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dancing to tease your audience

Sex is fun, we won't argue with that, but can sex be "funny"? Sure it can. For centuries and centuries, women have entertained people by combining their feminine curves with sexy teasing and a big dose of comedy, resulting in both attraction and a good old laugh. We've taken a look at the European history of burlesque and the can-can!

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Image: Library of Congress (PD)
Poster of burlesque show from 1898.

There are many versions of the origins of burlesque as an art form. Although it gained plenty of popularity in the United States in the latter half of the 1800s, its story begins in Europe. The word "burlesque" derives from the Italian word for joke (burla), and has been used in Italian, French and English literature since the 17th century to describe dramas, literary works or music that intentionally ridiculed something, where serious matters were brought up using comedy. But when did sex come into the picture?

Everything develops with time, and so did burlesque. Like a tree, burlesque branched out into different variations and took different paths. One of these paths was Victorian burlesque - plays that made fun of well-known theatres, ballets and operas, not infrequently works by Shakespeare. Victorian burlesque was highly popular in England in the mid to late 1800s, and it was also the burlesque branch which was later introduced in America, thanks to one woman in particular. Her name was Lydia Thompson, and she stole the hearts of many a men.

Lydia thompson and the british blondes

Lydia Thompson was born in London in 1838, and started dancing for Her Majesty's Theatre at the age of 14 and quickly gained fame. By 1868, she had danced on stages all across the European continent and set a course across the Atlantic, together with her husband and her theatre group, the British Blondes. The British Blondes and their cheeky dancing and audacious outfits quickly became a sensation in America, filling theatres across the country for several years. Not surprisingly, these burlesque dancers were also exposed to criticism from those who found them obscene and indecent.

But the criticism failed to erase burlesque from the entertainment industry. If anything, both its popularity and the size of the audiences grew - as did the mystery around Lydia amongst the male population. Famous contemporary burlesque dancer Dita von Teese writes in an article in the Independent:

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Photo: dustin_wax (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Burlesque dancers

"[O]ne report that preceded Lydia's New York début [says]: 'Captain Ludoc Baumbarten of the Russian dragoons took some flowers and a glove belonging to Miss Thompson, placed them on his breast; then shot himself through the heart, leaving on his table a note stating that his love for her brought on the fatal act.' I have no idea whether the tale is true - after all, illusion is the nature of burlesque. However, stories like these so inflamed the men in America that they all seemed willing to die for Lydia - if only she would be kind enough to dash their hearts out herself... Was it Lydia herself who inspired such fervour, or the cheapie tickets and a frisson of sex? Whatever the reason, for the rest of the century, burlesque flourished, developing into a full-night's entertainment that included chorus girls, comedy routines, and song and dance."

Lydia Thompson introduced America to burlesque, and the adoration for this art form kept growing well into the mid 1900s. With time, more and more nudity was incorporated in the acts, paving the path towards the sexy nature that we associate with burlesque today. 

meanwhile, in france...

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Photo: Oscar D. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The Moulin Rouge, Paris, France

Whilst burlesque continued to titillate the public in America, a different dance was having a similar effect in France. Much like the burlesque, the can-can was a dance that both entertained and upset people due to its provocative nature and whose erotic associations escalated with time. Starting out as a dance consisting of acrobatic moves and high kicks, it soon developed into a saucier dance involving black stockings and the display of underwear. 

The world-famous Moulin Rouge in the Montmartre district in Paris is considered the home of the can-can. Even though the dance was danced long before the Moulin Rouge was built in 1889, this is where the can-can had its heyday. The can-can and Moulin Rouge are said to have spawned the numerous cabarets that opened across Europe since then, home to song, dance and theatre where the artists use a scoop of sex and a spoonful of comedy to tease their audience.

The burlesque and can-can were not to be stopped by the conservative views that found these dances to be scandalous, and with that, have proved to generations until now and generations to come, that sex can be funny, and fun can be sexy.

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