burlesque shows at theatres, clubs, and bars. However, there is no typical or standard venue for Burlesque. As a full-time burlesque performer, I have danced at theatres, private mansions, dive bars, universities, sex parties, fine dining restaurants, and just about any other random location you can think of.
Burlesque is happening almost everywhere, and the location itself can be just as crucial in setting the mood as the show format and the performers themselves.
The Format: Burlesque Shows
Burlesque shows come in many formats: student showcases, roving performances, theatrical stage shows, competitions, musicals, and mixed variety shows. The exact format of a show can often determine the demographics and engagement levels of the audience.
Many Modern Burlesque shows consist of two key elements: the sets and the acts. Each act is typically unique to a performer, and a set groups different acts together to form the show.
The event might start with the introduction of your host or MC to guide you through the night, setting the scene, telling stories, and introducing the performers. Once your first performer begins their act, this marks the start of the first set. A set usually includes multiple acts in relatively quick succession, with the MC appearing between acts to allow for some costume cleanup and setup for the next performer.
After a few performers have captivated the audience, it's time for a short intermission. Most burlesque producers know that it's a good idea to let your audience grab another drink, visit the bathroom, and give them a chance to talk amongst each other to discuss the performances they've just seen.
The intermission will eventually end, and you'll find your seats and quiet down for the next set of performances, which, once finished, will typically mark the end of the show, sometimes closed out by a curtain call and one final opportunity to applaud and scream your praise at the incredible performers that have entertained you.
The Performers: Burlesque Dancers
The style of the burlesque performers will typically depend on the producer, the venue, the format or theme of the show, and even the performers themselves. It's important to remember that no one set performance style exists, and a burlesque performance doesn't just have to be a striptease. It can include dance, singing, comedy, fire-breathing, acrobatics and circus, you name it.
Having an open mind when you attend a show is always essential. As much as I love classical Burlesque, striptease, and vintage costuming, I've seen a performer dressed up as a giant sexy rat, digging through garbage bags to find a huge fish skeleton prop that they then used to imitate a feather boa. It was incredible and SO funny.
You never know quite what you'll get at a show, but the one universal trait shared between performers is a love of dance, comedic moments, vibrant and creative costuming, and an inherent prowess in expressive storytelling.
Still not sure?
Asking, "What is a burlesque show?" is akin to asking, "What is live music?". Without qualifying details of the specific event you plan on attending, you might attend your first concert only to be swept into a mosh of high-intensity death metal, uplifted by some feel-good pop music, or lulled by some smooth jazz.
The same is true for a burlesque show. It's such a vast and expressive art form, so it can be a good idea to research the event you're attending to avoid setting yourself up for disappointment by making assumptions or having preconceived notions about what Burlesque is.
If you're really interested in what burlesque is all about, I would encourage you to be adventurous, come to one of my shows, or find shows near you, and be willing to go in with a completely open mind.
Because whatever you're expecting, it's probably not that.