Let’s Talk About Burlesque, Baby
Art by Maria Cazzato
A frenzy commences backstage as dancers scurry around the wings of Cohen Auditorium in lingerie. Nerves and excitement permeate the air; the audience waits to watch friends and peers on stage. The lights dim, the crowd hushes. Then: lights, music, bodies on stage. Cheers erupt, the show begins. Dance after dance takes the stage, each one a different theme. It is the night of the Tufts Burlesque Troupe showcase. It is electric.
Burlesque is a dance performance and art form in which performers combine explosive components of costumery, dance, comedy, and theater, all while centering nudity or lingerie. As the art form has evolved, burlesque has come to challenge the conventional, calling into question gender politics, the perception of sexuality, and the public’s gaze on the naked body. According to HuffPost, Burlesque’s historic roots date as far back as the 1840s, associated with America’s minstrel culture. A new form of leisure at the time, burlesque shows incorporated familiar aspects of song, dance, and performance into a reimagined type of entertainment. But the version that is popular today—a combination of vaudevillian humor, dance, and striptease—arose in the early 1900s. At that time, mostly female performers took to clubs and Broadway venues to create a new vision of music, dance, and nudity. Burlesque has become a nightlife and cultural staple for all to consume and experience.
The Tufts Burlesque Troupe’s popularity is reflected both by attendance of the show, which always sells out in minutes, and sign ups to join dances—sign up lists fill up shortly after their release. It is a non-audition group, which means anyone can join, creating a space on campus for all those who want to dance and experience the community that is Burlesque. The club is student-run with an executive board of eight people; membership consists of 300 students who are part of dances choreographed by other members. Senior and Tufts Burlesque Troupe Co-President Nyssa Singhal attributed Burlesque’s popularity to its uniqueness. “There’s no other club where you dance in your underwear,” she said.
Abigail Pomeranz, a senior and Burlesque choreographer, said a unique aspect of burlesque is the versatility. “It can look like a lot of different things, like when you go to the show each dance is really distinct, and it can be really fun and goofy,” she said. “It can be more serious and slow and sensual. It really runs the whole gamut.” This attracts people to the group, as it becomes a space anyone can make their own while also providing community among individuals trying to cultivate a safe space to build confidence and try something new.
Many Burlesque dances are open to all, but some serve as affinity spaces where people of specified identities can come together in a safe space. Some of these affinity spaces include Queer and Femme POC, Genderqueer, Trans, BIPOC, and BIPOC Femmes. As treasurer of the organization, Clarissa Garzon said affinity spaces within the troupe allow for “everyone to find a group within Burlesque and know that we all have the same mission that we bring to the space.” Garzon described Burlesque as being a “super gender-affirming space” within the identity-based groups due to being surrounded by accepting or like-minded individuals. Junior Lacey Walls, a dancer with Burlesque, said the first dance she joined was a “queer affinity space, which I was looking for [in order] to get out and meet more people in the community.”
Burlesque is not something offered on many college campuses, making it an even more unique opportunity at Tufts. Established in 2007 at Tufts, Burlesque was created with the intention of bringing empowerment and sensuality into the Tufts arts and dance scene, allowing students to express themselves sexually and providing a comfortable and supportive setting to do so. Walls said, “Burlesque really [shows] that you have these opportunities at Tufts that you’re probably never going to have again, encapsulating how Tufts’ [campus] really allows students to build their own spaces and make them their own.” Pomeranz also noted that the space offers every student “a chance to explore their body and feel really confident in their body and movement and sexuality, in a way that’s also really normalized.” The reception and support of the Tufts community also plays a role in the experience that is Burlesque, continuing to perpetuate popularity and support.
Singhal spoke on the core values of Burlesque, describing it as a way “to give amateur dancers or people who want to dance a space where they’re united over either speaking positively about your body or respecting your body or just coming together to acknowledge that your body is awesome and it carries you through your day.” Burlesque plays a crucial role on campus for participants and viewers alike, providing a space for “gender positivity, body neutrality or positivity, and sex positivity,” as Garzon said. Garzon said the intention of the performance is “normalizing in some ways bodies in general. We’re just here in our bodies and we should all be able to feel good and honored and respected in them.”
The day of the Burlesque show—a cumulative showcase of all the dances—is for many a time of nerves, excitement, and pure energy. Two e-board members, Singhal and Garzon, recounted the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes: discussing the logistics of selling tickets, reserving rooms, and coordinating people—a much more intensive and exhausting process than others may be aware of. Pomeranz said, “It’s unbelievable how much it comes together at the end, but it can feel really chaotic. In the last two weeks, together with costumes and with dress [rehearsal] and everything, people start to get really comfortable and confident in what they’re doing.” Discussing show day, Walls said, “Once you’re out there, it always goes by in the blink of an eye. It’s so fast, like every single time I feel like I can’t remember what happened as soon as I step off the stage.”
Burlesque and the community cultivated within it are important to Tufts students. Pomeranz expressed gratitude for the space and community of Burlesque on campus, and said, “For me, it has been an incredible space where I really have found so much more peace with my body and love for my body.” Through providing a space to learn about oneself and others, Burlesque fosters community inside and outside the organization. Garzon said, “I’ve learned so much about myself along the way and met so many cool people along the way. I’m always thinking about my choreos that I had a year ago and how they’ve totally shaped and changed my time here at Tufts.” Burlesque serves a formative role for many Tufts students in fostering a space for community and visibility. As Walls said, “The people who do Burlesque are putting themselves out there in a way that I think is really admirable and doing that all as a community together.”