Gender And Creative Agency In Burlesque


    Cherry, VV Trippple’s mother in a costume from a show in the 80s.

When I was a little girl my mother performed burlesque in vaudeville theater in our tiny Northern Californian town. Every weekend she sang and stripped. Though the shows were scripted, she created her own costumes and choreography for them. My mother’s wit combined with sensuality in her performances was something that I did not quite understand but recognized immediately was powerful. Her ability to capture and hold everyone’s attention with that perfect balance of laugher and lust fascinated me. Burlesque is unique in the sense it is one of the few performance based art forms that allows, in most cases, for full creative control of the product produced. The performer controls all aspects of their art – content, costuming, music, choreography, lighting, etc. I believe that this is the true reason people are drawn to burlesque. While without a doubt it is empowering to captivate an audience with your wit and sensuality, it is so much more so when that piece is of your own making in its entirety. An actor in a full length play, a ballet dancer, or a woman dancing in a strip club can all experience the power to capture and hold an audience’s attention, but a burlesque performer knows that that power is entirely theirs. Perhaps that is why you will find so many of the previous performers mentioned ending up in burlesque. I know that’s why I did.

VV Tripple  ©S.H.Photo

VV Trippple

Fast forward many years from my mother’s performances and I am now a performer myself as well as an academic at UCLA studying Anthropology and I was given the opportunity this year to conduct research on burlesque. In my paper, “Burlesque: The Creative Journey to Agency though Gender Expression & Exploration” I show how performers are using the creative space that burlesque allows to explore and express issues of gender. Over the course of the last year, I have interned at Monday Night Tease! produced by Lili VonSchtupp and done performance analysis of dozens and dozens of shows. I conducted informal interviews with many performers, and collected a survey of twenty questions from 46 performers who responded internationally, including new performers, seasoned performers, professional performers, performers/producers, and even a few Legends.

Of the 46 respondents, 35 identified as female, five as male, and six as genderqueer or some other more neutral or ambiguous gender identity. Initially I had been interested in what drew performers from the variety of backgrounds they seem to come from, often risking more conservative professional careers in order to perform. Some even changed their lives dramatically to be present in the burlesque space full time. For years I have heard performers site how “empowering” burlesque is as the draw and the reason they risk so much personally and at times professionally. In the social sciences we often use “agency” in place of “empower”. In several discourses in academia “agency” means being ones own agent, to be able to act in the world with intent. In particular there is a lot of talk about political agency – how one goes from being a passive watcher to active participant in the political arena. I am very interested in this sort of agency, political but also creative. I wanted to see how performers used gender in a creative space, and how it engaged agency, and the results were more than I could have ever hoped for.

The female, male, and genderqueer performers were all using the creative space of burlesque to explore gender – they were just all doing it in different ways and for different reasons. Women really own this space, and it is one of the few spaces they do feel they own, in many cases unapologetically and for some territorially. It seemed for women that almost nothing was taboo in terms of gender. The only consistently reported taboo among performers was issues of cultural appropriation in acts, but never how gender was portrayed (by women). Women could portray any aspect if gender, be hyper feminine, gender bend between male and female, or portray men, all in a very fluid way and without any concerns. There was critique and concern of male performers potentially invading what some felt has become a sacred female space. Others were very inclusive of other genders and even celebrated the moniker “boylesque” as a legitimization of male performers having their own space within burlesque. However, some preferred the term not to be inclusive, but because they felt it should be separate from female owned space of burlesque. Because it seemed females had an “anything goes” as far as their own gender exploration, they were often less concerned or aware of gender bending and gender play in acts. Their concern was more on appropriate execution of a concept and including and exploring other issues such as body image, aging, concepts of beauty, sexual orientation, intelligence, etc. into their acts.
Meanwhile, the male performers were hyper aware they were entering into a female owned space but very much wanted to be there, respect it, and not to invade, but to explore issues of masculinity and male identity in the same creative ways the women had already mastered. Genderqueer performers were also very aware of their gender performance and used the space as a creative and safe space to explore and express identity. The burlesque space did not create their gender identity, but it was a safe space for them to explore and share what it meant. “Safe space” was a term that was often repeated by all three genders. How interesting that the act of striptease is not only reported as being empowering by its participants, but also safe. Imagine, peeling off layers of clothing hoping to illicit laughter and or desire as a form of safety. Based on all my data, I believe it is this idea of creative agency that feels safe to these performers. They have complete control of the product they produce, so they also control its outcome. In other words, they feel safe or empowered because they have agency.

VV Trippple is a Los Angeles based performer and academic at UCLA. She will be presenting her research on burlesque and gender at BurlyCon 2013 this November.


Stephanie Blake, two time Miss Exotic World and second generation exotic dancer.

Stephanie Blake, two time Miss Exotic World and second generation exotic dancer.


Stephanie Blake is an inspiring, delightful, and congenial performer. Her numbers are sensual and incredibly flexible. Stephanie shares a little insight on her burlesque journey from Midwestern cutie to Hollywood legend.


STEPHANIE BLAKE: My mother did it. When she was 20 she was a cocktail waitress in a nightclub. The club owner told her she could make a lot more money by getting on stage. He also helped her with wardrobe and gave her the stage name of BeBe Love.

In Kansas City, Missouri, there was a club called King Arthur’s. The owner kept hiring professional exotic dancers for “amateur night” and audiences were very upset. My mom suggested he use me, a real amateur. That is how I ended up on stage. My girlfriend had to drive me to work because I was too young to get a driver’s license. I really don’t know how I would have gotten into burlesque if my mother hadn’t done it.


STEPHANIE: My mother helped me with some costumes and she made great pasties. The only advice she ever gave me was “don’t give money to men” and “If you ignore a man he will chase you around and give you the world.” It was the best advice I ever got and it really works!


STEPHANIE: I was born in Texas and raised mostly in Kansas City. Due to a bad choice in husbands (at 19), I wanted change. After getting a divorce I moved to Vegas where I worked in a revue called Rare ‘n Bare at the Royal Casino. I enrolled at UNLV and went to college during the day. Then I got a job writing for a tabloid and got to interview fabulous people like George Carlin, Robert Goulet, etc. I had balls of steel at the time because I would just call the stars who were working in Vegas and ask them if I could interview them. No one ever said no!!!

I was also taking acting classes from a teacher named Joseph Bernard. He told me if I wanted to act I had to go to L.A. I believed him and moved.

As soon as I got to L.A. I started getting TV work (because of my stripping ability)! I did HBO shows with Phyllis Diller, Julie Newmar, Jack Carter, Sid Caeser, Imogene Cocoa, and lots of other great people. Then Rob Reiner hired me for the film The Sure Thing. Next was Ferris. Then more! Without my burlesque background I wouldn’t have gotten most of these jobs!


STEPHANIE: Personally, I think performers should know what they will be judged on. Usually it will be costume, originality, audience response, and creativity. The judges never know who will actually win until it is announced. I think the ballot should include sensuality, too. Ginger Valentine is one example of someone who is definitely a winner. She has everything anyone could want. I would say study her technique and make sure all areas of your performance measure up. She also teaches classes on how to win!!!


STEPHANIE: OH GEE…Thank you! Right now I try to stretch every day to get back the flexibility that I have lost by not stretching! And I get to the gym whenever I get a chance. This week for my prep for New Orleans, I will be doing yoga every day plus going over the routine I’m doing with Russell Bruner.


STEPHANIE: I have never let anything throw me. There are no mistakes on stage, as long as you don’t tell the audience you can change anything and everything.


STEPHANIE: Have fun when you perform! If you have fun the audience will too! Be glamorous and beautiful and give the crowd more than they ever imagined they would get. KNOCK ‘EM DEAD!!!

Stephanie Blake is performing at New Orleans Burlesque Festival again this fall, and she is one of our headliners for Hollywood Burlesque Festival. You can keep up with her at http://stephanieblake.bizz

Los Angeles Burlesque Theatres – The Follies

Los Angeles had two important burlesque theatres: the Follies Theatre, located at 337 S. Main Street in the downtown area, and the Burbank Theatre, located two blocks south at 548 S. Main St.

The Follies

Built in 1904 as the Belasco Theatre, by Frederick Belasco, brother of the renowned theatrical producer David Belasco, it housed a repertory theatre company, the Belasco Stock Company.  When the theatre district moved farther downtown, the theatre began its long reign as burlesque house  In 1915 it was listed as the Republic Theatre and by 1919 it had been renamed the Follies.


An early view of the Follies Theatre, Los Angeles.
Photo source:

The “Hot Mamma” Case

On October 27, 1927, a pair of radio evangelists – Dr. Gustav Briegleb and the Rev. Robert P. “Fighting Bob” Shuler – took in the show at the Follies, and called in the police to shut it down the following night.

On month later, the two men were called to testify as to the show’s indecency.  Rev. Shuler read from his copious notes, which recounted a lewd performance between two girls playing the parts of deserted wives looking for their husbands in the barroom of a ship.

And Shuler’s dead-on imitation of a “licentious smile” which he asserted to be part of the dancers’ repertoire brought an outburst from the crowd of spectators (and the Hot Mamma girls) that the bailiff threatened to clear the courtroom.

The all-male jury, set the Hot Mammas free, although four male defendants—Tom B. Dalton, Robert Whalen, Harry Graves and Charles B. Dameron—who were found guilty based on their admitted connection with the management of the show and their writing of the dialogue.  These Hot Papas were sentenced by Municipal Judge Frederickson to serve 150 days in the City and pay fines of $500 each.

The Follies continued to serve the burlesque afficianados.  It was remodeled in the 1930s by S. Charles Lee, and thereafter saw many decades of strip-tease by all the leading strippers of the era, including Lili St. Cyr, Ann Corio, Betty “Ball of Fire” Rowland, and Evelyn West.  Dixie Evans reported that her first strip-tease performance was at the Follies.

In 1942, the Follies was ordered closed by city officials, but it was back in business two years later.  The Follies was raided, closed and then reopened half a dozen times.

follies-ad folliesad2 folliesad3

Three ads for the Follies Theatre from (left to right) 1939, 1942 and 1966
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The 1937 film, Every Day’s A Holiday, starring Mae West, was filmed at the Follies Theatre, as was the 1952 burlesque feature, B-Girl Rhapsody.


The photo is a promotional still for the 1937 film “Every Day’s a Holiday” starring Mae West.  Courtesy of the L.A. Conservancy. Photo source:


An undated view of a chorus line at the Follies Theatre.  From the Wesselmann Collection / Williams Partnership. Photo source:

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Two views of the exterior of the Follies Theatre in the 1940s, uncovered by Ken McIntyre.  Photo Source:

Eventually the Follies turned to film becoming a skin-flick house.   In 1968 Eleanor Chambers, executive assistant to Mayor Yorty, led the fight to have the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board add the Follies to its list of culturally significant buildings.  The board vetoed that idea as beneath them.  The Follies was eventually razed in 1974.


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About the Author:

Andy Davis is one half of the burlesque comedy team of Doc and Stumpy, which performs regularly at the Monday Night Tease and other venues.  He comes by his nickname “Doc” legitimately, for he has an actual Ph.D. in Performance Studies from NYU, where he specialized in the history of American popular entertainments, and wrote his dissertation on burlesque comedy.  The dissertation has since been published by Palgrave-Macmillan as Baggy Pants Comedy: Burlesque and the Oral Tradition, and won the prestigious CHOICE Award from the American Library Association as one of the outstanding academic titles of 2012.  His work builds on over thirty years experience in comedy and improvisation, doing meet-and-greet entertainment at the Renaissance Faire and various corporate events, and working with a number of comedy troupes.  He earns his bread and butter by teaching in the Interdisciplinary General Education Department at Cal Poly Pomona.

A Letter From The Producer

Dear Friends,

I’ve been a collector of Burlesque memorabilia since I was a child. My collection began by swiping my dad’s Playboys and my uncle’s girlie cards. As I grew older I began scouring estate sales for 8x10s and knick knacks from the burlesque houses. However it wasn’t until I took my first steps onto a burlesque stage in September of 2004 that that a lifelong pursuit of a fantasy became a reality. Those few minutes in front of an audience at the World Famous Derby in Hollywood gave me the most amazingly liberating feeling I’ve ever had in my life. Sharing your art, your soul, your body, and your story is what entertainment is all about. At 37 years old and in a town that fetishizes young thin women with fake boobs, it was amazing to see real burlesque alive and working its way to the mainstream again.

In 2007, I began producing Monday Night Tease, the continuation of the Derby Show that launched my career in burlesque. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of working with over 500 local and international performers – strong women and men with whom I now share an unbreakable bond.

Six years later, we have over 40 shows a month throughout the greater Los Angeles area. Our scene is about art, all shapes sizes, colors, and sexual preferences. We applaud the new and revere the past. We celebrate sexy and funny, we parody politics and social norms. We revel in Nerdlesque and pop culture and have original shows with live bands. We have productions that range from free shows to high end experiences. We keep the art form alive in striptease and baggy pants comedy. Above all else, we entertain. We are Hollywood after all.

When I attended my first Tease-o-Rama in 2003, I became addicted to burlesque festivals. The performances, the sharing of knowledge, spending time with legends, and making friends… there is nothing else like it. So it is with much pride, and plenty of support from the entire Los Angeles burlesque community that I am happy to announce the first annual Hollywood Burlesque Festival, Dec 6-9, 2013 here in Hollywood!

We hope you’ll come spend a few sunny days in December celebrating the best of burlesque with us.

Thank you,