Classic burlesque striptease, when done well, captivates and excites me as much as it did over ten years ago when I arrived on the scene. And yet a number of people approach me at shows and message me to complain about how boring and bland classic burlesque is now, rolling their eyes at the sea of mediocrity.
I guess I got lucky with my introduction. The first classic burlesque striptease I ever saw was at Tease-O-Rama in San Francisco in the mid-2000s. I was dazzled and enraptured by a parade of world class titans. Catherine D’Lish. Jo Weldon. Kitten de Ville. Michelle L’amour. Kalani Kokonuts. Pow, pow, pow. One revelation after another. I was hooked for life.
Today, more than a decade later, the grand revival continues, and I’ve had the pleasure of discovering more and more masters of striptease. Thousands of new performers have struck out and embraced classic burlesque. But in a sparkling sea of striptease, teeming with starry-eyed newcomers, what does it take to make your name as a world class master of the craft?
“Striptease is about making the everyday act of removing clothing into a theatrical event,” says Jo Weldon, master instructor and author of The Burlesque Handbook. “There has always been nudity onstage, but not until burlesque striptease was there a performing art specifically centered on clothing removal. The women who originally captured the public’s imagination by stripping onstage were not necessarily trained dancers or actors, but were often improvising, basing the success of their movements and performance decisions not on an aesthetic or on what looked good in the mirror in a dance studio, but solely on audience response.”
But isn’t all that classic burlesque stuff kinda tired? Hasn’t it all been done? Isn’t it just a sentimental homage to the past? Isn’t neo-burlesque where it’s really at now?
“Classic striptease can be more innovative than much neo-burlesque,” Jo explains. “The tassel twirl, the half and half, the teasing fan dance. The innovations in costuming alone over the past several years are stunning. And much of what we think of as classic burlesque moves are recent, as are a lot of innovations in classic costuming; you can watch reel after reel of vintage burlesque and never see them. Likewise, much of what we think of as new, you can see in vintage clips, like assels or handstand bumps. Research will dispel a lot of misunderstandings about classic burlesque. Even nerdlesque has precedent. And the performers were often performing to the freshest and most innovative music is their time, whether in the 20s or 70s.”
MASTERCLASS: Jo Weldon
If you’re looking for a text book demonstration of classic technique, you’d do well to start with contemporary pioneer Jo ‘Boobs’ Weldon. Her influence on the modern striptease landscape reaches worldwide, through her informative blog posts, renowned classes at the New York School of Burlesque, and her fabulous book, The Burlesque Handbook.
“The goal of many contemporary burlesque performances is to engage the audience with a combination of glamour and mischief, and sometimes story-telling or commentary, usually with some reference to the movements of professional stripteasers from the mid-twentieth century,” Jo continues. “Striptease is the most unique element of these performances, and understanding what makes a striptease compelling is an essential component of making your performance memorable.”
So what does make for a memorable, iconic, classic burlesque striptease? I’ve boiled it down into ten key areas to focus on, and I’ve included masterclass footage from legendary striptease experts.
1. The Eyes Have It
As you explore the footage of the striptease masters in this article, take a good look at their piercing, sparkling, laughing, predatory eyes. When they take the stage, you feel like the only person in the room.
“Striptease is a conversation,” says striptease megastar Michelle L’amour. “You are engaging with the audience and inviting them to participate in your world. Eye contact and focus is a must. Each must feel that you have touched them personally with your gaze. Performing to the back of the room as a ‘larger than life’ sexual being and then taking a moment to notice that one person in the second row is a very powerful move.”
“I actually really enjoy eye contact, and don’t think I could be on stage without looking at people!” agrees Catherine D’Lish, widely acknowledged as the ultimate master of the classic strip. “I feel that eyeballs are often underutilised by performers; they are as much a part of what you’re doing up there as any other part of your body. Your laser-like gaze is equally as effective as any of your other choreography.”
Keep an eye on your audience and lure them in,” advises beloved burlesque legend Tiffany Carter, “with positive attitude and a smile. You need a great personality onstage!”
The smouldering Peekaboo Pointe emphasises the power of the gaze to her students. “Holding eye contact is intimidating, a little scary, and so incredibly powerful onstage. If you can push through the emotions it brings and make eye contact with your audience, they will be captivated. The audience feels like they’ve become part of the performance and shared an intimate moment with you.”
But what if you’re in a huge theatre?
“Make imaginary eye contact,” says Jo Weldon. “It’s impossible to make real eye contact with 500 people at once, so don’t let your focus fall only on the people in front whose eyes you can meet.”
MASTERCLASS: Catherine D’Lish
Catherine D’Lish has been proclaimed a ‘Striptease Virtuoso’ for her exquisite, expert routines. Whatever IT is, she has IT by the bucketload. Enjoy this masterful seduction – and take notes!
2. Go With the Flow
Striptease stars develop smooth, flowing transitions from one move or removal to another, with no ‘dead time’ or vague, broken movement. If you hesitate for a moment and let the audience see the cogs turning, or lose the snap and purpose in your movement, you break the circuit and give the audience the opportunity to look at their phone or go to the bar. In an age when our attention spans are so stunted and easily distracted, a performer who can capture our undivided attention for four, or even ten minutes is a true magician.
“Transitional movement is just as important as the ‘cool’ things you’re doing on either side of it,” says Catherine D’Lish.
“Footwork, struts and extensions are what I find fascinating to watch more than single moves,” Ophelia Flame agrees. “Burlesque is about the journey, not the destination, and it’s the transitions that are key.”
Beautiful, strong hands, powerful posture and purposeful movement requires stamina and, yes, some training.
“We are working in a physical art form and we have to address the issues of the physical as much as we address our mental and emotional issues,” insists Michelle L’amour. “You want to maintain your core for balance (some of those heels are HIGH) and you want to maintain flexibility for such moves as removing a thigh high. Stamina is also great for tassel twirling and booty shimmying!”
But what if you don’t have years of professional training and physical condition?
“Go and take a class,” says Michelle. “Any class: yoga, pilates, ballet, jazz, belly dance, zumba, etc. It’s so much more fun than running to nowhere on a treadmill and you can make new friends. Because our art is so physical, we really should know how to move and present our bodies!”
MASTERCLASS: Michelle L’amour
People like to ask me to name the three burlesque performers I would choose if I could only watch three performers for the rest of my life. The lineup changes in my mind, but the one person with a guaranteed spot is Michelle L’amour. She is incredibly versatile and adventurous, but if you want an old school, classic masterclass, this is all you need. The drum solo… I can’t even. When she bumps out of that never ending shimmy with such devastating force I just die every time.
3. Work the Crowd
Once you’ve got their attention, you’ve got a few minutes to steal their hearts! Get a sense of the mood and energy in the room and wow them with your charisma and showmanship. Start with a short ‘trailer’ – the strut before the strip – so the crowd can get a sense of you, then knock ’em dead!
“Play to them,” says Canadian burlesque legend Judith Stein. “Are they uncomfortable? Give ’em a wink – kinda telling them they are okay, and yes, this is absurd to be up here on stage! Maybe you gotta guy who’s drunk and rude? Make him the fool! You own the stage and spotlight, so give a gentle nudge as if to say, “Sit down sir, you’re making the place look shabby” to get the crowd on your side – they don’t like him either! That said, the audience owes you nothing and you owe them a good show to make them feel special, and that means connecting. I don’t care how much your costume costs or if you danced at the National Ballet – this is burlesque and burlesque is Entertainment!”
“There are many ways to interpret the phrase ‘working the crowd’,” warns Catherine. “Nothing makes me cringe more than a performer gesturing for more audience reaction. Personally, I think that a ‘we’re all in this together’ mindset is crucial. When you’re onstage, it’s not just you up there; you’re actually in a room full of people (sometimes a REALLY big room!). I like to see performers that are a part of this room, not merely swallowed up in their own superstar moment.”
“In order to be a true striptease artist, you have to stop being a selfish performer,” Perle Noire agrees. “You cannot go onstage seeking validation and applause from your audience. Stop asking the audience to boost your ego! Instead, focus on being a gift and beacon of inspiration with each reveal.”
MASTERCLASS: Dirty Martini
“Classic burlesque cannot be successfully done without a huge generosity of spirit. If you’re all caught up in retro glamour that can be nice, if you have a million dollar costume that can be nice, but without the spirit of giving it your all and then some, the fashion around it is nothing.
I love a performer who can take me on a journey without a story. I look for it in every performance I see. My friend said to me yesterday that watching Julie Atlas Muz, Jo Weldon and I (among many others I could name) changed his entire perspective on the form. He said he imagined that it was all, “you know – *mimed taking off clothes and rubbing them on his body* – but the dimension that you guys give to it is something I never thought about!” And he was in Cats the musical!” Dirty Martini
Watch Dirty Martini and the New Burlesque to hear Dirty talk about this number and her technique in more detail.
4. The Soundtrack to Seduction
“When you’re choosing music, also let your music choose you!” says Catherine. “Play things you genuinely love, but also let this be music that hopefully won’t alienate 99% of your audience (I’ve seen it happen).”
I like funny, gimmicky songs that tell a story, like Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long,” adds Judith, “or Splish Splash I Was Taking a Bath in a baby bath tub full of bubbles. Find the music that speaks to you and has a character within it.”
“You really can’t go wrong with a classic burlesque track,” Michelle L’amour tells The Burlesque Handbook. “Sure, everyone in the burlesque community has heard it a bunch, but the audience isn’t as exposed to this world as we are. A classic burlesque track immediately communicates your intentions to the audience and they will be with you the whole way.”
“You have to love the song with all of your heart, because if it becomes a signature number of yours you will have to listen to it indefinitely,” warns Julie Atlas Muz. “If you can listen to the song forty times in a row or on infinite repeat for four days and still love it, it’s a good song for you.”
If you’re struggling to love a classic, vintage standard, Lux LaCroix had this advice for Burlesque Handbook readers:
“Sometimes people get all caught up in ‘tradition’ and the ‘standards’ and they hit a roadblock. If all you listen to day in, day out is hip-hop, then why are you searching iTunes for swing music? Go with what you know and the going will be a whole lot easier.”
It’s also important to find a track with plenty of opportunties for dramatic reveals and killer moves!
“I like big band and Ella Fitzgerald numbers because they have good ‘shots’ and some punch, and you can use those for a peel or signature move!” Judith agrees.
“The structure of your music should be very clear to both you and the audience so you don’t get lost in the music and the audience understands the rhythm and can take comfort in the timing of the piece,” adds Dirty Martini.
“I believe classic striptease done “right” means “YOU”. Bringing you and what you’re feeling when you’re connecting with an audience in those moments. We can present “classic” all we want, but to be truly “classic” is to truly engage the audience. All the feels! Laughter, tease/suspense and of course arousal.” RedBone
This lady slayed at Viva Las Vegas this year, and pretty much every other surface she sets foot on. Enjoy!
5. Directing the Gaze (and thoughts!)
The importance of authority in a burlesque striptease cannot be emphasised enough. Masters of the craft are in complete and total control throughout their number, and the audience loves them for it because they can just sit back and enjoy a fabulous performance. Part of that authority is communicating to the audience through your movement, gestures and expressions, where they should be looking and how they should be feeling. You don’t want them to miss a beat!
“Exceptional classic burlesque feels like you’ve had a complete conversation with the performer after she walks off stage. You know exactly who she is,” says Peekaboo Pointe.
Jo Weldon, a celebrated instructor, has excellent advice on mastering this technique.
“Let the viewer follow your hands – guide their eyes. Show them what you’re showing them – make sure they’re looking at your glove if you’re taking off your glove. And evoke the sense of touch – when you touch yourself, they’ll think about how you might feel.
“The way you handle your boa conveys to the viewer that your gloves are satiny and your boa is soft, using a visual cue to excite a tactile sense. Be lingering and graceful – you are also conveying that you are sensual and you enjoy the texture of your boa and gloves. You like to touch and be touched. The attitude here should be somewhat knowing … playfully suggestive. The combination of mischief and eroticism in burlesque striptease is irresistable!”
MASTERCLASS: Ginger Valentine
“I love striptease – extra emphasis on the tease. With classic acts, props and costumes aren’t nearly as arousing to me as the performer’s ability to direct my gaze, thoughts and feelings. I suppose a gimmick is important, but in my opinion, personality and charm are where it’s at, because that’s what truly allows me to lose myself during a show.” Ginger Valentine
This act has been viewed almost 2 MILLION TIMES on YouTube. You’ll quickly see why. Ginger has the classic strip NAILED. DOWN.
6. Peel Appeal!
Watch the masters at work and pay attention to their layers of costume and how each layer looks, not to mention how they take it off!
“Layers are great and ingenious ways of peeling and revealing are always welcome, but besides being fresh and new, also be aware of “does this look good?” when you are wearing ALL of those layers!” advises Catherine D’Lish.
“You are looking at one old stripper who wears five pairs of panties and just keeps popping them off, or has long trousers or fake satin boobies!” laughs Judith Stein. “Old school classic it’s not, but it got me booked over the usual ‘First we take the gloves off, then the gown…’ Yawn!”
Once you’ve got the layers in place and you’ve done a tech run on all those clasps and snaps, you’ve got to make sure you’re not taking them off in the same way the last three performers did!
“I’ve seen a lot of great glove and nylon removals in our new burlesque society,” remarks burlesque legend Tiffany Carter. “It’s always great to see.”
MASTERCLASS: The One and Only Inga
I am sticking this one right in the middle of NO. 6 (although it ticks all the boxes from 1 – 10), because not only is it one of my favourite routines of all time, but it is a true masterclass in making your strip unique, edgy and memorable. The music is milked to within in inch of its life as the layers fall away. The swagger! The TEASE! Preach Inga!
“I’m always tickled to see someone that has come up with a new and clever way to take something off. Please consider the hundreds of hours that you spent working out that never-before-seen way to remove your shoe as time well spent!” says Catherine.
“I saw a performer pull off her glove by clasping the end of it in her butt crack. With her butt squeezing the glove, she wiggled the glove off by sheer butt muscle power. I’ll never forget it!” Bonnie Dunn tells The Burlesque Handbook.
And know where those discarded layers are going, ladies! Don’t end up dancing on top of your clothes or tripping over a shoe. Think about where it’s going to go, whether you demurely hand it over to a waiting kitten, or toss it to the side like it’s beneath your notice!
MASTERCLASS: Peekaboo Pointe
“Exceptional classic burlesque feels like you’ve had a complete conversation with the performer after she walks off stage. You know exactly who she is.” Peekaboo Pointe
Peekaboo Pointe, The Fastest Tassel Twirler from East to West, is one of the most powerful performers on the circuit. Study that smouldering face!
7. Creative Choreography
It’s all starting to come together now. You’ve got the music, the costume is made, you know how it’s coming off. But what sets a showstopping striptease apart from someone just systematically taking their kit off like they’ve just got home from a party?
“Stripteasers who use choreography often rely more on the Choreography of Events than dance choreography,” explains Jo Weldon. “Dropping a glove, for instance, is not a dance move, but an experienced stripteaser knows that if that glove hits the floor on the beat (or the drummer hits the beat for the drop, if live music is employed), the audience gets a bigger thrill. It is worth choreographing so that the glove hits the floor at the optimal point in the music, every time at the same time the performer does the number. So while there may be improvisation between Events, there are choreographed events.
“Your costume is your choreography, so make striptease, not just reveals, part of your performance. An inventive and knowing garment removal keeps them from texting during your performance.”
MASTERCLASS: Judith Stein
Burlesque legend Judith Stein has extraordinary charisma and natural aptitude for striptease, putting you at ease immediately and letting you in on the joke. I love this routine, and I know you will too.
8. A Signature Strip
“Trying to find something unique feels damn near impossible today, but an old stripper once told me to take something and add a new twist,” says Judith. “I can’t say I had a signature move, except a goofy smile and a willingness to entertain.”
And when I think of Judith, that’s exactly what I imagine first. Her grin, her humour, her no-fucks-given, feelgood approach. That has become her signature, and it’s what people expect and look forward to when she comes out. When I think of Catherine D’Lish I always imagine the moment she lets her hair down and spills that tumble of copper curls forward over one shoulder. That and her iconic costumes of course!
When I think of Jo Weldon I think of how she frames and presents her body and takes me on a journey. Roxi D’Lite always has a beautiful aerial hoop finale after a world class strip. Perle Noire ends many of her numbers with a high-energy dance spectacular. Bettsie Bon Bon has a trademark growl. Michelle L’amour has ‘the ass that goes POW!’ and you can see it in action in the phenomenal drums section in her video above. Kitten de Ville is The Queen of the Quake, and Peekaboo Pointe is The Fastest Tassel Twirler from East to West!
Whether it’s a signature move you work in to every routine, an infamous attitude, a colour, a way of moving, or a special skill, find something that sets you apart and builds your legendary status. Your audience will look forward to it every time! After more than ten years of burlesque, I still clap like an ecstatic seal when Catherine does that hair toss or Michelle starts an earthquaking butt shimmy!
The British are Coming: Bettsie Bon Bon and Havana Hurricane
Classic gown-and-glove striptease is a grand tradition born in America, but performers overseas in the UK and Europe, where there is such a strong cabaret and variety tradition, have embraced the art form and produced some first rate classic starlets. Two UK performers nailing the tease tradition are Bettsie Bon Bon and Havana Hurricane. Bettsie is all smoulder, shoulder and seduction, and Havana has become popular in the States for her big hair, big moves and winning personality.
Bettsie Bon Bon
9. Sense of Humour
“I don’t even want to see an act that doesn’t have even a trace of humour,” says Catherine D’Lish. “And humour isn’t always “wakawakawaka” – sometimes humour is just a lovely personality that doesn’t take itself too seriously.”
“Back in the day when I was dancing it seemed like all the other performers were 6ft tall with big bosoms and could pull off the sexy, provocative stuff,” says burlesque legend Judith Stein. “Me, I was 5,2 with very small boobs. So I was funny, and I got a lotta work because I made them laugh. I was laughing at myself! Do not take yourself so seriously – it’s entertainment!”
Humour can also get you out of a tight spot if something does go wrong!
“If you fuck up, don’t dither!” says Judith. “Shit happens, and you will get more applause and admiration for pulling out of a tight spot with a giggle.”
MASTERCLASS: Perle Noire
“In order to be a true striptease artist, you have to stop being a selfish performer. You cannot go onstage seeking validation and applause from your audience! Stop asking the audience to boost your ego! Instead, focus on being a gift and beacon of inspiration with each reveal.” Perle Noire
Perle Noire is a striptease revelation with a regal, spiritual presence. She is celebrated for her high-energy, celebratory dance breaks, but I want to share this less well known routine she performed a few years ago at the Burlesque Hall of Fame. I was captivated and transported from start to finish.
10. Taking your time with the TEASE
So many new performers I watch stampede through their routines as fast as possible, often without looking up, like they’re trying to rip the bandaid off and get it done already. Or they’re focusing so much on what they’re taking off and when that they don’t play with the act of removal itself.
True masters of the craft, however they feel inside or the kind of day they’ve had, project complete comfort and confidence, and make sure you don’t miss a beat.
So take your time and make each removal an event. Or in the words of Kalani Kokonuts: “Slow the fuck down! Give me time to see!”
“Back in my day we did twenty minute shows, so you damn well took your time!” says Judith Stein. “I undertsand these five minute shows today make that difficult, but at least do some ‘presenting’ before you start peeling. Let the audience get a sense of who you are. They will wait!”
“Sure, time is precious,” adds Catherine D’Lish, “but taking your time during your act can be wonderful, as long as every moment is entertaining, in one way or another. Also, don’t underestimate the power of a pause. Not like a boring ‘what-went-wrong’ pause, but more like a ‘fraught-with-meaning’ pause. And yes, make the audience wait, but don’t overestimate your stripping super powers! We’ve all seen acts that we wish hadn’t left us waiting quite so long…”
“The tease in strip tease should always be there,” says burlesque legend Tiffany Carter. “Take your time with disrobing, with each piece you remove. And tease with those pieces. At all times. Your costume should be designed for this!”
“Take a moment and take the audience in,” advises Michelle L’amour. “Create ecstasy and pleasure in your poses. Fill your poses with energy and allow them to grow. A pose is never stagnant. And let the audience take you in. Project strength and power by simply standing there. This is one of the hardest things to do in burlesque as it is very vulnerable.”
MASTERCLASS: Roxi D’Lite
“I like to imagine myself as an untouchable vixen that drinks, smokes and strips and looks like you can bring her home to mom but you probably shouldn’t because she’s really a bad girl who is going to bleed your pockets dry, at least that seems to be the persona ‘Roxi’ has developed over the years. It just sort of happened, and it is kind of true. I just always make sure to be engaging and look people in the eyes if I can. I want to make the man at the back of the room hanging on my every move and I want the audience to have as much fun watching as I am having performing.” Roxi D’Lite
Roxi D’Lite, Miss Exotic World, Reigning Queen of Burlesque 2010, has worked hard to build a bridge between the burlesque stage and strip joints. Strip joint strippers haven’t always enjoyed a warm welcome in the burlesque scene, as Jo Weldon and others will testify, and I still roll my eyes when an overzealous newcomer trots out the disgusted – and misguided – ‘burlesque is NOT stripping’ rant, but please, just LOOK at this woman move, and tease, and COMMAND. Roxi D’Lite was born to seduce and entertain. School is in session!
So there you have it. Ten teasetastic tips for classic striptease mastery. I and the incredible performers who have contributed to this piece could talk about this subject forever, but follow our suggestions and you’ll be on your way. I strongly recommend watching all of the footage on this page over time and really looking at what they’re doing. A tip I often give is to watch the routine a second time with the sound off so you can really study their technique without getting carried away by the music and the crowd.
I have a couple of final tips, and then it’s over to you!
“Be genuine in your sensuality onstage,” says Peekaboo Pointe. “Be true to what honestly turns you on, not what you think others think is sexy. If you feel truly sexy, you will be sexy. Go deep, find what gets you hot and bothered and pull it out onstage!”
“Above all, entertain yourself and have fun,” says Jo Weldon. “A performer who is having fun gives the audience confidence in her performance, and there is nothing more irresistable than someone who is enjoying herself!”
MASTERCLASS: Ophelia Flame
As a final flourish, I have to share this EPIC routine from one of the finest burlesque performers to grace the stage, Miss Ophelia Flame. This performance lights up my world and lifts me whenever I watch it. It’s instinctive, expert, powerful, showstopping burlesque striptease!
Many thanks to Jo Weldon, Catherine D’Lish, Judith Stein, Michelle L’amour, Ginger Valentine, Dirty Martini, Perle Noire, RedBone, Tiffany Carter, Peekaboo Pointe, Bettsie Bon Bon, Havana Hurricane, Roxi D’Lite, Ophelia Flame, Julie Atlas Muz, Lux LaCroix, Kalani Kokonuts, The One and Only Inga, and Bonnie Dunn for their support and contributions to this piece.
Burlesque Hall of Fame / Miss Exotic World Judge, 2011 Holli Mae Johnson is the founder and editor of 21st Century Burlesque Magazine, a pioneering publication created twelve years ago to unite, document and celebrate the global burlesque community. Holli is actively involved in the burlesque community on a day to day basis and is privately consulted by performers and producers at every level for promotion, critique, recommendations and encouragement. As a documenter and critic, she has seen countless burlesque and variety performances from across the world and provides an intimate perspective and insight into the lives and careers of burlesque’s greatest pioneers, performers and personalities.