“New Orleans has the image of an old whore. She’s seen some rough times; she’s had it hard.” –Sybil Kein (from the documentary Storyville: The Naked Dance)
No other city in the world holds the allure of New Orleans. Once ruled by Europeans, she now reigns supreme as one of the most quintessentially unique cities in America; her unequivocal distinctness has no parallel anywhere. With the lifestyle of the city summed up in her motto, laissez les bons temps rouler, is it any wonder that burlesque flourished in the Crescent City from the start? Burlesque at its apex found an avid and avaricious admirer in New Orleans, living out much of its glory days in this vibrant and beguiling city. Yet nothing gold can stay, and just as burlesque faded from popularity throughout America in the mid 20th century, so too did New Orleans somewhere along the passage of time.
The “jewel of the south” may have lost some of her luster, but for all that she does not gleam any less brightly. Echoes of her past pretensions linger in the soul of our city today. Those who have lived in New Orleans have never doubted her power and her enchantment, but recently others have fallen madly under her spell. How this has transpired remains somewhat of a mystery; perhaps it was Hurricane Katrina that brought New Orleans back into the public’s conscious, the sudden re-awakening to the realization that this city cannot be lost for no equal exists elsewhere. What is fascinating to note is that a revival in burlesque that began in the mid ‘90s has gained exceptional prominence in New Orleans, perhaps more so than any other city in America. Does this resurgence of interest in burlesque have something to do with the climate of change in the city herself?
Derived from the Italian word burla, which means a joke, ridicule, or mockery, burlesque originally referred to satirical, comedic plays intended to entertain the working class by parodying the upper class. Brought to New York City from England by Lydia Thompson and her “British Blondes” troupe in 1869, burlesque was an instant success. The infatuation with this more racy form of vaudeville theater quickly spread throughout all of the United States, gaining a decidedly American flavor. Incorporating various acts typical of a variety show, burlesque eventually came to emphasize the striptease aspect of its female dancers performance.
Burlesque was particularly successful in New Orleans. The very fabric of the city’s being resonated with all that burlesque stood for. For one, New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, and jazz grew alongside burlesque. The dancers would strip while a jazz band played, would bump and grind to the beat of the music, to the sultry strains of the sax. The two were inextricably linked; both came into existence around the turn of the 20th century, and who can say which of the two spurred the other’s burgeoning popularity. As a matter of fact, that very special dance of the performers, the aforementioned bump and grind, “….first appeared on the American burlesque stage during the twenties….like the shimmy, were borrowed from the American Negro.” With no place deeper south than New Orleans, and what with her slave-holding past, there was no lack of “American Negros” for the burlesque dancers to imitate.
Jazz was reputed to have arisen out of musicians who performed in New Orleans notorious red-light district, Storyville. In existence from 1897 to 1917, Storyville is just another reason why burlesque thrived in New Orleans. The city’s history of partaking in carnal pleasure was not new. It was a well-established fact that New Orleans was a loose, decadent city, full of every vice imaginable. In an attempt to regulate the booming sex trade, officials studied red light districts in the Netherlands and Germany, then relegated a special district exclusively
for the trade two blocks from the French Quarter based on these models. “Within the district, prostitutes had a de facto license to operate…the only legally constituted red-light district ever established in the United States.” Though Storyville was officially shut down only twenty years after its inception, and only after the Secretary of the Navy threatened the city with armed intervention, the industry itself is eternal and continues to this day. A city that so thoroughly enjoyed prostitutes would have no problem with this new, classier form of entertainment. As for the musicians, playing for the strippers must have been no different than playing for the hookers. Some musicians even grew to be quite famous from these gigs; Jelly Roll Morton is just one example of a musician whose international success stems from such lascivious beginnings.
Besides being “the city that care forgot,” New Orleans was also a bustling port, located at the mouth of the Mississippi River and on the tip of the Gulf of Mexico. This meant that the city was a cultural mecca, constantly flooded with new people and goods from all over the world. Unlike other places, New Orleans celebrated and embraced difference, and surely all this exchange contributed to her people being highly receptive to new ideas and art forms. Indeed, the city’s French heritage contributed to New Orleans biggest celebration of all: Mardi Gras. This is another reason for why burlesque likely prospered; the city’s love of costume and pageantry would certainly have extended to the burlesque dancers, who spent a fortune on their beautiful, elaborate garments so that they could glitter on stage. According to two ex-burlesque dancers who were interviewed for a documentary concerning the art form, “New Orleans was the most fantastic place in the world. It was all burlesque, up and down the streets on both sides. Burlesque and jazz bands. Mardi Gras was a fun time, and they had shows going day and night…In those days, it was a town of glamour.”
Beauty is fleeting, and just as the ravishing starlets of burlesque began to wither and fade, so too did the art they glorified. Starting with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York City firmly shutting down the business in the ‘40s, burlesque began it’s ignoble descent into denigration. Spurred ever faster by the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and the creation of the porn industry, “…it’s decline into seamy quasi-pornographic theater for almost exclusively male audiences, and it’s final shabby demise (and collapse into a nostalgia-ridden trope) in the mid-twentieth century…” effectively ended traditional burlesque as we know it.
In recent years, however, there has been a revival in burlesque. Known as neo-burlesque to differentiate it from its predecessor, “Since 1995, burlesque has enjoyed renewed recognition in larger cities across the country…In its current incarnation, burlesque can take on any number of contemporary cultural hues, ranging from new age to postmodern.” Currently, there are eight burlesque troupes in New Orleans. What is interesting about this, however, is that New Orleans is not a large city. Compared to New York City, which only has two burlesque troupes, it seems a remarkable feat to have more than twice that amount. And New York City is where burlesque first hit American shores! So why has neo-burlesque flourished so spectacularly in our own little city?
I believe it has very much to do with nostalgia, and how New Orleans herself is such a nostalgic city. The city has undergone much change throughout her (almost) 300 years, but none so dramatic as after Hurricane Katrina. At that crucial juncture, there was much speculation as to whether New Orleans was a lost city. Though her inhabitants and true lovers never abandoned nor doubted the fact that she would survive, indeed, in some sense, we recognize that New Orleans is a lost city. Hurricane Katrina didn’t alter that; the hurricane only opened up others eyes who were not familiar to just how special our city is. The very fabric of her being was completely shaken and torn asunder after that horrific event, and things just never have been the same. That is just the process of evolution, so to speak; you can’t expect things to always stay the same. But what will always remain, what has always been there, is that feeling of knowing we are a city unlike any other, that has throughout history been threatened to succumb to the homogeneity that is the rest of America, and yet has clung so viciously to her identity. And has managed to retain it, surmounting whatever obstacles have been thrown her way.
Burlesque has had such a prosperous resurgence here because burlesque was itself a dying art, a lost art. The nostalgic aspect is what is so appealing about burlesque, of what is so appealing about New Orleans: “Nostalgia, in fact, may depend precisely on the irrecoverable nature of the past for its emotional impact and appeal. It is the very pastness of the past, its inaccessibility, that likely accounts for a large part of nostalgia’s power…” We of New Orleans have always been aware of that. There is a feeling in the air, it is the breath of the city of herself: of all the times that once were and no longer are, but for all that, remain eternal—a part of ourselves. As Lindsay Ross, CAC’s Director of Communications, says: “Whether it’s because of New Orleans’ traditional acceptance of “naughty” shows, our long-standing tolerance of go-cups, or a general nostalgia for that past nightlife…the interest in burlesque has grown so substantially, with numerous groups organized and performing in the city.”
Katrina brought New Orleans back into the public consciousness. Trixie Minx of the Fleur de Tease says herself, “Katrina inspired all people who were artists to come together and create. We started this troupe right after Katrina to be a part of the movement. We do a lot of benefit performances not specifically for Katrina but for anything New Orleans…” Recently, the whole makeup of the city has dramatically changed due to the influx of new people moving here to get a glimpse of New Orleans, to hold onto a part for themselves. “Perhaps nostalgia is given surplus meaning and value at certain moments—millennial moments, like our own. Nostalgia, the media tells us, has become an obsession of both mass culture and high art.” With the recent HBO show Treme, parts of the city and our unique culture that were secrets known only to New Orleanians have been shared with the world; everyone wants a bit of New Orleans. There is a fascination with how New Orleans was and an attempt to popularize it in order to “save it,” to remember it. But this brings a different vibe to the city, different people, and ironically you destroy what you are trying to save: “…they did not want to return to a place, but to a time….Time, unlike space, cannot be returned to—ever; time is irreversible. And nostalgia becomes the reaction to that sad fact.”
–Allen, Robert, C. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991. eBook. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2711072 >.
–Hansen, Chadwick. “Jenny’s Toe: Negro Shaking Dances in America.” American Quarterly. 19.3 (1967): 554-563. Web. 21 Sep. 2011.
–Hutcheon, Linda. “Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern.” Web. 21 Sep. 2011. <ttp://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/criticism/hutchinp.html >.
–Kealey, Edward, R. “Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District, by Al Rose.” American Sociological Association. 4.3 (1975): 315-316. Web. 21 Sep. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2063249 >.
–Behind the Burly Q
–Storyville: The Naked Dance