Did Burlesque Just Replace the Las Vegas Showgirl Show?

Posted on: April 18, 2024, 11:50h. 

Last updated on: April 19, 2024, 09:43h.

Burlesque has existed as an American art form since the 1860s, but it’s peaking again, and Las Vegas seems to be where.

Dita Von Teese appears in the hit burlesque show, “Dita Las Vegas: A Jubilant Revue,” at Horseshoe Las Vegas. (Dita Von Teese/Facebook)

“Dita Las Vegas: A Jubilant Review,” opened by the international queen of burlesque Dita Von Teese last October in the Jubilee Theater at Horseshoe Las Vegas, is one of four burlesque shows now playing regularly around Las Vegas. Virgin Las Vegas features a s sexy send-u of ’50s female stereotypes called “Lady Like – A Retro Modern Burlesque Show,” the Luxor features “Fantasy,” and the Flamingo has “X Burlesque.”

More occasionally, Lady Gaga features burlesque performers during her “Jazz + Pop” residency at Dolby Live at Park MGM, while most of the shows at Cheapshot Showroom & Discotheque downtown feature burlesque performers.

Strip’s Latest Tease

“I feel like a lot of producers on the Strip are saying, ‘Hey, this burlesque thing seems popular. Why don’t we throw it out there … to get more people to come to see our shows?’” Dirty Martini, who dances in “Dita Las Vegas,” said on a recent episode of the “City Cast Las Vegas” podcast.

“What’s been happening on the Strip … is all these wonderful performers who have incredible chops and are really worth going to see because of their fabulous dance skills,” Martini said.

It seems like, at least right now, burlesque occupies the vaunted void where the Las Vegas showgirl once teetered. In fact, Von Teese occupies the actual stage. The Jubilee Theater was the location of the very last showgirl production show in Vegas, “Jubilee!” which flicked off its stage lights for the last time in 2016.

Von Teese’s production has even repurposed some of the original Bob Mackie-designed showgirl costumes and headdresses.

At the El Rancho Vegas in 1956, Lili St. Cyr drops undergarments on her mostly male admirers, none of whom seem to mind. (Image: Vintage Las Vegas)

From the Topless

Burlesque first arrived in Las Vegas the day after Christmas 1950, when Gypsy Rose Lee kicked off a two-week residency at the Desert Inn.

Its surprise popularity paved the way for Lily St. Cyr to drop her undergarments on the audience while swinging in a birdcage above them at the El Rancho in 1956, and then for Tempest Storm, the highest-paid burlesque dancer of all time, to titillate the Dunes in 1957.

After that peak, burlesque took a back seat, at least in Las Vegas, to the topless showgirl, who became the actual icon of Sin City.

But neo-burlesque reclaimed the art form in the 1990s, quietly at first, as women with a post-feminist worldview took center stage, embracing not only their own sexuality, but autonomy over their own bodies.

Holly Madison gave the genre two big boosts — by headlining in “Peepshow” at Planet Hollywood from 2009 through 2013, and then by lending her name to an actual 1920s burlesque club at Mandalay Bay.

Miss Conceptions

Among the many misconceptions people have about neo-burlesque, according to Buttercup, is that it differs from older versions because it’s performed for laughs — usually at how quaint its notions of naughty behavior seem by today’s standards — as much as actual titillation.

But burlesque was always staged for laughs. The word derives from the Italian “burla,” which means to mock.

Buttercup is a burlesque dancer and instructor who is also the program manager at Las Vegas’ Burlesque Hall of Fame. (Image: Bettina May)

“These women were pushing the boundaries of their day,” said Buttercup, a burlesque performer and instructor, and the program assistant at the Burlesque Hall of Fame, which, by the way, is also located in Las Vegas, on the same “City Cast” podcast episode.

“They were taking songs that were popular, changing the lyrics to be more base or sexual, and they were changing their acts night after night, which meant getting repeat clientele who were excited to hear new material each time,” Buttercup said.

What is different about neo-burlesque is that it’s more inclusive than the first wave. Von Teese’s show, for instance, places both men and women in costumes originally meant for showgirls who fit a very specific aesthetic.

Also, while most of burlesque’s early Las Vegas audiences consisted of men, the women now outnumber them.

It can be quite an empowering experience to watch other women use their bodies, exercise their autonomy, use their voices and take up space, especially in a world where women are generally not given those liberties,” Buttercup said.

Buttercup also performs in her own burlesque show, “Sinful,” which can be seen next at the Fat Cat Las Vegas on May 11.