Last weekend, Paul and I went to the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis for a Nutcracker-themed burlesque show called “Visions of Sugar Plums.”
In case you’ve never been to a burlesque show before (and if you haven’t, you’re missing out), it usually goes something like this… A girl in an elaborate and creative costume takes off her clothes in a funny, sexy, and/or clever manner. Often this includes dancing and props. Occasionally this includes singing. She leaves the stage seconds after her tassel-adorned breasts are revealed, and then there is usually some witty banter with the MC, or maybe a short skit, song, or other variety act. After which, the next girl appears.
To me, the best thing about burlesque is the creativity. The definition of burlesque is “an absurd or comically exaggerated imitation.” So it’s not really about girls stripping for male enjoyment. It’s about girls stripping in a way that is comic, irreverent, creative, and empowering.
Once, for example, Paul and I saw a girl dressed from the waist down like a bedside table and from the waist up as a lamp (with the shade on her head). Her act included a man opening her “drawer” and pulling panties out of it. Another time, we saw a performance in which a girl (the awesome Lou Henry Hoover) was dressed up like a man and stripped down to a flesh-colored body suit after lip-syncing to a song with the lyrics “let me put my banana in your fruit basket, baby.” And of course, one of our favorite acts was a male burlesque performer who emulated Charlie Chaplin as he used a bowler hat and cane as strategically-placed props.
So you see what I mean. Burlesque is about taking the titillating act of stripping and turning it on its head. Which is why, even though I have been to many burlesque shows at this point, I continue to be entertained and delighted by each one. Visions of Sugar Plums was no exception, but there was one act that, for me and Paul, stood out from the rest.
It began with two bare-chested men in harem pants carrying a rolled-up carpet to the stage. They began to unroll the carpet, and yes, just as we suspected, there was a woman inside of it. But, to our confusion, she was nearly-naked, wearing nothing but a glittery thong and nipple-tassels. What the heck? Where was she going to go from here?
She slunk around on her carpet, her back to us, while the men helped her into a jewel-encrusted bra. They picked her up, one thigh for each of them, and through a series of slow, sensual modern dance moves, the men rolled stockings up her calves and fitted ballet shoes onto her feet. They slipped her into a pair of sheer harem pants and zipped her into a belly-shirt. At the end of the act she was fully dressed, dancing like a charmed cobra. She lay back down, and they rolled her up in the carpet and carried her off stage.
“Wow,” I whispered to Paul. “That was the sexiest one.”
And he agreed. Somehow, they had made an act in which a woman putting on her clothes was sexier than all the stripping acts combined.
They had taken burlesque — an act where women (and men!) take off their clothes — and turned it on its head. A double parody.
These are the sorts of creative ideas that entrance me. I kept thinking about that harem act on the way home, and the thought that kept coming to mind was, “that’s poetry.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge has an excellent quote that poetry is “the best words in the best order,” and I agree wholeheartedly with that simple definition. But truly amazing poems, in my opinion, are the ones that take something familiar and turn it on its head. Poems that make the beautiful ugly or the ugly beautiful. Poems that make the sexy silly or the familiar strange. Poems that take the complete opposite of what we’ve always thought was true, and make it the new truth.
I recently read Poisoned Apples by Christine Heppermann, a book of poems that rewrites fairy tales with themes of modern beauty and body image. (Two of my favorite topics, by the way.) Although it’s definitely been done before, I still love the way Hepperman takes the fairy tale tropes and turns them on their head. The poem below is one of my favorites from the collection. It’s not sexy like the harem act, but it is a clever and poignant parody. Burlesque comes in all kinds of forms.
The Giant’s Daughter
at the Spring Formal
by Christine Heppermann
It’s bad enough
that the other girls shopped at Teeny Town,
and I’m decked out in
But even through the perfume
of my pumpkin-size corsage,
Papa will smell Jack on me when I get home,
those greedy little hands.
He’ll stagger around the castle
hunting for bones to grind
until I tuck him in. Then I’ll toss
the bottles down through the clouds
where Mama won’t find them,
and wait out by the beanstalk.
Someday I’ll meet a guy
I can look up to.
One who’s not a drunken oaf
or a shrimp whose jeering buddies
dared him to make the climb.