A sultry beat fills the room as the curtains slowly draw back, unveiling a captivating scene of burlesque dancers, each adorned in costumes and sparkling under the lights. With a flick of the wrist and a sly wink of their eyes, the dancers draw the crowd in, teasing and tantalizing with their seductive moves to the Burlesque movie soundtrack: “It’s a life, it’s a style, it’s a need, it’s burlesque.”
Burlesque has enthralled audiences since the late 1800s with its unique blend of sensuality, humor and showmanship. This facet of performance art has empowered performers and their audiences to celebrate their bodies and embrace their sexuality.
The revival of burlesque has inspired a new generation of Northwestern performers to put their own spin on the art form. Lipstick Theatre is a student-run organization that emphasizes intersectional feminism and performance storytelling. Lipstick provides free, fun spaces for performers and audience members of all identities and abilities to participate in this exploration of self and sexuality.
Burlesque has served as a platform for social and political commentary throughout its history. Contemporary burlesque performers in Lipstick continue to draw on these traditions, using their platform to uplift those with marginalized gender identities to share their stories through art. While the beloved annual burlesque show in Spring Quarter shrank significantly after 2020, the passion for burlesque has endured, and lower numbers create a more intimate setting for more vulnerable activity, says Sam Webster, Communication second-year and this year’s show producer.
“I would love to see more people getting into [burlesque],” Webster says.
In an effort to be open to as many performers as possible, Webster says Lipstick Theatre is planning on introducing choreography workshops earlier in the year to let newcomers get a feel for burlesque before committing to the show.
Webster says the show is their art, but the real purpose of burlesque is the journey towards building confidence and joy within the performers before the curtains rise. Webster’s love of dance and joy of helping others find their confidence through movement motivated her to help produce this year’s performance for Lipstick Theatre at the end of March.
“Burlesque is a dance process, but at its core, it’s not about the dance,” Webster says. “Ultimately, the goal is to find what feels empowering to you, to find what feels sexy and what feels joyful.”
“Ultimately, the goal is to find what feels empowering to you, to find what feels sexy and what feels joyful.”Sam Webster, Communication second-year
Communication second-year Sophie Teitler helped direct the show and choreographed pieces to highlight dancers’ ability and confidence, including the opening dance. She worked with dancers to create pieces that reflected their own style to make the show look effortless.
“A lot of the pieces look easy because [the dancers] created the movement, so it’s something that comes naturally to them,” Teitler says. “One of the most special things is that as shows go on, people get more and more comfortable and more and more clothing starts coming off.”
Choreography, costume design and music selection are just a few of the elements that go into creating a captivating performance. Leading up to the red-hued, sensual displays of lace and leather in Norris, the behind-the-scenes work the theater group put in to create a safe space was essential to crafting the production.
While the burlesque atmosphere is filled with joy and laughter, Teitler says there is significant, deep work taking place behind the scenes. The process behind the production has a lasting outward impact because burlesque bridges the conversation about bodies and sexuality to a more public space.
“We do a lot of workshops surrounding consent and intimacy and how to engage with others safely in an environment of such vulnerability,” Webster says. “It’s really invaluable, the lessons [burlesque] teaches you about creating a safe and comfortable community, building trust and bonds with one another, and using intimacy as a way to grow stronger rather than as a weakness.”